Paan: India's favourite relish for 2000 glorious years!

By Madhulika Dash

If there was ever a contest to select the most popular relish in India, there is a good chance that Paan would emerge as the invincible winner – not only because of its ancestry (its use dates back to 400BC) but also in the variety (there are over 200 different ways of making paan, and about 50 ways of eating it –tambul being one of the most ancient) and its multiple uses.

Yes, you heard that right. Paan isn't just a favourite chew that is had across India, but a go-to miracle leaf that can treat everything from cold, to bad breathe and even built immunity.

And yet the rise of Paan's popularity has little to do with its health properties and more to do with the celebrity (read: royal) endorsement that paan and its other brother (beetle nut) has earned over the years.

Sample this: Tambul, a traditional chew in North East, was reinvented in the court of Nur Jahan, who is said to have introduced paan to royalty and made it a post meal-essential. Far from the half of single heart shaped leaf with few slivers of heady tambul (beetle nut), the one offered on the royal platter was made with eleven leaves with beetle nut that boiled in sandalwood juice and lime (made by mixing lime with saffron and rose water). Called the bira, it made it to the harem's must-learn list, and often had a different budget allotted to its procurement and making. In Fatehpur Sikri, next to the areas specially dedicated to ice and storage of red rose (another favourite of Mughal Empresses) is actually a room where all the paans were stored and worked upon.

Such was the royal fascination with the heart shaped leaf that generations from Nur Jahan and other new kings and Nawabs took it as a rent and tax instead of money or grains, especially from the Eastern part of the country and Varanasi, that was where one could get the finest, melt-in- your-mouth Magai.

Old tales have it that Mumtaz Mahal loved her Jagannath so much that half of the tax from Bengal would go as paan to the palace of Shah Jahan's favourite queen. In fact, Mughal period, paan was given as land revenue by the Mahoba estate of Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh

Interestingly however while Paan may have gained its share in the limelight with Mughals and then Nawabs later on (It is said that among the retinue selected by Wajid Ali Shah before going to exile was a chef and a paan specialist), and some of the meetha and zarda paan may have been designed during the time, they weren't the first to introduce paan into the Indian culture.

The use of Paan dates to as early as 400 BC. Back then paan wasn't just a way to treat illnesses especially that of stomach and lungs (it is called the miracle cleanser in Sushruta Samhitas and the perfect digestive in Kashyapa Bhojanakalpa), paan became an indulgence between 75 AD and 300 AD – at least in middle India. North East still used it to keep hunger at bay!

European traveller Marco Polo was among the first to record betel chewing among kings and nobles in India back in the 13 th century. "It is a rather interesting chew, crunchy on the outside and aromatic on the inside and almost melts in the mouth. Rich in ingredients, the best (part) is that they come in as many choices, not one resembling the other and each as addictive," said Polo to one of his friend as he introduced the luxurious chew in European society, and turned it into a major revenue earner. Back in the mid-1600, it was one of the most expensive exports to the Dutch.

Paan eating by then had become a ritual – much like hookahs and other- and special time was dedicated to enjoy this relish, often post dinner. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that India's best export to the Persian court. But where did the Paan journey begin?

Some believe that Paan came to India from Malaysia, while others say it was a leaf discovered by the Vedic gurus, who prepared the first Tambula. A Sanskrit word derived from tamra meaning copper indicating red colour. The first iteration of paan was simply paan, supari and catechu or katha, which according to Sushrata, was given as an alternative to keep the mouth clean strengthens the voice, tongue and teeth and guards against diseases. And purify blood.

It was a delicious way of treating patient, and it was this deliciousness that made it such a hit with the army as well, who was administered a dose of paan to recover from the vagaries of the battle.

What made it even popular was the use of paan not only as a home remedy but as a trick to follow tradition. Consider this: In Odisha and Bengal, paan was introduced to the new bride so she can control her urge to eat. It was a way to entice their husband, and became a skill that a good housewife should know apart from cooking. The paan daan much like the house keys in the north was elevated to the position of power – often kept with the eldest in the family. A tradition that even Nur Jahan set in her haram as proof of authority.

Lending their hand in making it popular among woman – who have been setting the benchmark for fashion – was Vatsyayana, author of KamaSutra, who included paan as one of the 16 shringar essential for a beautiful woman. An inscription found in Mandasor in Madhya Pradesh further consolidate the point, "It says (just as) a woman endowed with youth and beauty (and) adorned with the arrangement of golden necklaces and betel leaves and flowers, goes not to meet (her) lover in a secret place until she has put on a pair of coloured silken clothes."

This could explain why Devdasis and later nautch girls would often resort to paan to get that perfect, seductive red colour, which was often forbidden to widows and students.

But paan's use wasn't solely because of its highly addictive packaging, it was also because of the role it played in religious function. If in East India, it became a way to offer food and then the post meal chew (in Jagannath Puri at least), in the South, it was a part of the invitation cards for marriages, and in the North East represented a sense of gratitude offered by the host to the guest. For Rajputs however the heart shaped leaf became a symbol of dignity.

By this time, the paan, which initially was of three ingredients, became more gourmet. A typical paan now was essentially a fresh betel leaf encasing betel nut (supari), slaked lime (choona), catechu (kattha) and mouth fresheners like fennel (sauf) and cardamom (elaichi). The 16th century cookbook, Nimmatnama-i Nasiruddin-Shahi, talks about an elaborate betel chew or paan would contain fragrant spices and rose preserves with chopped areca nuts.

The royal paan was however much more elaborate. Except for the essential, a royal bida also had long (clove) and elaichi – each coated with scented silver and gold varq. It was a practice started by Nur Jahan, who developed special sugary fruits to go with her favourite chew. Folklores often say that when the 25 th queen of Jahangir lost power, the one luxury she urged Shah Jahan to afford her was the paan.

Since then, the humble leaf has gone through many variations, each thanks to the patrons were exotic in their own way. Today, 35 out of the couple of hundreds exist. What has not changed is the selection of the leaf variety – be it the Magahi, an expensive variety, is grown in Aurangabad, Gaya and Nalanda or the Calcuttia and Desi grown in Darbhanga, Samastipur and Vaishali districts of North Bihar to name a few. Such was the want of this precious relish that it needed its own community of specialized people growing it. In India, it is the Chaurasia Community, which has been traditionally growing the best quality paan in 84 villages of the district.

According to French traveller Niccolao Manucci, "Emperor Shah Jahan was so fond of the paan himself that he had allocated the revenue of Surat for meeting the paan expenses of his daughter." Of course not all was for the indulgence." Paan, say old records, was also given as a goodwill gesture when a servant was dismissed. In fact when the Sultan Of Malwa over threw Rajputs he did so 40,000 paan.

Strangely, the seventh nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan, took a liking for the paandaans than the paan. Knowing this, on the silver jubilee of his rule, his vassals used to present him with gold paandaans encrusted with diamonds. In fact, the paandaan and its paraphernalia and the way it was used made it a key essential in bride's trousseau. The kharch-e-paandaan was negotiated and put in the nikahnama, and added prestige to the bride.

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