The ubiquitous red-stained lips and blackened teeth associated with betel chewing are sported by one-tenth of the human race and one-fifth of the global population. The custom pervades Asia, yet it is hardly known outside of the continent. It has no sex barriers and embraces all ages and classes. Even though it has long-established roots in Asian culture, history of the custom relies mainly on oral tradition, probably because it is most prevalent amongst the agrarian population. Since the eleventh century, however, the royal use of betel in South-East Asia is described in written records which provide a rich source of details about the protocol of sharing a quid with a king and the use of betel in royal ceremonies.From the sixteenth century onwards, when Europeans reached the East, accounts include descriptions of the royal use of betel but the custom has consistently been misrepresented by early western travellers who wrote about it, either from their own observations or those of others.
The custom, so alien to foreigners, was viewed from a western perspective. Nearly all of them were repelled by it and called betel chewing an ‘…unhygienic, ugly, vile, and disgusting…’ habit. Even the name given to the custom by Europeans, ‘betel-nut chewing’ is a misnomer. The term is incorrect because an areca-nut, not a betel-nut, is chewed.
Numerous English language dictionaries continued to retain ‘betel-nut’as an entry until recently, but today most references to the custom are defined correctly under ‘betel’.The geographical parameters of betel chewing encompass an area of 11,000 kilometres east-west and 6,000 kilometres north-south and include the Indian subcontinent, Sri Lanka, and all of South-East Asia. The boundaries extend to the eastern coastline of Africa to Madagascar in the West; Melanesia to Tikopia (in the Santa Cruz Islands) in the East; southern China in the North, and Papua New Guinea in the South [see map in book, Betel Chewing Traditions in South-East Asia, p.l 1].