Betel Leaves and Betel Boxes

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art of chewing betel


Hospitality and welcome
          Betel chewing is still as much a habit as smoking cheroots here in Myanmar. Even right in the city of Yangon, at every street comer you see little stalls that sell, among other things like cheroot, matches and sweets, betel-quids ready for chewing.

In many households, especially in small towns betel boxes are part of the furnishings in the parlour. The boxes may be lacquer, silver or bronze, ornate or plain, depending on the means and status of the family. In cities like Yangon one sees betel boxes as decoration.
When there is a family celebration, betel boxes complete with green betel leaves and necessary ingredients are one of the items put on the table along with cheroots and a dish of pickled tea. "Betel, tobacco and pickled tea"- this expression in Myanmar language bespeaks of hospitality and welcome a visitor receives in a home.
Whenever a friend or stranger crosses the threshold of a Myanmar home he is welcomed with a betel box; a small tray of cheroots and a dish of pickled tea. The host may not have all three, but there will always be the betel box. Even the poorest home in a village has a battered lacquer betel box to offer to a visitor.
Betel boxes at the royal court
           Betel boxes, bowls and trays of all sizes and shapes were important items of the regalia of the Myanmar kings. They were the status symbols of officials, courtiers and queens; one could know how somebody stood in the king's favour by the betel box he was allowed to use. The betel box offered to a visitor was a criterion of how he stood with his host.Princes and officials would offer their own betel box to a favoured guest and less ornate ones to ordinary visitors.
In courtship
Betel boxes also played an important part in courtship some fifty or sixty years ago. In those days houses had a kind of loggia for marriagable girls of the family to entertain their suitors. By sun down the girl sat there at work at her spindle; she had the betel box fully equipped with fresh betel leaves, lime, cutch, pieces of dry tobacco and betel nuts.
The young men came, in groups of five or six, and they would sit and chat with the girl. There was light-hearted banter, a battle of wits and often a game of riddles. It was the unwritten code of the time that young men must leave when the next group came along. In fact there were other girls to visit on their rounds, and such were called "bachelor rounds".
The girl had the freedom to choose whom she liked. The parents though never present at the loggia were inside the house and they might give a discreet cough now and then just to show that the girl was not unchaperoned.
Betel quid, symbol of favour
The girl had all the time and young men at her disposal to decide on. She showed her preference for a particular young man by giving him a betel quid made with her own hands. Her action would be a signal for other young men to seek elsewhere.
Betel quids were tokens of favour in those days. Once in early 19th century, a queen consort of a Myanmar king gave audience to an English merchant who presented her with gifts. The queen, as a token of thanks, gave the merchant a betel quid from her own bejewelled bowl. The Englishman, not knowing what to do, thanked her and put it in his trouser pocket.
A special royal favour - but not for the squeamish!
This caused a titter among the court ladies, but the queen went on chewing betel unperturbed. But the Englishman's ordeal was not yet over. There was yet another custom, not at all for the hygiene-conscious people, giving away the betel, already chewed to a pulp, to the best loved and most favoured ones.
The queen gave the chewed betel pulp to a princess sitting nearby and the Englishman was greatly alarmed not knowing what he should do, if the queen offered him the same favour. But the queen gave the stuff only to the princess; she did not deign to give it even to other court ladies, least of all, to an alien commoner. He had been unduly presumptious to think him self worthy of such an honour.



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