Betel (areca) nut is a mildly narcotic seed that comes from the areca palm ( Areca catechu ). Used for thousands of years, it is popular in India and South Asia as well as the Pacific and Southeast Asia. There are references to it in ancient Sanskrit texts and it was used as far back as the Indus Valey Civilization in the second millennium B.C.. In many places, everybody chews betel nut, even children. It can be bought at almost any store. Many people grow it in their backyards. Some people even believe that ghosts chew it.

In the Indian subcontinent, betel nut is generally dried and called paan. Paan Masala refers to an aromatic been blend of spices and condiments chewed with betel. Gutka is a betel quid preparation made of crushed areca nut, tobacco, catechu, paraffin wax, slaked lime and sweet or savory flavorings. It is popular in India and Pakistan, even Afghanistan and Iran and among South Asians in London.

Betel nuts are usually sucked on or chewed like chewing tobacco. They are often prepared by boiling, drying and slicing. The active ingredient in betel nut is a volatile oil called arecoline. Released from the nut by saliva and lime, it is a mild central nervous system stimulant which increases respiration. Betel nut is used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat headaches, stomach pains, venereal diseases, fever, rheumatism and other ailments.

Paan is widely consumed in Pakistan. It is made of betel nuts and fragrant syrup wrapped in a betel leaf. It comes in variety of tastes and fragrances, Ordinary people often chew it after meals. Habitual users consume it all day long, spit out the red juice and have red-stained teeth. Chhaliya, gutka and pan (all betel nut preparation) are sometimes viewed as gateway drugs to heroin and opium.

Betel Nut Use in India

India is the largest consumer of betel (areca). The preparation of nut with or without betel leaf is commonly referred to as paan. It is available practically everywhere and is sold in ready-to-chew pouches called pan masala or supari, in which the dried areca nut crushed into small pieces and flavored with a variety of things. [Source: Wikipedia]

Ananya Bhattacharya wrote in Quartz: “Millions of Indians habitually chew” betel nut “leaving their mouths red—and neighbourhood walls scarlet splodged. It is usually a mix of areca nut, slaked lime, a variety of individually chosen ingredients, and tobacco, all skillfully wrapped inside a verdant green leaf...A less elaborate and hassle-free version involves dried ground tobacco and areca nut, massaged thoroughly in the palm before being tossed into the mouth... Besides being chewed in raw or dried forms by around 30 percent of Indian men and 7 percent of Indian women, the nut is used in Hindu religious ceremonies, as offerings to gods or tokens during births, marriages, and even death. [Source:Ananya Bhattacharya, Quartz, January 18, 2022

Betel nut is widely consumed throughout India. Even in Rajasthan, far from the tropical areas, where the betel palm grows, people chew betel. Paan is often consumed after a meal and is meant to be chewed slowly to release the flavors and aid digestion. There are many varieties of paan. Some are quite potent . Paan is placed between the cheek and gum and consumed in way similar to chewing tobacco. The red juice stains the lips and teeth and is meant to be spit out (although some kinds of sweet paan can be swallowed). Betel nut sellers earned about $40 a month in the late 1990s. Paan has traditionally been sold by paanwalllahs and is mess to transport.

Poor people, some of whom eat only every other day, use it to stave off hunger pangs. The easily discarded, small plastic supari or gutka pouches are one of the most common forms of litter. Some of the liquid in the mouth is usually disposed of by spitting, producing bright red spots wherever the expectorate lands. [Source: Wikipedia]

Betel Nut in Assam

In Assam, as elsewhere in Northeastern India, betel nut is often consumed in its fermented form, which is supposed to make the fruit harder and sweeter. The raw nut is also also be eaten as food during certain seasons when the fermented variety becomes unavailable, and a ritual importance. Guwahati, the largest city in Assam, and its capital too, is named after the betel (areca) nut. [Source: Wikipedia]

Pieces of the betel nut and leaf (together known as gua) are usually consumed with lime and some tobacco. In Assam, betel nut has great cultural value and is an important social activity. Offering betel nut serves as a greeting. It is a tradition to offer pan-tamul (betel leaves and raw areca nut) to guests after they arrive and after tea or meals. It has traditionally been on a a brass plate with stands called bota. In the old days, carrying a pouch of tamul-pan upon one's person was indispensable on journeys or during farming activities, and one was expected to share what they had with others.

Among the Assamese, the areca nut is also central to certain religious and marriage ceremonies, where it is viewed as a fertility symbol. A religious ritual is not considered complete unlet an the offering of tamul-pan is made to the gods and spirits as offered to the guests. A tradition from Upper Assam is to invite guests to wedding receptions by offering a few areca nuts with betel leaves. During the Bihu festival season, husori dancers are offered betel nuts and leaves by household as they go around seeking blessings.

Betel Nut Health Issues in India

Betel nut makes the saliva red. Regular usage stains the mouth, teeth and gums red. Long term users have damaged and blackened teeth and damaged soft tissues in the mouth. Betel is considered a health hazard. It has been linked with throat, mouth and esophageal cancers

Bloomberg reported: “A 2000 study of ethnic Indian users in London found that paan masala can be as addictive as cocaine, according to the British Medical Journal. Patients describe typical dependency symptoms, with difficulty in abstaining, withdrawal symptoms including headache and sweating, and need for a morning paan to relieve these symptoms,'' the 2002 Journal report said.[Source: Yu-huay Sun, Bloomberg, January 26, 2006]

Ananya Bhattacharya wrote in Quartz: “In recent decades, tobacco has earned notoriety for its much-publicised carcinogenic qualities. Areca nut, on the other hand, has been flying under the radar. “Few talk about it like they do about tobacco. Instead of curbing its use, India is becoming an ever bigger supplier. In the past decade, Bollywood stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Priyanka Chopra have earned millions advertising paan masala (This also serves as a surrogate for gutka ads, otherwise banned.) [Source: Ananya Bhattacharya, Quartz, January 18, 2022]

Betel Nut Agriculture in India

Ananya Bhattacharya wrote in Quartz: “In the early 1990s, India produced under 250,000 tonnes of areca nuts, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. By 2019, it was over 900,000 tonnes or nearly half the global output. Indian farmers who plant it—the southern state of Karnataka produces most of it—have a solid reason for favouring it: Areca nut is wildly lucrative. Thanks to its many uses, demand has been rising faster than supply. In September 2021, prices hovered around Rs500-525 ($6.74-7.09) per kilogram, up from Rs200-250 ($2.70-3.37) two years earlier. [Source: Ananya Bhattacharya, Quartz, January 18, 2022]

“Areca nut farmers’ fortunes improved particularly in the 1980s as manufacturers began making and selling gutka, or betel quid, which is a mixture of tobacco and crushed areca nuts. Paan masala, its tobacco-free version, is generally deemed harmless and consumed by the young and old alike. In 2022, the crop can fetch an average of Rs4.5 lakh ($6,071) per acre per year compared to the Rs60,000 ($809) for peanuts. And unlike perishable crops like tomatoes and potatoes, areca nuts can be stored for years once processed.

“Government policies, likewise, even help the areca nut-based trade. For one, the sale of fresh betel nuts is tax-free while the dried ones attract 5 percent goods and services tax, the lowest slab. Local farmers are also protected from imports and smuggling of substandard Indonesian areca nuts via the Bangladesh and Myanmar borders. India had allowed tariff-free import of the nuts from Myanmar since 1994 but in 2018 it began to levy a 40 percent tariff.

Lame Anti-Betel Nut Use Efforts in India

Ananya Bhattacharya wrote in Quartz: ““In a feeble attempt, the Delhi government, in January 2016, asked celebrities to refrain from endorsing paan masala brands. “If it is proven that paan masalas contain areca nuts, which is supposed to be a cancer-causing agent, why is the government not banning the sale of paan masalas?” asked marketing professional Amitava Mitra. In China, another country where betel nuts are widely produced and consumed, the government did go for such a ban on ads. In India itself, several states have acted against tobacco products like gutka while steering clear of betel nuts. [Source: Ananya Bhattacharya, Quartz, January 18, 2022

“In countries like India, besides curbs on areca nut production, awareness drives and de-addiction programmes are key. However, they are rare, presumably because those affected by this addiction are mostly poor. “Betel quid addiction is predominantly a second or third world disorder and, therefore, likely flies under the radar. If a medication was developed to address this problem, it’s quite likely that those most affected would not be able to purchase the medication,” says Andrew Lawrence, head of mental health research at Melbourne University. From an economic perspective, the drive to develop a medication may not be as high as, for example, antidepressants or antihypertensives, which are sold widely around the first world.”

Betel Nut in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, betel nut ((dahat-vita) is often consumed after meals. The kind typically consumed is made of betel leaves, areca nut, and certain other items like cloves, nutmeg, cardamons which give a pleasant smell and a pungent taste when chewed. It is said, that applying the white paste of powdered limestone on the areca nut, fresh betel leaf is "like mustard on a hot dog.” Naga Valli is betel leaf with a yellow imprint of a Cobra head

T. B. Parnatella wrote in 1908: “Soon after meals every one must be offered a quid of betel. This is done by placing the betel leaves, chopped arecanuts, chunam, catechu, niyadandu, tobacco, and spices (cloves, &c.), neatly on a kind of tray (of metal or wood. sometimes highly ornamented), which is passed round so that even one may select according to his taste. Three different trays must be got ready: the one for the ladies' chamber should either be handed to, or placed near, the chief lady of the company; the other should be placed near the chief man of the gentlemen s' party; and the third handed over to the head servant for distribution among them. [Source: T. B. Parnatella, “Sumptuary Laws and Social Etiquette of the Kandyans,” The Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland, 1908; Lanka Chronicle, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Betel Nut and Sri Lankan Culture

Betel chewing is a part of Sri Lankan culture. It is one custom shared by both the Tamils and Sinhalese. It is a good habit keeping the mouth fresh and free from harmful bacteria as the betel is an antiseptic. The areca and the betel also strengthen the gums. Perhaps this cultural trait was shared by the Nagas, for it is said that when they visited our land, they found the green betel leaf rather bland and therefore brought their own variety the Naga Valli. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

The Naga Valli betel leaf carries a yellow imprint of the Cobra head, the emblem of the Nagas. The chewers of the Naga Valli are warned to bite off a good bit of the stem and break off the tip of the leaf before they begin chewing. This is due to a confusion of the Naga clan, with the reptile, the Cobra. From this misconception arose the story that the Naga Valli was carried in the mouths of the Cobras. Hence the belief that the Nagas held the leaf by the stem or tip and may have left some venom at these points. If you watch a seasoned betel chewer, you will see him do this even with our green betel leaf. Even today when a sheaf of betel is offered as a token of respect care is taken that no Naga Valli leaves are included in it.

In some wedding ceremonies betel leaves are given by the MC to the groom who in turn passes them on to his parents. It also offered as a dahat-vita offering. For every kind of offering there are separate stanzas like those for food. These stanzas are composed in Pali, which is supposed to be the language in which the Buddha preached his doctrine.

Ceremonies using betel nut are performed after the rains when the wewa (irrigation ponds) is full and during Mutti mungallaya after the harvest. Once a day has been selected for the Mutti mangallaya each household will contribute their share of rice, kawum, plantains, betel and areca nuts for the ceremony. After the feasting is over, villagers go in a procession with two new clay pots filled with saffron and incense to the abode of the deity who is believed to reside in a tree on the wewa bund. A special dais is erected with coconut fronds known as "yahana" under the tree over which a white canopy is hung to give a sanctified look. On this specially erected pedestal, betel offering is made and the two clay pots are also placed as a form of offering. [Source: D. B. Kappagoda, CDN, Mid Week Mirror]

Family and Betel Nut Bonding During the Sri Lanka New Year

After the New Year meal the mother in a family has traditionally shown here respect to her husband by offering him a sheaf of betel leaves. This is followed by children offered betel to their father and mother. Elders in the village have also been offered betel in this way on New Year's day.

Dr. Upali Pilapitiya wrote: Another salient feature of the New Year is to respect the elders and to strengthen relationships with neighbours. Usually, visiting relations and friends and exchanging presents, greeting them with a sheaf of betel is the order of the day. Betel play a vital part in the New Year particularly in Asian culture. Betel is considered a sacred herb with many medicinal values. Chewing of betel along with cloves, cardamoms and arecanut after a meal is considered the best way to strengthen the gums. A chew of betel cleans the mouth, and wades off bad breath. [Source: Dr. Upali Pilapitiya, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

“The juice of betel leaves promotes digestion, kills organisms which are harmful to the body. The value of betel is also appreciated in Buddhist literature. Building up confidence, love, friendship and hope among elders, relations and friends plays a great role in achieving mental, physical and social wellbeing. Arrogance, hatred, sorrow, pangs of jealousy, cruelty are all considered as mental illnesses. Exchanging sheaves of betel and paying respect to elders brings about a new feeling of freshness. The elders feel that they are accepted, wanted and venerated by their kith and kin. This warmth helps to a great deal to the elders in maintaining good health and vitality.”

Betel Nut in Bhutan

Betel nut (areca) is widely consumed in Bhutan. Known as doma, it provides a mild buzz and turns the teeth and mouth reddish-orange. A khamto (quid) of doma pani (areca nut and a dash of slaked lime wrapped in a betel leaf) is placed in the side of the mouth between the cheek and gum and gently chewed on and sucked, without swallowing. The buzz is stronger than coffee but way below cocaine or meth. Some men carry betel nut in silver-and-gold boxes.

In Bhutan, the soft and moist raw areca nut is consumed. It is very potent When chewed it can cause palpitation and vasoconstriction. In southern Bhutan and North Bengal, the nut is cut into half and put into a local paan leaf with a generous amount of lime. In the rest of Bhutan the raw nut, with the husk on, is fermented such that the husk rots and is easy to extract. Where fermented doma is made it is said the putrid odour can be smelled from very far away. [Source: Wikipedia]

Doma is served after meals, during rituals and ceremonies. It is offered to friends and is chewed at work places at all levels of society and is an essential part of Bhutanese social life and culture. Traditionally, this nut is cut in half and placed on top of a cone made of local betel leaf, with some lime into it. According to legend, some of the original inhabitants of Bhutan, the cannibalistic Monyul, who lived beyond Buddhism’s reach in the land of Monpas, ate raw flesh, drank blood, and chewed bones. In the 8th century, the Tibetan Buddhist saint Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) arrived in Monapas and convinced the Monyul to stop eating flesh and drinking blood and created the betel nut quid (betel leaf, lime and areca nut) as a substitute. The three parts of the betel nut quid are said to symbolize parts of the human body: the leaf stands for the tongue, the lime for the brain, and the betel nut for the heart. [Source: Wikipedia, Karma Phuntsho, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Gopilal Acharya wrote in Kuensel: “Doma is an integral part of Bhutanese life culture; it is chewed everywhere, by all sections of society on all occasions. It takes the form of a traditional offering during the auspicious Zhugdrel Phuensum Tshogpa ceremony and as casual offering or gift among strangers and friends. Often doma is the first thing offered to a guest. Although no scientific studies have been carried out on the contents of the nut, doctors say that arecadonic acid” is the active ingredient. "It not only gives a sort of temporary high but also makes people warm," says the senior surgeon with the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital, Dr. Sonam Drukpa. [Source: Gopilal Acharya, Kuensel,]

Doma is often referred to as trozey, a conversation starter. However “consumption among the younger generation is delcininf. Many school-going children and young civil servants have never chewed doma in their lives. The blood-red doma juice expectorated by numerous chewers has always been a topic of discussion. The red juice can be seen everywhere, from gutters to office corners to the walls of doma shops. But doma nevertheless will always be indispensable to the Bhutanese. "It is a cross-society phenomenon with its use in both religious and temporal spheres," says Yeshey Lhendup, a Thimphu resident, who chews an average of 25 khamto a day.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Council of Bhutan, Quartz, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2022

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