Mysteries of a 'chellapetti'

The thoughts of this decadent object and the peculiar habit of betel leaf chewing in India entered my mind when I saw these two ‘ambis’ in conversation. They were Kamal Hassan and Delhi Ganesh (from the movie MMKR). Watch this clip if you want a quick introduction to the Palakkad ambi’s peculiar Malayali Tamil accent.

Both are Palghat Brahmins or ambis. You can see a chellapetti in Delhi Ganesh’s hands. Ganesh’s chella petti gets stolen repeatedly by an old woman, a kleptomaniac. Her granddaughter Urvashi who has a crush on Kamal returns it, only for it to get stolen again.

Some call it Murukan petti or vettila chellam - the box that contained a lot of stuff to ensure optimal production of the betel package. A few one or half rupee coins (not to be chewed though!), the small brass duppi of chunnambu, a few tender betel leaves or thalir vettila - the choice home grown Malabar variety (not Salem or Benaras), chopped squares of adakka or arecanut, sometimes a few cloves and a few pods of cardamom. While rich people had chella petti’s made of brass or silver, others even used the LG asafetida tin. (Checkout
my recent blog about Rama iyer and the asafoetida tin)By the way ‘betel’ was the anglicized version of Malayalam word Vettila.

Most of these chaps have few teeth in their old age and the way they go about preparing the ‘murukkan’ (package of leaf, nut & lime) is very interesting & traditional. First they take the baby ‘vettila’ leaf, smooth it in their left hand, clip off the stem (njetti) and the tip of the leaf. Then some smooth out using their nails the stem of the leaf (I am sure that most of you won’t know why – it was apparently due to the belief that the stem and tip make you sterile (?)). Then the right amounts of lime is applied to the leaves, roughly 3 or 4 bits of nut (In olden days the acrid nut was sliced with a nut chopper) are added and the package consigned to the corner of the mouth where the few remaining molars reside.

Then he looks at the distance and brings his jaws together for the first crunch, and you can see the delight in his face as he crushes the nut and starts to grind the concoction in his mouth, moving it from side to side (those who have seen the brilliant Kamal Sreedevi movie Meendum kokila will recall the song Chinnan cheru…and the granny chewing paan). Well, from the very early days my dad, his side of the family and I have loved this Malayali ‘paan’ after ceremonial dinners, preferring it over the north Indian variety that you get outside hotels today. How this Paan got me into trouble and linked me to Neil Armstrong is another interesting story – that story will be posted soon.

Abdul Razzak, a Persian traveler in the Kingdom of Vijayanagar in 1443, put it succinctly "The masticator lightens up in countenance. It relieves hunger, stimulates the organs of digestion and disinfects the breath." During 970 – 1039 AD Al Biruni visited Malabar and remarked ‘people spend all their money on pan (betel leaf chewing).

Thamboolam is sometimes the name attributed to the package of betel leaf, nut and lime (I think Thamboolam was the name for the betel leaf in Sanskrit though). First it was traditional sliced arecanut, and then came Asoka paak (flavored arecanuts). The chunna which was typical slaked lime or Calcium hydroxide (Now you know why women of those days never had osteoporosis), was substituted with the flavored Lakshmi chunnambu, pinkish and smelling like rose milk… The brass betelnut cracker was another item in my grand uncle’s chellapetti. And there was the hated Kolambi or spittoon into which, the chewer exhibited his expertise, by launching a steady stream of the red spit without splattering those around him or the nearby walls.

Vasco De Gama’s aides recall seeing a golden spittoon next to the Zamorin when they met in Calicut in 1498(
In his left hand the king held a very large golden cup (spittoon), having a capacity of half an almude (8 pints). At its mouth this cup was two palmas (16 inches) wide, and apparently it was massive. Into this cup the king threw the husks of a certain herb which is chewed by the people of this country because of its soothing effects, and which they call atambor (Arabic word Tambur for betel leaf comes from Thambool).).

Most old houses in North Malabar have a few betel vines snaking up the coconut or arecanut trees in their houses. Typically, Nair wives tenderly picked a few tender betel leaves for the husband’s not so tender chewing habit. Sometimes cardamom, cloves and bits of coconut were added.

According to Hindu mythology, Mohini distributed Amrut (ambrosia) amongst various gods. The urn with the remainder of the Amrut was kept near Indra’s elephant. Growing inside the urn was a strange creeping plant and seeing it, the gods became ecstatic. Vishnu ordered Dhanvantari to examine the plant, who in turn discovered its stimulating quality. From then on, Vishnu began to offer its leaves, as a gesture of love and affection. That, it is said, is how the betel tree was born. It began to be associated with the Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh Trinity. The areca nut was attributed to Brahma, the Tambool (betel) leaf to Vishnu and lime to Mahesh.

While the rest of India lauds the stiff Salem (Tamil) or Benares varieties for the popular North Indian or Mughlai Paan, Pakistan prefers the Malabar (Tirur) variety. “In Karachi, betel from Tirur is preferred to the others from January to April while those from Colombo and Bangkok are in demand during the latter part of the year. In Lahore, the Tirur variety is in demand all through the year,” Its taste is supposed to be very unique. Since it is plucked late it is spicy and thick and is also durable” Most of the 2,000-2,500 baskets of betel leaves dispatched daily from Tirur's Vettilangadi, also called Pan Bazaar, are meant for export to Pakistan

While the size and art work of the chella petti in North India signified the prosperity of the lady of the house, the chellam in Kerala was austere and just fit for purpose, usually made of brass.
EH Aitken states (read the full article if you can, it is brilliant) – The betel nut and the betel leaf always coexist - In life the betel vine climbs up the stem of the areca palm, and in death the areca nut is rolled in a shroud of the betel leaf and the two are munched together. Other things are often added to the morsel, such as a clove, a cardamom, or a pinch of tobacco, and a small quantity of fresh lime is indispensable. To a European the strong, astringent taste and penetrating odour of the betel nut are alike insufferable, and there is no instance on record, as far as I know, of an Englishman becoming a betel nut chewer. But wherever Hindu blood circulates, not in India only, but all through the islands of the Malay Archipelago, as far as the Philippines, the betel nut is an indispensable ingredient of any life that is worth living. Indeed it is the chief cement of social intercourse in a country where all ordinary conviviality between man and man is almost strangled by the quarantine enforced against ceremonial defilement. Friend offers friend the betel nut box just as Scotsmen offered the snuff-box in the hearty old days that are passing away.
My pen moves only when I have a betel nut in my mouth. Without one, I can neither think nor write," said Mr. RK Narayan, years back, in conversation with Satyan.

Tradition has it that - One should not munch betelnut before putting betel leaves in the mouth, Widows, Brahmachari’s and Sannyasi’s should not use betel leaves, during Ekadasi and other days of fasting, betel chewing should be scrupulously avoided and while chewing betel one should not sip water….

You may wonder how one harvests the arecanut or betel nut from this spindly tree (a normal tree is about half a foot or less in diameter and towers to about 30meters)

See this chap in action – needless to say that a thin & light person is required to climb such trees. What would he do when the tree swings violently when he reaches the top? Pray to all kinds of gods perhaps? Well, I have not seen the act myself, but my wife tells me that they are experts, they climb one, quickly pluck the bunch, as it swings, he clambers the next one at the top (like the above video) and so on…phew…I am absolutely sure that together with Kalari, this art also reached China and now we see it featured in ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ kind of movies!!

You won’t believe this - United States Patent 6312735 by Niazi, Sarfaraz & Niazi, Riaz cover the method for the removal of all types of human and animal skin warts using a technique of cauterization wherein slaked lime is applied to the wart and then the surface of wart is scratched by using the stem of betel leaf.

Man! The things that you don’t realize when you chew from the Vettila Thamboolam!!

Malayali Vethila Chellam - Malluboy

Arecanut trees - Darkfire
Others - from the net, thanks to the photographers

LinksTom Walters & Nalini Sofia’s paper on
Effects of Consumption of Thamboolam

In 1855 Samuel baker attempted to understand what this south Indian & Ceylon Betel Chewing was all about in his book ‘Eight years wandering in Ceylon’.
The Art of Chewing Betel –
Ni Wayan Murni

TS Satyan – Chewing Betel
Origins of the betel vine – Sri Lankan version


Praveen Krishnan said...

Maddy sir, you do quite some research before writing a post :-) My mother used to prevent us from eating betel leaves, telling us, that if we eat them, we will not study well. Not that it really mattered, as in any case, I never studied!!!


Man, that was absolutely brilliant. So many interesting details.

My grandfather used to have a vetrila chellam too. And when his teeth fell out, he used a home made scraper to grate the adakkai - an old LG asafoetida box, the lid of which was punched from the inside with a nail, at regular intervals. The resulting holes on the outside were ideal for scraping the hard nut, and the scrapings collected in the box.

How we do take things for granted. Nobody chews betel leaves very much now - the ones we get in thamboolam are also thrown away after thy wilt. So sad.

Anonymous said...

My grand parents used to sit in our portico with a large group of relatives and start all sortd of conversations after a sumptuous lunch and it was a gift and as akid i listened to a lot of tales and accompanied by a liberal sprsy of the thick gruel as the mixture was expelled periodically and i still feel the warmth of my grannys lap and I miss it

Unknown said...

I love betel leaves. We use them in pujas and we kids used to be allowed to eat a couple. All history now, alas. I'm not so keen on paan chewing and spitting people.

I remember my grandparents eating thamboolam every night after dinner. It would be solemnly prepared by grandma and offered to grandpa. After he started chewing it, she would make one for herself and eat it. The entire operation would be wordless.

Anonymous said...

A good one, it reminds my father, who used to chew a lot. and shops used to sell as "pothi" ,I have seen people sticking the the tip of the leaf to sidehead!!, dont know the reason! but will look good!!!

Pradeep Nair said...

I used to curiously look at my elders at the ancestral home in Parur go through the elaborate process... and the way the spit it...

Anonymous said...

Your piece opened up memories going back to a few decades older folks sat round and passed the spittoon around. Beetle leaf was prepared excatly as you have described. Sometimes the arecanut would be smashed using what we called an "ural" to make it easier to chew. Some liked to add a piece of tobacco leaf into the mixture. That was in Sri Lanka.

Nikhil Narayanan said...

Loved the post.
Took me to days when I used to look at my granny chewing vettila murukkan.
She had a brass chellam.

You should be publishing a book soon, blogs are not for you :-)

Maddy said...

thanks all of you - nothing to beat a good chew after a heavy lunch, but the basic version just betel, adakkai and chunnam is sufficient...