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Taamboolam: The tradition behind the exchanging of "supari"

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Taamboola Poorita Mukhi
Daadimi Kusuma Prabha !
114[SUP]th[/SUP] sloka.

The aura of the reddened lips, with voluptuous smile, because of the mouth filled by Taamboolam is an adjectival phrase by which Goddess Lalitha is worshipped in the Lalitha Sahasranama Stotram, occurring as a discussion between Hayagriva and Agasthya in Sri Brahmanda Puranam.

This is one of the earliest references to Tamboolam. She is described as a friend by the end of the sloka , ‘mitra rupini’. She will undoubtedly bestow whatever is prayed to her by the devotee.

“Pugiphala Samaa yuktam Nagavalli Dalair Utam
Karpoora Choorna Samyuktam Tamboolam Parigruhyataam”

‘Pugiphala’ is a Sanskrit word for areca-nut, more commonly known as ‘betel nut’. ‘Nagavalli dalam’ is the Sanskrit word for tender betel leaves, known as ‘vetrilai’ in tamil.

“Accompanied by areca-nut, betel leaves and a chooran (powder) of camphor and other spices, oh Lord, please do partake, in return, the tamboolam.”

Why ‘Parigruhyatam’ and not merely ‘gruhyatam’? This is a mantra in daily pooja to the Gods, after ‘Naivedhyam’. This is followed by tamboolam, which is offered to the God in return, obviously the devotee is binding the God for a favour to be done. In other words, Naivedhyam is just an offering, while tamboolam is a ‘contract’ !

Chewing the mixture of areca nut and betel leaf is a tradition, custom or ritual for thousands of years, from south Asia to the Pacific, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, Bhutan, Taiwan, Myanmar, Cambodia, the Solomon Islands, Thailand, Laos, the Maldives, Indonesia, Phillipines, and Vietnam. It is not known how and when the two were combined to act as a psycho-active drug, but the fact that they were used to bind a contract, more particularly in love or wedlock, seems to be evident as a tradition in many of these countries, the areca-nut playing a more important part, since the combination is called ‘Tamboolam’ and not ‘Nagavalli’ (betel leaf).

Where areca-nut plays only a secondary role, the two are taken together with a tinge of slaked lime (chunnambu, more orthodox families do not even mention its name and call it ‘mundravadhu’- the third) and various spices. In North India, it is called Paan, where different spices like camphor, saffron, gutka (kattha in Hindi), elaichi, lavang, etc. are added. Paan in lucknow or Benaras costs as much as Rs. 500/- or Rs. 1000/- each, depending on the ingredients, including swarna bhasmam (gold powder), silver foil etc. In dry form, it is available in small sachets as paan-masala or supari and is called ‘gutka’ when mixed with tobacco. The chewing of paan, among lovers, acting as a mouth-fresher and muscle relaxant, is different from the custom when the same areca-nut is exchanged between two parties as taamboolam.

The word Taambool for the areca nut is Sanskrit (also called poogi phalam in Sanskrit), is used now only in Assamese, though in a slightly corrupted form, as ‘Tamol’. The equivalent words in some of the other languages are :
- Supari or Sopari in many of the North Indian languages, and in Nepal.
- Pakku in Tamil
Similarly the betel leaves are known as :
- Nagavalli in Sanskrit
- Vetrilai in Tamil

What is important to note is, that, even as milk and sugar, when mixed with coffee is called only coffee, and not by the name of the other contents, when betel leaf is offered together with areca nut, it is called tamboolam and not nagavalli, etc; then it becomes a potent culmination of a contract. Let us see:

· We already saw how we pray for favours from the ‘Tamboola Purita Mukhi’, goddess Lalitha.
· We also saw how the deities are prayed for return favours for Taamboolam offered to them.
· At the end of any ritual, carried out with the help of a priest, we say ‘sadakshinaakam sa taamboolam naanaa gotrebhyo brahmanebhyo tebyah tebyah sampradadey’ – “I give to the Brahmins of assorted different gotras, the dakshinai and tamboolam , and , in return, credit the punya of the rituals to my account. Of course, we end up further by saying that everything done is to Lord Janardhana and not mine – a high form of sacrifice.
· In marriage betrothal ceremonies, taamboolam plates are exchanged between the parents of the bride and groom, which seals an irrevocable contract of marriage.
· Towards the end of the wedding ceremonies, tamboolam is offered by the bride and the groom to each other in their mouth. This is one of the 25 important angas of the marriage, and is called ‘Taamboola carvanam’, and forms the penultimate part of the entire wedding ceremony, before asirvadam. The couple use it not only as a breath freshener, and mild intoxicant towards each other, but also as a vow that each is made for the other for the rest of their life.
· In marriages or other auspicious functions ‘Tamboolam bags’ necessarily containing areca nut and betel leaf, besides other things, are offered to the guests, who by acceptance, automatically assure their blessings to the host and family, again a contract.
· The practice of exchanging Taamboolam for contracting a deal or wedding exists outside India also.
· In Vietnam, the areca nut and betel leaf are such important symbols of love and marriage that, in Vietnamese, the phrase “matters of betel and areca (chuyen trau cau)” is synonymous with marriage and explains the folklore of their tradition.
· Malay culture and tradition offer guests betel nut and betel leaves, the same way as one offers drinks to guests now. The Malay proverb “Bagaikan pinang dibelah dua” loosely translated means like the two halves of newly weds, who are one, but only physically divided.
· In the Indian subcontinent the chewing of betel and areca nut dates back to the pre-vedic Harappan period.
· In Assam, it is a tradition to offer Paan-Tamol during religious and marriage ceremonies, when it is the role of a fertility symbol.
· Tambool, in its Hindi / Marathi / Gujarati name, as supari, we all know the deadly implications of acceptance of supari; It is a contract, for defacing a person, removal of a limb, or even killing, known as ‘supari killing’. This needs hardly to be dealt with in greater detail.

In sum, Taamboolam, areca nut, either alone or together with betel leaf has been a material for vow and contract, with God, human relations, striking a marriage deal or the deadly supari killing, all over South and South-East Asia, for many thousands of years. It has far deeper significance than we superficially understand.
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Very well presented sir for the benefit of members. Indeed you have explained in detail and very clearly the

importance of tamboolam.This would be a sort of reference for posterity.

pc ramabadran
If presented with the history of cultivation of the ingredients, their chemical compositions, the neurotoxicity, carcinogenic potential and other details, it would qualify for a Master's thesis. The religious and ceremonial parts are presented well.
Hello ,a well stated op , but regarding health point of view , when betal leaf ,nut,slaked lime its known as QUID, without tobacco ,but when it is consumed with tobacco its known as GUTKA ,GUTKHA ,GHUTKA.people go in for self compromise stating that its stimulant ,relaxation effect ,laxative so and so forth .but it will surely lead in to deadly effect as 1. PRECANCEROUS CONDITION OF MOUTH---ERYTHROPLAKIA ,LEUKOPLAKIA 2.ORAL SUBMUCOUS FIBROUS OSMF.3.ORAL CANCER -LIP ,TONGUE,MOUTH ,PHARYNX,OESOPHAGUS. 1.condition where red or white patches can be seen inside mouth which cannot be wiped off.2.OSMF-stiffens of pink soft lining of inside mouth.3 .when the above stated is not be treated ,,ignore ,usage of gutka ,it leads to oral cancer. precancerous condition are generally ,reversiable conditions only when the usage of tobacco in any form is completely stopped ,can return to normal,near normal in due course of time .so please think to stop the usage of tobacco in any form I mean this as a Dental Surgeon to our members. if this thread brings a change to even one person i feel the happiest to do my duty .take care life is priceless. I thank DR.S.Ramathan sir for a chance to share the valuable of health.
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Very beautiful presentation by Dr. S. Ramanathan. Regularaly consuming thamboolam will cause rattha sogai and tasteless tongue. It is good for occassional consumption especially after heavy meals.
I have heard the "paakku" has a quality to suck out 'water" (perhaps mucous) from your larynx, pharynx, oeosophagus, etc. (of course without tobacco - the most maligned nature product). அளவுக்கு மீறினால் அமிர்தமும் விஷம் என்னும் சொல் எல்லாவிடத்திலும் பயன்படும் என்று நினைக்கிறேன்.ஒருவருமே பயன்படுத்தாத போது, தாம்பூல தட்டு எதற்கு? கௌளி வெற்றிலை சாப்பிட்ட காலம் போய்விட்டதே. இரண்டு வெற்றிலை இரண்டு ரூபாய் ஆகிவிட்ட காலம் இது? ஆண்டவனுக்கு படைக்க மட்டும் இரண்டு போதுமே
முன்னால் சென்றால் முட்டுகிறது பின்னால் சென்றால் உதைக்கிறது.

This is the situation right now with our rituals and practices. For the sake of health you have to avoid chewing pAkku (mostly it abrades the epithelium of the oral lining) and veTrilai. But if you don't buy these the vendors who depend on this for a living will suffer. So you buy those and dump them. Since you use them for the ceremony part it is not a "real" waste.

Likewise if you avoid doing upanayanam or other ceremonies either because we don't believe in its virtue or it is all getting mechanical from the vendor (purohit) side where will those purohits go to make a living? This is the only profession they know and they are in it because they thought there is demand for their services. Yes it is all getting diluted. I am sure the practice will fade in due course when the number of vendors decreases (sensing the trend) and the number of consumers diminishes because they lose interest.

Really a $64K question---isn't it?
Mr. Mahakavi,

When tobacco was found to the cause of cancer, it has been literally wiped out of market. People dependent on tobacco farming and cigarette making suffered badly. But in the interest of grater good, some others suffered. Similarly if Tiger has to survive Dear, and some cattle will be lost.

There is some collateral damage of any action.
A very interesting article. My father, who always took tamboolam minus tobacco, to my mother's resentment after lunch and dinner every day had all his 32 teeth very strong even at 72 when he died.
I am happy to read all the comments and thank the contributors. But, no observation reg he "Supari contract" either for good or for bad!
In a layman's language, prayoga sastram from out of Dharma Sastram, we have certain
concepts. Though the God, whom we pray or worship is invisible to us to our naked eyes,
we keep a picture of the Kula Deivam or Ishta Deivam representing the God and do pooja.
We offer Neivedhyam along with Thamboolam, etc assuming the physical representation of the
God i.e. formless Almighty in our Prayer/Pooja. As a token, when we do Pooja, the thamboolam
which is offered to the God, is given to a person as Thamboolam for completion of the worship.
This is one aspect.

Another occasion is that we give Thamboolam after serving food in marriages or functions, etc.
There is a continuous practice for many years offering Thamboolam both to women and men
after a function. According to Ayur Veda, chewing the betel leaves with other herbs after
a sumptuous food, is considered as a healthy habit for digestion and improvement of health.

My understanding is that Tamboolam is a contract either with God or with Humans.On accepting, one is duty bound to honour that, as the Supari killings indicate!
Regards, Ramanathan.
Dear Mr. Sai Deo,
Thank you very much for your xhaustive list of references. They further augment my statement about the contract aspect of Taamboolam.
In fact, even a century back, the gifts in marriages in villages, were all prearranged and considered as an interest free loan, so as to reduce the huge burden on the bride's father all at a time. He repays it back to the other families when similar occasion arises.
Regards, Ramanathan.
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