Revered with a regal adoration, the paan is a constant reminder of the Mughal Sultanate that had once united the entire nation. Today, it sits in the dark alleys of Northern India with nothing but a red stain to follow its journey. Playing a major role in politics, medicine, culture and even lovemaking, Paan has had quite a few intense adventures.
Be it Banarasi, Calcutta, Hyderabadi or Magahi, the story began about 5000 years ago before Betel nut (Supari) or Betel Leaves (Paan) made their way to India. These trees were recorded to have grown in Thailand (10,000-7,000 BC). In the Philippine sea, the Chamorro people, indigenous to the Marina islands, were also known to deliberately chew betel nuts, a process associated with high status CHamorus.
Paan's journey to India began with the arrival of Betel nut and leaves on the southern shores of the nation. Au contraire to popular belief, Paan made its way to India much before the establishment of the Mughal Dynasty. This can be proven by tracing Paan's etymology: the name, "Betel" roots itself in a Tamil and Malayalam word, "Vetille".
Paan however, was never mentioned in our Vedas (composed during 1500-1200 BC). It does make itself known in the Jataka tales ( 300 BC-400 AD). By the time our epics such as Mahabharata (400 BC) were introduced, Paan became a lifestyle.
1350 AD: A Moroccan explorer, Ibn Batuta made his way to India (during the Tughlaq Dynasty). By now, the Delhi Sultanate had ruled for Paan to be ingested after every meal. There began Paan's association with the Mughal Dynasty.
Being patrons of music, art and dance, it wasn't uncommon for paan to be featured at every gathering. Since Islam frowned upon alcohol and its consumption, opium (afim)-smeared paan became a necessity at these venues. Kothe (bordellos), when lit up with music, kathak (dance form) and ghunghroo (bells), set the stage for hookah, paan and ittar (Arabian fragrances) to be experienced by the elite and the Tawaifs (prostitutes).
With the arrival of the British, these talented artists were colloquially named Prostitutes, thus sentencing them to a life of poverty and humiliation. But these women were so revered that they played a major role in teaching many younger generations tehzeeb (refinement) and adaab (politeness).
One would think that leading a life of a "prostitute" would be to sacrifice one's consent and beliefs but it was just the opposite: paan here, played not only the role of consensual congress but also as letters that were exchanged between lovers.
To attend a performance at the kotha didn't guarantee sexual activity. Only if a specially prepared paan was presented by the Tawaif to the intended and accepted, could sexual congress proceed. Paan, as mentioned earlier,was also intended as a love message, sent secretly to one's lover to avoid any prying eyes.
The varieties of Paan are innumerable, each representing a particular purpose: from a makeout invitation by the river, under the moonlight (Ankush paan: the end of the triangle resembled a hook to indicate the need to hook-up) to even getting rid of one's dinner guests, so as to enjoy the festivities privately (cinnamon-scented paan).
I hope this account of the adventures of love led by Paan gives you the courage to explore the 64 arts of seduction.
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