The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Betel Quids


Other Names


Asia’s chewing gum, betel, betelbissen, betele, betelpriem, betelpriemchen, bulath, paan, pan, pán, pan masala, pin-lang, pynan, sirih, supari, tambul, tembul


Betel quids consist of essentially three ingredients: betel nuts (Areca catechu), betel leaves (Piper betle), and slaked lime, to which other ingredients (masala) are almost always added. About half of betel quid preparations call for mixing in specially treated (e.g., limed or fermented) tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) (Gowda 1951, 196), as well as an assortment of spices and other psychoactive substances (see the table on page 735). These mixtures can be varied to change the taste or to produce specific effects.

The oldest recipe that is known to us from the literature was passed down by Sushrata, the first-century founder (or at least one of the founders) of the Ayurvedic system of medicine. He lists as ingredients betel leaves filled with broken betel nuts, camphor (Cinnamomum camphora), nutmeg (Myristica fragrans), and cloves and adds that intelligent people chew betel after a meal.

In India, there are veritable gardens of betel, in which betel palms are cultivated together with betel pepper. The pepper plants climb up the stems of the palms, and the space between the palms is used to grow the spices added to the quids.


A betel palm plantation. (Copperplate engraving, nineteenth century)


Slaked lime, which is indispensable for increasing the effectiveness and absorption of the active constituents, is obtained by burning mussel shells, conch shells, river snail shells, coral, or limestone and then dousing the ashes with water.

Today, an estimated 450 million people worldwide chew betel (Roth et al. 1994, 141*). Betel chewing is found throughout India, Nepal, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), the Maldives, the Nicobar Islands, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, southern China, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, and Melanesia.

There is evidence suggesting that people have practiced betel chewing for more than twelve thousand years. Archaeologists excavating the Spirit Cave site (in northwestern Thailand) have unearthed fragments of betel nuts, traces of a Piper species, and gourds, all of which suggest the use of betel. Radiocarbon dating has indicated that these finds are between 12,000 and 750 years old (Gorman 1972; Seyfarth 1981, 562).

Betel chewing has a long tradition in India, perhaps one of the longest in the world. In addition to its ritual use, betel is chewed hedonistically for its stimulating effects. Mentions of betel merchants date back to the late Vedic period (Moser-Schmitt 1981).

Great quantities of betel are chewed in Varanasi (Benares). Small betel shops and the stands of betel sellers (pan vala) can be found wherever one goes. Both freshly made betel (pan)—typically spiced according to the customer’s particular wishes—and hygienically packed mixtures (pan masala), of which there are many brands and makers, are available. These packages cost between 0.75 and 1.50 rupees each. While it is difficult to predict whether these factory-made betel blends might displace the traditional betel, it is rather unlikely.

Although the effects of betel were formerly described as narcotic, the opposite is actually the case; betel has stimulating effects (Charpentier 1977) and, in general, a primarily parasympathomimetic action (a “muscarinic character”). It promotes salivation, suppresses hunger and thirst, and can also act as a laxative. Betel has stimulating effects upon the central nervous system. The strongest action (on the central and peripheral nervous systems) begins six to eight minutes after chewing a quid (Chu 1995, 183). The Trobriand Islanders say that betel produces sensations of heat, increased perspiration, and feelings of happiness. These euphoric feelings are more powerful when unripe betel nuts are used in the blend (Jüptner 1969, 371). Internationally, betel is considered not to be “addictive” but to “structure social behavior” (Charpentier 1977, 117). “Betel makes the ears hot, the face red, [and] the eyes blurry and produces a mood like drunkenness, at least that is what the Chinese texts state. It is believed that betel is a remedy for malaria” (Eberhard 1983, 39).


Fresh betel leaves sit on the table of a betel merchant, while the bowls and tins in the foreground contain the other ingredients. (Photographed in Varanasi, India, 1995)


In the eighteenth century, European observers came up with the idea that betel chewing causes cancer. In Sri Lanka, a disease known as “betel chewer’s cancer” was recorded in the literature (Charpentier 1977, 110). Even today, it is often claimed that extensive and regular chewing of betel over years or even decades can increase the risks of or even cause mouth or tongue cancer. Sen et al. (1989) summarized the results of the studies that have been carried out to date. These indicate that only those betel quids that contain tobacco exhibit these characteristics. Among betel chewers who have never used tobacco as an additive, the carcinostatic action of the betel leaves (Piper betle) appears sufficient to protect the mucous membranes of the mouth from cell damage, an effect that presumably is due to the formation of cytotoxic N-nitrosamines when the leaves are chewed (Sen et al. 1989). The slaked lime and the catechu have also been attributed with carcinogenic effects, although these views are based solely upon animal experiments.

The notorious red coloration that betel chewing imparts to saliva is thought to be a product of areca red, a phlobatannin. This phenol-like substance is a constituent of Areca catechu and turns red as a result of the slaked lime (Heubner 1952, 17*; Roth et al. 1994, 140*).

Slaked Lime


(lime, quick lime, calcium hydroxide)

In Sri Lanka, slaked lime is known as huna or chunam and is produced by burning mussel shells, freshwater snails, coral (hirigal/hunugal), and, in rare cases, limestone in large kilns. This lime is used not only for betel chewing but also to build houses, in agriculture, and as a paint pigment. The slaked lime used for betel chewing is sometimes colored with powdered yellow turmeric (Curcuma longa L. [syn. Curcuma domestica]; Zingiberaceae); coconut oil is added to keep the lime from drying out and becoming hard (Charpentier 1977, 111).


In Nepal and India, pieces of betel nuts (Arecha catechu) and anise seeds (Pimpinella anisum) may be chewed together in place of betel quids. This mixture is used mainly after meals as a digestive aid. (Anise plant; woodcut from Gerard, The Herball or General History of Plants, 1633)


“A man went to the pig hunt. He sat down under a tree on which a betel pepper plant was growing. He bit through the stem in order to use it as a rope. Coincidentally, he had at the time a betel nut and lime in his mouth and saw with astonishment how his saliva became red. He realized that this color was made by mixing the pepper plant with the nut and the lime. He also found that the mixture now tasted better and it took away the biting sharpness. The stem was very tough, but then he discovered the fruit of the betel pepper. He tried them and noticed that they caused the same effect but were much better to eat.”






In Melanesia, the third ingredient in betel chewing, lime, is produced primarily by burning conches or mineral limestone. For the coastal inhabitants, mussels and coral species naturally offer themselves, while inland groups use chiefly limestone and, when available, river snails; the Yimar in the southern Sepik region provide an example. They first cook the mussels until the shells can be easily opened and the mussel flesh can be removed [and eaten]. The shells are then air-dried, wrapped in sago leaves, bound with rotang [palm fibers], and burned. The burned shells are crumbled by hand and dissolved in water, and the coarse lime powder is wrapped again in leaves to dry, until it is finally put in the lime container. (Seyfarth 1981, 563)


In Taiwan, a so-called red lime, a mixture of lime and catechu, is available and used in betel (Chu 1995, 183).



The paraphernalia associated with betel are expressions of specific cultural characteristics and the cultural significance of betel (Beran 1988), and they are often artistically and splendidly produced. Siamese and Thai kings used only betel instruments made of gold.

The following tools are traditionally used to prepare and consume betel (Brownrigg 1992):


Betel scissors (tong, giraya, girri).

Betel chopper (bulath wangediyawanggedi moolah kaimili). The betel chopper is a kind of tube with a built-in chopping knife to cut the betel nuts. It is often used by older people without teeth.

Betel presentation plate (ilah thattuwaheppuwa). Presentation plates are used primarily on ceremonial occasions.

Tobacco box (dumkola heppuwa). These small, right-angled boxes or chests are made from a variety of materials.

Lime box (hunu killotayayagumasunnadu dabbi). Lime is usually carried in a small bottle with a stopper to which a spatula or spoon is fastened with a band or a chain. Very large lime boxes also exist, but they are used only for ritual occasions. In Melanesia and other areas, lime is stored in bottle gourds (Lagenaria spp.). e Lime spatula (kaiaku). In Melanesia, the lime spatula is sometimes the only betel-chewing tool. It is usually made of an animal or bird bone (e.g., from a pig or cassowary), but it can also be made from the leg bone of a deceased family member. The spatula is used especially when chopped betel nuts and pieces of betel leaves, rather than a betel quid, are being consumed. In this case the spatula is used to continuously add lime to the mouth (Seyfarth 1981, 564).


On the Trobriand Islands, which are part of Papua New Guinea, the making of lime spatulas has developed into a high art. Here, they are usually carved out of hardwood (ebony) or, less frequently, from tortoise shells, and they bear depictions of snakes, birds, and crocodiles or of ancestors (Jüptner 1969). Betel utensils were once also made from the bones of ancestors:


In former times, it was common for the son to remove individual bones from his dead father’s corpse, to make this into a kind of “reliquary,” and to save it: the skullcap became a lime container, pieces of the shin or arm bones were used as lime spatulas. Such reliquaries were passed down in the family for a time and then finally placed on a rock overlooking the sea. (Jüptner 1969, 375)


Symbolic and Ritual Use


The Dayak of central Borneo, like nearly all the peoples of the Malaysian archipelago and the islands of Southeast Asia, use betel as an agent of pleasure and as an important element in ritual activities. The Dayak have a detailed conception of what happens to the soul of the dead in the afterlife. After dying, the soul travels on a ghost ship into the next world, which is connected to the world of the gods and ghosts. This ghost canoe is filled with all sorts of status symbols and other valuable objects. The most important of these are the betel utensils (betel scissors) and betel leaves and nuts. If the deceased person chewed betel constantly during his lifetime, then his soul will be able to indulge in this pleasure in the afterlife for all eternity. The betel-laden ghost ship is frequently depicted in the cult drawings of the Dayak (Seyfarth 1981, 560 f.).

Betel chewing often plays a great role in maintaining social dynamics (quite similar to the roles played by Camellia sinensisCannabis indicaCatha edulisCoffea arabicaErythroxylum cocaNicotiana tabacumPiper methysticumalcoholbeer, and wine):


The offering of and the communal chewing of betel can strengthen partnerships, seal negotiations, and end conflicts and is not infrequently a firm component of peace treaties following feuds and wars. The areca nut itself is the very symbol of friendship and peace. (Seyfarth 1981, 566)






The betel pepper vine (Piper betle) prefers to climb shade trees. (Woodcut from Gerard, The Herball or General History of Plants, 1633)


“An invitation to chew betel: Here, a small areca nut and a withered betel leaf. Take it, it is from me, Xuan Huong, I have just prepared it. If our two fates should join themselves together, then may these betel quids color themselves deep red.


“They should not remain green like the leaf, white like the lime.”



In Ceylon, it was customary for rulers to have a special “royal betel,” which was made by a special betel preparer and was constantly offered to the king (Charpentier 1977, 109). The king had the privilege of enjoying betel quids with pearls that had been powdered or burned to ashes.

The natives of the Trobriand Islands have a betel ceremony called kakaui in which many people gather together and, within the span of one to three hours, consume large quantities of betel quids. The amount of betel they share is calculated based on the number of people in attendance and the amount of betel to be consumed by each. Eight, ten, or twelve betel nuts are used per person (Jüptner 1969, 371).

Betel quids, as well the objects used and needed for their preparation and consumption, often have symbolic and ritual significance. In Ceylon, it was customary to carry around a betel presentation plate during wedding ceremonies. The hairdresser who shaved and bathed the groom before the ceremony was rewarded with a roll of seven betel leaves (Piper betle), seven silver coins, and seven slices of betel nut (Charpentier 1977, 110). Betel is also a ritual wedding gift among the minorities of southern China (Eberhard 1983, 39). On the Trobriand Islands, a man typically brings a woman he is pursuing or his lover betel nuts or tobacco when he meets her (Jüptner 1969, 376).

Betel quids often carry sexual connotations. In Melanesia, the betel quid or the betel nut alone is given as a sign of sexual desire and is used for love magic. The ground betel mixture is painted onto arrows to enhance their accuracy, rubbed onto fishing lines in order to improve the catch, and smeared onto hunting fetishes in order to utilize the spirits that live in them. When sprayed onto the belly of a pregnant woman, the betel mixture is supposed to induce labor and make the delivery easier. Betel saliva, spat into the wind, is supposed to dispel rain and storms; spat onto the grain, it is supposed to encourage the growth of the soil.


Nepalese betel scissors for chopping the hard betel nuts.



A lime container, one of the traditional betel utensils, from Timor.

Ready-Made Mixtures (Pan Masala)


In India, ready-made betel mixtures are increasingly competing with traditional betel quids. None of these industrially packaged betel mixtures contains betel leaf (Piper betle). The precise ingredients are listed on the back of each package. Such mixtures contain the following ingredients:

betel nut

Areca catechu


Acacia catechu (cf. Acacia spp.)


calcium hydroxide


Elettaria cardamomum


presumably synthetic (cf. Cinnamomum camphora)

menthol sandalwood oil

from Santalum album


presumably Carthamus tinctorius


Nicotiana tabacum


no precise specification

“permitted spices”


no precise specification410


About half of the available products contain tobacco.

Some of these products are exported (primarily to Nepal). Apart from a mild stimulation, a suppression of the effects of hemp, and the promotion of digestion, I have not been able to perceive any particular psychoactive effects (Rätsch 1996).

The packages feature the caution “Betel chewing may be injurious to your health.” A traditional Ayurvedic medicine to cure “betel addiction”411 recommends chewing a few leaves of tulsi (= holy basil; Ocimum sanctum) after a meal instead of the customary betel quid (cf. Ocimum micranthum). These too promote digestion while simultaneously alleviating withdrawal symptoms (Rai 1988, 117). In Southeast Asia, tulsi leaves are sometimes chewed as a betel substitute (Macmillan 1991, 424*).



The seeds of other Areca species are occasionally chewed in place of betel quids (see Areca catechu). Sometimes the bark, leaves, and roots of entirely different plants (which the literature unfortunately does not botanically specify) may be used as surrogates (Charpentier 1977, 115).



See also the entries for Areca catechu and Piper betle.


Beran, Harry. 1988. Betel-chewing equipment of East New Guinea. Shire Ethnography, no. 8. Aylesbury, U.K.: Shire Publications.


Brownrigg, Henry. 1992. Betel cutters, from the Samuel Eilenberg Collection. London: Thames and Hudson.


Charpentier, C.-J. 1977. The use of betel in Ceylon. Anthropos 72:107–18.


Chinnery, E. W. Person. 1922. Piper methysticum in betel chewing. Man 22:24–27.


Chu, Nai-Shin. 1995. Sympathetic response to betel chewing. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 27 (2): 183–86.


Eberhard, Wolfram. 1983. Lexikon der chinesischen Symbole. Cologne: Diederichs.


Gorman, C. F. 1972. Excavations at Spirit Cave, North Thailand: Some interim interpretations. Asian Perspectives 13:79–107.


Gowda, M. 1951. The story of pan chewing in India. Botanical Museum Leaflets 14 (8): 181–214.


Grabowsky, F. 1888. Das Betelkauen bei den Malaiischen Völkern, besonders auf Java und Borneo. Internationales Archiv für Ethnographie (Leiden) 1:188–91.


Hartwich, Carl. 1905. Beiträge zur Kenntnis des Betelkauens. Bulletin va het Koloniaal Museum te Haarlem 32:49–97.


Huu, Tien, ed. 1985. Augen lachen, Lippen blühen: Erotische Lyrik aus Vietnam. Munich: Simon & Magiera.


Jüptner, Horst. 1968. Klinisch-experimentelle Beobachtungen über intensives Betelkauen bei den Eingeborenen der Trobriand-Inseln. Zeitschrift für Tropenmedizin und Parasitologie 19:245–57.


———. 1969. Über das Betelnusskauen auf den Trobriand-Inseln (Neuguinea) und den Versuch einer Klassifizierung der Kalkspatel. Baessler-Archiv, n.f., 17:371–86.


Krenger, W. 1942a. Kulturgeschichtliches zum Betelkauen. Ciba-Zeitschrift 7 (84): 2922–28.


———. 1942b. Über die Wirkung des Betels. Ciba-Zeitschrift 7 (84): 2942–47.


———. 1942c. Zusammensetzung und Zubereitung des Betels. Ciba Zeitschrift 7 (84): 2929–41.


Lewin, Louis. 1889. Über Areca catechu, Chavica betle und das Betelkauen. Stuttgart: Enke.


———. 1890. Über das Betelkauen. Internationales Archiv für Ethnographie 3:61–65, Leiden.


Millot, J. 1966. Le bétel au Népal. Objets et Mondes (Paris) 6:153–68.


Moser-Schmitt, Erika. 1981. Sozio-kultureller Gebrauch von Betel in Indien. In Rausch und Realität, ed. G. Völger, 2: 546–51. Cologne: Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum für Völkerkunde.


Rai, Yash. 1988. Holy basil: Tulsi (a herb). Ahmedabad, Bombay: GALA Publ.


Rätsch, Christian. 1996. Pan Masala: Betel aus der Tüte. Yearbook for Ethnomedicine and the Study of Consciousness 4 (1995): 289–92. Berlin: VWB.


Rooney, Dawn F. 1993. Betel chewing traditions in South-East Asia. Images of Asia series. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.


Schomburgk, R. 1868. Die Arekanuß und das Betelblatt als Reizmittel in Siam. Globus 14:120–21.


Sen, Soumitra, Geeta Talukder, and Archana Sharma. 1989. Betel cytotoxicity. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 26:217–47. (Contains an extensive bibliography on the pharmacology.)


Seyfarth, Siegfried. 1981. Betelkauen in Melanesien. In Rausch und Realität, ed. G. Völger, 2:560–66. Cologne: Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum für Völkerkunde.


Stöhr, Waldemar. 1981. Betel in Südost- und Südasien. In Rausch und Realität, ed. G. Völger, 2:552–59. Cologne: Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum für Völkerkunde.


True, R. H. 1896. Betel chewing. Pharmaceutical Review 14 (6): 130–33.


“Betel illuminates the spirit and dispels worries. . . . Whoever uses it will be filled with joy; he will have a perfumed breath and a sound sleep. . . . Betel takes the place of wine for the Indians, who use it often.”






“The groom, the bride, and a woman of the barber caste participate in a certain ritual procedure. The barber woman cuts in the little finger of the left hand of the bride with her nail clippers so that blood comes out. This blood is put on betel, which is then put into the mouth of the groom. In this instance betel is the pleasant packaging for another important thing, the blood of the woman, with whom he enters into a fictitious blood relationship.”