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The Betel Tradition

Through November 30th, 2005
Asia Collection
Fourth Floor, Hamilton Library
Curator/Designer: Chintana Takahashi

The custom of betel-chewing is the most important single cultural phenomenon that extends across a large body of peoples who differ widely in race, language and religion. It was, and still is, endemic throughout the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia and large parts of the Western Pacific.

Archaeological work on prehistoric sites yielded piper seeds (probably piper betel) in the Spirit Cave in Northwest Thailand that is dateable to between 5500 and 7000 BC. A male skeleton with betel stained teeth, dating from 2680 BC. was found in the Duyong Cave in the Philippines. These and other similar discoveries indicate that betel originated in Southeast Asia and then spread westward. Betel chewing has already been a common practice among the Southeast Asian social elite when it first appears in the literature of India around the first centuries AD.

To western visitors, the betel chewing which comprises the continual spitting, the hawking noise made by the spitters, and the black betel-stained teeth grinning from blood-red mouths appears to be an unattractive practice. However, preparation of betel was once one of the courtly accomplishments of Asia, essential for any woman of breeding or with social ambitions. Betel is served in a quid. The three chief ingredients are betel leaf, lime paste and areca nut. To prepare the quid, the leaf is smeared with lime paste, thin slices of areca nut are placed in the middle, and the leaf is folded or wrapped around them and sometimes fastened with a clove. Besides areca nut meat, tobacco, saffron, cardamom, nutmeg and other spices may be added. The more exotic and the greater the number of ingredients indicate the higher the hostís prestige.



  • Album of pekinangan of Nusa Tenggara Barat. [Mataram;: Departemen Pendiddikan dan Kebudayaan, Kantor Wilayah Departemen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan, Bagian Proyek Pembinaan Permuseuman Nusa Tenggara Barat, [1997].

  • Brownrigg, Henry. Betel cutters from the Samuel Eilenberg collection. New York, N.Y.: Thames and Hudson, 1992.

  • Guiterman, Arthur. Betel nuts: what they say in Hindustan. San Francisco and New York: P. Elder and company [c 1907].

  • Marketing of betel leaves in India. Faridabad: Market Research and Planning Cell, Directorate of Marketing and Inspection, Ministry of Rural Development, Govt. of India; Delhi: Controller of Publications, [1987].

  • Morarjee, Sumati. Tambula: tradition and art. Bombay: Morarjee, 1974.

  • Reichart, Peter A., H.P. Philipsen. Betel and miang: vanishing Thai habits. Bangkok, White Lotus, c 1996.

  • Rooney, Dawn. Betel chewing traditions in South-East Asia. Kuala Lumpur; New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

  • Sivaramakrishnar, V.M. Tobacco and areca nut. Chennai: Orient Longman, 2001.

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