The origin and social significance
DN 2004: Betel which belongs to the pepper family of plants is grown mainly for the sale of leave. For time immemorial, betel has played a very important role in the life of Sri Lankans and in society.
The betel leaf is a symbol of importance and prosperity. It is used not only in Sri Lanka. It is widely used in counties like Java, Burma and other countries in South East Asia.
Betel is normally used at all social functions, and is chewed leisurely at all times. People, who are in the habit of chewing betel carry it along with them, wherever they went, so as not to miss the prestige and pleasure of it. The chew was the outcome of the traditional ritual of the betel leaf.
It is not easy to trace, just when this heart-shaped pungent leaf began to rule man. I think we can safely go back to the times of King Kashapa at least, for those were the days, when people built tanks and temples. The chew revived the workers.
Thus, we see how betel, became a 'must' in all aspects of human life. Even today, the habit of chewing betel has not disappeared, especially from the village. In the deep villages the chew is prepared and served to the visitor on a tray namely bulathtattawa, which is an indispensable article in every Sinhalese home.
Betel has thirteen qualities. In the first instance it is pungent. Secondly it is bitter, and it is spicy. Betel is also said to be bitter and it is astringent and carminative. It destroys phlegm, and freshens the breath; and is an ornament of the mouth. It removes impurities and kindles the flame of love.
It is believed that, betel which has so much to do with the life of the Sri Lankans, originated in Nagaloka or the cobra world. It is said that betel originated from the funeral pier of the Naga King Muchelinda. From its head the leaves from its body the stem of the betel vine, and it tail the roots.
Hence betel is commonly known as Nagavalli. Anyway there are so many other names by which betel is called.
It is rather interesting to find out how betel originated, and how it is linked up with the various aspects of human life. It is a 'must' at all domestic festivities and religious festivals. Betel which serves many purposes plays an important role in society.
It is firmly believed that betel was brought here from Nagaloka. There are several other ballads which are associated with the legendary origin of the betel vine. They are the Dalumura Upata, the Tamil, Pali, Upata Dalu Mura Pidum Kavi, Pitiye Dalumura Kavi and the Dalu-Mura Yahan Kavi. The ballads say that betel was known by different names during different eras.
In the ballad Dalu-mura upata betel was known by several names such as Abaya patra, pandupul patra kirulu patra and Nagavalli, during the times of different Buddhas.
In the 'Sasa Jataka' or the birth-story of the Bodhi Satva as a 'hare', it is said in this legend, that the Bodhi Satva, offered himself the 'Sakra' the King of Gods.
God 'Sakra' who wanted to test the 'hares' genuineness appeared before him in the guise of a demon, and asked the 'hare'. Are you really sincere to your desire to please the Gods, by doing all the good you can?" When the 'hare' said 'yes', the demon replied "Prove it by giving me a meal, and preaching a sermon; but 'remember' he added, when he saw the 'hare' looking around to see what he could give the demon to eat. I eat only flesh - yes, roasted flesh.
This placed the 'hare' in a rather difficult position'. Where can I find flesh in this wilderness", it asked helplessly. That is your problem. Growled the demon. "I am not concerned with that", replied the demon. If I am to believe in the sincerity of your desire to please God, you should grant me my request".
Thus the "hare" was placed in much more difficult position. "There is only the flesh of my body to offer you, but when you have eaten me up, how will it be possible for me to preach a sermon?"
That is your problem growled the demon. If you want to please the Gods, grant me my request.
'Alright', said the 'hare' but you must erect a mountain first where we are standing and put me on top of it. From there I shall leap thro' space into a fire you will kindle at the foot of the mountain, and while I am descending. I shall preach you the sermon.
The demon agreed. He created a mountain and lit a fire at the foot of it. He then placed the 'hare' on the mountain. The demon then crouched himself by the fire. When the fire was ready, the 'hare' commenced the sermon and leapt off the mountain. In its headlong flight continued to preach.
This act of devotion, so pleased 'Sakra' that he stood up and caught the 'hare' in its arms, and took it to the world of Gods.
To commemorate this act of self sacrifice, God Sakra took a golden brush and painted the likeness of the 'hare' on the face of the moon. Having done this Sakra threw away the brush which came tumbling to earth. As the brush touched the earth, the ground opened and let the brush sink to a place called the Nagaloka, the world of cobras.
The King of Nagaloka, mistook the brush to be something edible and swallowed it. This strange meal burnt his throat, and the Naga king Muchalinda died after seven days.
There is legendary belief that betel vine sprouted the funeral pier of the naga king. This may be the reason why betel is called giri-da-dalu. 'Giri' meaning throat, and 'da' meaning burnt. After the cremation of the naga king, the naga watched the spot, and hence you see why betel is called dalu-mura.
The creeping branches of the betel vine thus sprang up from the nagas tail, from its body the main stem, and from its hood, the leaves. Thus the betel received the name Nagavalli - the serpent creeper.
The nagas who fought strongly for the gem chair at Kalaniya, brought bundles of betel from Nagaloka. When Lord Buddha pacified them by his exhortations, they went back, leaving behind the betel. It is believed that Uma devi planted them around a mango tree, which thrived well.
It is from this that, betel was dispersed and grown in all quarters. As it was received by the earth - the betel is called bulath. 'Bu' is derived from 'bhumi' and 'lath' from 'labha' meaning received. Hence the term bulath means received by the earth.
Thus we see, how the betel vine originated, and got its numerous names by which it was called and is lavishly known today, and its social significance.
- Sumithra Asmadale