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Traces of the Past of Betel and Pinang

The nyirih tradition is now only left in a traditional society, which incidentally is slightly exposed to modernity projects or intensive westernization processes. The nyirih tradition provides wisdom about the journey of the disconnection process and at the same time the continuity of a tradition from the past.

Even though the tradition of chewing betel nut is now only a small phenomenon in the midst of society, for those who have visited remote parts of the country – from Sumatra, Sulawesi, or eastern Indonesia such as East Nusa Tenggara to Papua – it is certain that this habit will still be encountered.

The culture of chewing betel nut which is often referred to in many regional languages, among others, “ nyirih ”, “ nginang ”, “ bersugi ”, “ scaly ”, “ sepah ”, or “ nyusur ”, at least until now still seems to be commonly practiced by the older generation, both men and women, in some areas.

The exact origin is not known. It is said that the tradition of consuming betel and areca nut has started since the Neolithic era. About 3,000 years ago, it has become a habit of the people of Southeast Asia.

There is an opinion that the tradition comes from India. However, another view says that this tradition probably originated from the archipelago. This is based on the assumption that areca nut and betel are believed to be native to the Indonesian archipelago.

In addition, considering the importance of the position of betel nut for Indonesians, it seems that it has reached a deeper level than in other regions around Asia. This is reflected in the presence of the betel nut tradition in almost all rituals. Even according to the records of Anthony Reid (2018), from birth rituals, initiation of maturity, marriage, to death; from rituals and healing practices, to ritual offerings to ancestral spirits.

It can be said, in the past chewing betel or betel nut in Indonesia was not a matter of individual preference, but a necessity of social rites for every adult. Not offering betel, or refusing to betel when offered, will even be labeled as an insult.

Interestingly, in all regions in Indonesia, the ingredients for betel nut are also relatively similar. In general, there are three main elements of betel nut, namely areca nut, betel leaf, and whiting which in Indonesian is usually called “injet”, which is sometimes obtained from crushing clam shells.

What can be said to distinguish this tradition in various regions in the archipelago is in the form of beliefs that accompany the tradition. However, despite these differences, areca and betel nut since thousands of years seem to have been glorified in local Indonesian cultures.

Vocabulary and Rituals

Images of the past from flesh-seated phenomenon nut tradition nyirih do not only have strong indications for a second term in the diversity of this material, but also stick in traditional wedding ritual practice in the archipelago.

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Pinang and sirih are terms in Malay, or pineung ”and“ ranub ”in Aceh,“ jambe ”and“ suroh ”in Javanese,“ banda ”and“ chanangˆ ” in Balinese,“ rappo ”and“ leko ”In Makassar,“ alossi ”and“ ota ”in Bugis, and“ hena ”and“ bido-marau ”in Ternate; and so on.

Associated with traditional wedding rituals, from the Malay language this term is included in modern Indonesian. Pinang, woo, which means to propose or ask someone to marry; proposal means asking for an engagement.

It seems that it has long been interpreted that the combination of betel and areca nut is a symbol of intercourse or marriage. Areca nut is considered to represent the “hot” element and the betel leaf represents the “cold” element.

In Aceh, this symbolization uses betel leaves. In the Acehnese language, ba ranub means “to give betel” which means “to give love”. An Acehnese man in the past divorced his wife by giving him three betel nut leaves.

In the Makassar language, leko passiko which means “a pack of betel leaves also means submitting an application. There the bride’s mother performs the ritual of betel nut at home with the bride and groom on the first night; after the birth of a child, the new mother and her in-laws perform the ritual of betel nut together.

In the Panggih ceremony, Javanese wedding customs, for example, are known for a series of rituals that present betel leaves as equipment, namely during the “balangan suruh” procession. Here the betel leaf will wrap the betel nut, whiting, gambier, and black tobacco then tied with lawe thread.

The Javanese call the betel roll as gantal . The balangan suruh or gantal ceremony is the moment of this panggih ritual, a pair of bride and groom will throw orders to each other as an example of the bride and groom throwing love and hope at each other.

In fact, today, among people who have abandoned the use of betel, it is often still found a set of artificial bronze or silver betel leaves displayed among the wedding utensils, and handed over as a kind of knick-knacks for this ritual purpose.

Historical Records

The longevity of the  betel nut tradition of the Indonesian people is at least illustrated in one of the reliefs at Borobudur Temple (8th century) and Sojiwan Temple (9th century). The relief shows a place for betel and a place for spitting (dubang) as well as sculptures of people chewing beside them, which archaeologists interpret as chewing betel.

According to the records of Anthony Reid (2018), during the Tang Dynasty (7-10 AD) there were many references from China who wrote about the use and export of areca nut from an area that was suspected to be Indonesia. ChanJu-kua notes that in the 12th century Po-ni (Brunei?), betel was often used in wedding rituals and palace ceremonies. Meanwhile, Ma Huan reported on Java since the early 15th century.

In China itself, the term pinang during the Tang Dynasty was “pin-lang”, which is thought to be strongly taken from the Malay language, “pinang”. This at least shows that the area that was once dominated by the Kingdom of Sriwijaya (Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula, and west Borneo) is the source of this commodity.

Until the 16th-17th centuries, according to Anthony Reid, many records of the betel nut tradition were found in almost all places in tropical Asia. Even because betel was one of the items of expenditure that was considered important, the money bag received by Dutch slaves in the 18th century was referred to as siriegeld (“betel money”).

Nyirih can be said to be a medium of manners for guests in the palace or village. Similar to the function of tea, coffee, or cigarettes today. Not only that, betel is also a symbol of the main ritual, digestive medicine, toothpaste or mouth freshener, or as a sedative or even an antidote to hunger.

Tome Pires in the 16th century in The Suma Oriental has this to say:

“ Nyirih helps digestion, calms the brain, strengthens teeth, so that men who chew it usually have intact teeth, none of which are missing, even until the age of eighty. Those who are betel quid have a fragrant breath, and if they don’t chew for a day their breath becomes very smelly.”

Several ingredients as additional ingredients in nyirih , referring to the writings of Anthony Reid, include camphor, cloves, nutmeg, amber (ambergris), cardamom, and deer oil. According to him, this additional material has been written in Sanskrit literature since the first century AD.

But in the course of gambir and tobacco also become additional ingredients in the tradition of nyirih . It can even be said that since the end of the 18th century, these two additional ingredients plus betel, areca nut and injet, have become a common standard in the betel nut tradition .

It is interesting to note, the strength of this betel nut tradition made Europeans who lived in the Dutch East Indies before not escape also adopting this habit. The perception that betel nut is good for dental health seems to be also believed by Europeans at that time.

Anthony Reid noted that the Dutch in Batavia began to abandon the habit of nyirih from the mid-18th century, although the women still practiced it until the 19th century. This habit disappeared after a new trend emerged in the habit of nyirih , namely stuffing tobacco into the mouth after the first saliva came out. The habit of betel nut looks disgusting to Europeans.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the cultural differences between Europeans and Indonesians became sharper. Today, for Europeans, the habit of chewing tobacco and spitting mouth-plugging tobacco is seen as a sign of the inferiority of the Indonesian people.

Entering the 20th century, in line with the spread of western education, it seems that it is closely related to the abandonment of the habit of betel nut . The whole image of modernity constructed by Dutch education contradicts the activity of nyirih .

In Bugis and Makasar, for example, in 1900 almost everyone chewed , but in 1950 almost no one did that. When the Bugis and Makassarese buy betel, it is done for the requirements of the marriage ritual and not consumed.

In Java, Bali and Sumatra, like the impact of colonialism, talking about the impact of “modernization” seems to take place more gradually. Since 1903, only a few Javanese regents have been nyirih , although nyirih utensils are still carried around in formal events and traditional rituals.

In addition to the educational aspect, it is also important to mention fashion as a factor causing the loss of the betel nut tradition .

Throughout the 19th-20th centuries, cigarette consumption was imaged as part of modernity. Meanwhile , nyirih is increasingly seen as dirty and unhygienic behavior. Yes, like it or not, cigarette consumption is one of the important factors that has an impact on shifting the habit of betel nut in the social behavior of people in Indonesia.

Whether we like it or not, now the nyirih tradition is only left in a traditional society, or call it indigenous peoples, which incidentally has been slightly exposed to modernity projects or intensive westernization processes. From this betel nut tradition , the lessons that can be learned are lessons from the journey of the discontinuity process and at the same time the continuity of a tradition from the past.

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