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Vol. 19 No. 2 - April 2013

Betel-Vine (Piper Betle) A Pan-Asiatic Cultural Plant
In The Process Of Reclaiming Its Past Glory

By: Nikhil Kumar*

Plants are integral part of life and human dependence on plants is too well known to emphasize. Besides providing food shelter and clothing it also provides oxygen which is essential for all aerobic life forms including humans. This absolute dependence has been recognized by different cultural Diasporas round the world. Some of the ancient cultures have integrate many plants than those which evolved later, for example, the culture born out of industrial revolution which considered everything as exploitable resource be it humans, animals or plants. While this approach accelerated rapid changes (growth depending on definition), it very much failed to integrate plants to culture. This was noticed by one of the founding fathers of America (USA) Thomas Jefferson who observed “the greatest service that can be rendered to any nation is integration of plants to its culture”. With respect to cultural integration of plants the distinct divide is visible between North and South and East and West.

Integration of plants to culture grants autonomy to individuals (of that society) so far as its use is concerned and may also offer protection from introduction of taxes by the state as the plant being a commodity acquires a status beyond it. Cultural integration of plants therefore is also a most effective way to judicious use and an effective conservation.

Present day India (and more so for undivided India) is also a unique place in Asia (may be in the whole world) where all the practicing religions of the world today, exists and thrive. With this diversity of faiths there are also sets of cultural plants. Interestingly some of such plants cut across the religious divides (it must be emphasized that in spite of the extra efforts by the bigots and also petro money from foreign lands; the divide have not harmed the society significantly so far) and patronized by the two major faiths in India. Piper betle (PB) is one such plant that is the symbol of love, civility and respect for both the major religious groups in India. Its heart shape leaf and how deep the lips and tongue becomes reddish due to chewing is considered as the depth of love as goes this saying ‘Paan ka rang mohabat ka rang”. In almost all the written languages of India there is a word for PB; largely derived from Sanskrit and also in Dravidian languages. The Latin name PB is derived from Malayalam. Thus, PB is the rightful national symbol and assertion of cultural bonding in India and the carved out states in the past due to the well known imperialistic machinations. In the past due to the well developed trade links PB was also patronized by the Arabs and Persians as there are words for PB in both the languages having Sanskrit roots showing the introduction PB earlier to the advent of Islam.

Before going through the properties which makes its cross cultural acceptance it may serve a great purpose to make an analysis that why its use has declined over years. India was a British colony in the recent past (just a generation back if 50 years is considered for generation change) and their interest lied in making us consumers of their products and a source of raw material. It will be useful to recall how cigarettes were promoted and made a whole generation to believe that modernity meant cigarette smoking. Cigarettes being industrial product generated profits to a few in the name of enterprise and free economy irrespective of health issues and in the name of free multiple choice different brands were offered and promoted in the name of modernity. It was only after millions and millions of deaths world over due to tobacco, primarily, due to smoking cigarettes, it is now being slowly withdrawn. This is one example to illustrate what aggressive free trade with the sole motto of profit can do to humanity. Something similar is also happening in Indian context where recently introduced Pan Masalas (due to similar set of factors) causing serious health issues but surviving due to tax payment to the state and organized industrial activity. This will go as modern India’s contribution to human misery similar to cigarettes once promoted by Europe and USA.

In this is the age of organized trade where packaging and marketing plays a great role in the trade which is also promoted and protected by state due to revenue generation through taxes. The total tax revenue in PB trade is either very low which makes state unwilling player so far this plant is concerned. In other words state is not a stake holder and it is largely left between grower and consumer to manage on their own. It may be a unique case where a non-food, non-spice plant with no narcotic effect has acquired such a great importance that nearly 600 million people use it every day; a number second only to coffee and tea. It is not only the number but the extent of spread makes it a truly pan-Asiatic cultural plant as its cultivation/consumption goes from as far as extending 11,000 km west to east and 6000 km north to south, an area stretching from east Africa to Polynesia.

This underscores the faith of users and also realization of overall beneficial effects. PB is a plant with known ethnomedicinal properties and its use in India and other centuries of Indochina region- Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Kampuchea, Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore and far-east. Use of PB leaf was known for centuries for curative properties such as: to reduce/get rid of bad bodily odor and bad breath, throat and lung problems, cough prevention and healing, to reduce unwanted vaginal secretion and bad smell, to prevent itch problems caused by fungus and internal/external bacteria. In Chinese folk medicine betel leaves are used for the treatment of various disorders and claimed to have detoxication, antioxidation, and antimutation properties. It may be mentioned that the traditional health systems recognized the value of PB and discovered many uses. Several tribes in India still use it for curing and protecting from different ailments and several of the claimed PB uses have been validated over a period of time. Some of the work done earlier did show the useful effects of PB including a sense of well being. PB use involved chewing, ingestion and topical applications.

Though the beneficial effects of PB were known to the communities for more than 3000 years, its validation was seriously taken up in last twenty years. This could begin only after demonstration by a group led by Dr Bhide, a lady scientist (they have greater faith in traditions than male counterparts) working in Tata Memorial Hospital & Cancer Research Institute demonstrated presence of anti cancer compound in the leaves. This is considered to be the turning point in PB research which opened the field of investigation in PB. In last fifteen twenty years almost all the activities outlined in Shushrut Samhita and also based on ethnomedicinal uses has been validated. The activities shown are The leaf extract, fractions and purified compounds showed role in oral hygiene, anti-diabetic, cardiovascular, anti-inflammatory/immuno-modulatory, anti-ulcer, hepato- protective and anti infective etc. Patents were also awarded for some of the biological activities like anti- inflammatory, anticancer and immunomodulatory associated with leaf extracts and purified compounds. The active compounds isolated from leaf and other parts are hydroxychavicol, hydroxylchavicol acetate, allypyrocatechol, chavibetol, piperbetol, methylpiperbetol, piperol A, and piperol B. Phenols rich leaves of PB show high antioxidant activities. A number of biologically active compounds from PB have potential for use as medicines, neutraceuticals and industrial compounds. Since the traditional use of PB involves chewing, it offers possibilities of its use in drug delivery through buccal mucosa bypassing the gastric route.

Abuse of anything is bad so is the case with PB, its excessive use can lead to tooth decay, loss of appetite and other problems. It has been recommended that the best time to use PB is just after meals as it is claimed to help in digestion. It is also advised to use PB while going to attend any function or meeting as it is a very good mouth freshener and suppresses bad breath. Use of PB has been also recommended by Vatsyayana in Kama Sutra to be aphrodisiac.

Besides array of biological activities associated with this plant there is another first to its PB. The plant is native of tropics and once its properties were recognized and cultural integration it became essential to transfer this plant to not so favorable climates in the subtropical regions of India. Cultivation of PB in such regions lead to the evolution of whole set of technologies for cultivation which was recently recognize as first fully controlled cultivation in the world. This technology though based on totally naturally available materials it is as effective as the modern high material and energy intensive cultivation which has the history of not more than hundred years compared to almost 2000-2500 years for the humble hut evolved for PB cultivation. The message is that do not reject everything that is part of traditions, pause, examine and if not useful only then reject it and not because of opinions shrouded in the garb modernity. No aping, believe in science and the ability of your analysis!

*Former Scientist, CSIR-NBRI, Lucknow (India) <[email protected]>

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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