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Betel leaf holds special place in Avurudu customs
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Author:  LankaLibrary [ Fri Apr 14, 2006 2:42 pm ]
Post subject:  Betel leaf holds special place in Avurudu customs

Betel leaf holds special place in Avurudu customs

Sumana Saparamadu
@ CDN / 14APR2006


DEMAND FOR BETEL: No other leaf, plant or flower has so important a place in our social life and our culture as the common or garden betel leaf. It is an essential item at every auspicious occasion and ceremonial event as marriages and religious rites and rituals, and a necessity to those addicted to the quid.

Hence there is round-the-year demand for betel, but at no other time of the year is there a demand as at New Year. The sheaf of betel is a must, for the observance of the customary greeting. Over the years, the betel leaf has come to symbolize the New Year festivities.


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So much so, confectioners have started putting on sale an 'avurudu' cake in the shape of a betel leaf, all iced in green. It may with time, become the equivalent of the yule-log at Christmas. (I am writing of the place of the betel leaf in Sinhala society only, for my knowledge of its place in Tamil-Hindu society is minimal).

It is at New Year that families get-together, if not on New Year's Day, then on the next day or two. Offering a sheaf of betel to parents, grand parents, aunts and uncles is a time honoured custom still followed despite urbanisation and westernisation.

New Year may be the only time sons and daughters working in far off places visit their parents and kinsmen to see each other. On this visit to the parental home or to homes of uncles and aunts, they will bring along sheaves of betel to offer the elders.

When the family gets together on New Year's day, the children will each offer a sheaf of betel to the parents and grand parents before sitting down to the New Year breakfast and the father will give the little children a shinning new coin or coins wrapped in a betel leaf. Forty leaves, two lots of 20, make up the 'bulath atha', the standard sheaf of betel.

Now, very often the sheaves consist of only 20 leaves. The number of leaves doesn't really matter; it is the act of giving that is important.

Earlier, a rolled up tobacco leaf was placed on the sheaf of betel and this was called a 'bulath hurulla'. With the dropping of the tobacco leaf the word 'hurulla' seems to have gone out of use.

At New Year, employees will visit their masters to offer betel. It is as much a New Year greeting as a show of respect. In most rural schools and in some of the less affluent urban schools when schools re-open after the New Year vacation, students will offer betel to their class-teacher, and the principal too.

In many urban schools this greeting and show of respect is on Teachers' Day, October 5. I've seen this custom even in Pre-schools in rural areas. Parents make 4 year-old children, just starting school, offer betel to the head teacher. Invariably, a packet of biscuits is placed on the sheaf.

The offering of betel is also a way of saying sorry and asking for forgiveness for any wrongs of commission or omission in the past year or years.

When two persons or two families have not been on good terms or have been nursing a grievance over the past many months, it is customary for the younger kinsman or colleague to visit the elder at New Year and offer a sheaf of betel.

Both parties know that act is a tacit plea for pardon. With the giving and accepting of the betel, all ill-feelings will be (or should be) erased, wrongs forgiven and forgotten, and both persons/families will be on good terms again.

Every society has its own way of greeting honoured and special guests. Placing the Kumkunam pottu on the forehead is the traditional welcome in Hindu society. Offering a sheaf of betel is our way of greeting special guests. Offering betel to parents and older kinsmen by the bride and bridegroom is an important item in the poruwa ceremony.

Before the printed card became the norm, offering betel was the traditional invitation to a wedding. The parents of the bride/bridegroom to be visited relations and offered them usually the head of the family-betel arranged on a tray (heppuwa).

The invitee took a leaf from the tray thereby accepting the invitation. This was an invitation to the whole family. An employee would do the same when inviting his master to his own or to a son's or daughter's wedding. Printing wedding invitations on cards in the shape of betel leaves is a nostalgia for the old custom.

An invitation to a bana or a pirith chanting is also by offering a sheaf of betel to the head bhikkhu of the temple. When the bhikkhu has come to deliver the sermon and bhikkhus assembled for the pirith chanting, offering the deheth wattiya; the wicker tray of betel is a respectful request to commence the sermon/chanting.

Now, it is not bulath but deheth. No bulath is offered to bhikkhus at almsgivings either. It is deheth that is offered to finish the meal. This tray of deheth is a must at alms-givings whether the monks chew betel or not, and this tray will have more ingredients than in the common man's quid.

It was the custom in traditional society to offer a sheaf of betel to the physician before consulting him. As the money economy slowly spread from the town to the country, it became customary to offer the betel with some money placed on the sheaf. Rs. 2 was the maximum in those early days.

"Do patients still bring the sheaf of betel?" I asked an Ayurveda physician in Colombo. "Not any more", he said. "Not in past twenty five years or so."

"Why?" I asked.

"Who chews betel now? Besides betel is very expensive."

After my conversation with the doctor I spoke with sellers of betel at a bus-stand. A quid of betel is Rs. 10 now and a bulath atha is Rs. 35. "You can have this for Rs. 20," said one seller. "It will do," he said. He had a big basket piled up with fresh green leaves.

What he was willing to give me at Rs. 20 was perhaps a week-old and not a bulath atha. Although the educated and the moneyed folk have given up chewing betel, the practice still persists as the ready-to-chew quids on sale at bus-stands, market places and outside places of worship.

Betel chewing has been a national habit or practice, down the centuries. We read in the old literary works of guests being entertained to rice and finishing off with betel.

When Robert Knox was a prisoner here in the 17th century, he found everyone from King to commoner chewing betel, at all times of the day and even going to sleep with a quid in the mouth. Knox too soon became an addict to betel chewing.

"My long practice in eating it brought to the same condition. .... rather want victuals and clothes than be without it."

Rev. James Cordiner, Chaplain to the Garrison of Colombo who was in the island from 1799-1804 and has left a record of his travels in the law-country, noted that "many of the old Dutch ladies in Ceylon have attained a relish for this practice, which they observe as regularly and enjoy as much as the natives."

"The custom amongst the Cingalese is completely prevalent and almost universal" was the observation of Dr. John Davy, physician in attendance on the Governor Sir Robert B and Lady Brownrigg.

"At all hours and on every occasion, the mastication of those articles prevail; two persons seldom meet without opening their boxes and exchanging a portion of their contents.

In the houses of the rich, betel leaves with accompanying ingredients are presented to guests in vessels of silver. Poor people carry a supply about in their purses of straw secularly lodged in the fold of their middle garment.

When resting by the road-side or waiting the orders of their masters, they cheer their spirits with their favourite morsel."

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