My Fascination with the Once “Exotic” World of Paan BY SHARIFFA KESHAVJEE

Paan Leaves. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee.


Paan, commonly known as betel leaf is an evergreen and perennial creeper, with glossy heart-shaped leaves. The betel plant originated from India and South East Asia. The leaf is mostly consumed in Asia, and elsewhere in the world by some Asian immigrants as paan.

Paan Vine. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee.

Amongst the South Asian communities in East Africa and Madagascar, the vine can be found in some homes all along the staircase, and at the foot of staircases. In more luxurious homes, a paan vine would surely be creeping along the first available wall. It might not be as exotic as the jasmine and the chambeli, but it is a vital inhabitant for an Indian home.

The CHE ni Boli and Breaking the Code

In 1955 when I was young and curious to find out what happened around me, I was ready to enter the world of the adult. Paan eating and speaking in secret languages was one of those secret avenues.

Paan eating in the 1950’s was the domain of the adult. So when the older siblings were ready to go off into town to have a paan, they would say “CHE pa CHE ne,”  so that us, the young ones, could not decipher the word as it was broken up by CHE. This language was called CHE ni Boli, the secret language of CHE.

Paan Encryption in the 1950's. Image: Adapted from Wikipedia.

How fascinating! And it was spoken so fast that it took a very long time to break the code. But once you had broken the code, voila, you had crossed  the boundary and you were in the august realms of the adult!

Now it was our opportunity to dominate. We were in the sacred space of an unknown language and at every opportunity we would flout this power of the word that had put us into the heights of the supreme. What a world of power we had entered. The tight doors of entry had been broken.

So What Was It About Paan?

In the days of yore, paan was a delicacy for the rich. At the dinner events in the Raaj, after dinner, paan was passed around.

Ghiyas-ud-din Khalji, the Sultan of Mandu (r. 1469–1500), watches as tender betel leaves of the finest quality are spread out and rosewater is sprinkled on them, while saffron is also added. An elaborate betel chew or paan would contain fragrant spices and rose preserves with chopped areca nuts, folio from 16th century cookbook, Nimmatnama-i Nasiruddin-Shahi. Photo: Wikipedia.

Now this was no ordinary paan. In the leaf were ensconced many a treasures. One was a red paste for the sweet paan and a white paste for the paan with a tang given by lime paste. Then there was sesame seeds, fennel seeds, roasted to perfection, grated coconut and often a split cardamom.

Here comes another hierarchy.

Young people had a baby paan with nothing in it but some sweet paste and coconut, and occasionally some sesame seeds, called tal.

Farouk Panwalla preparing a sweet paan with a red paste. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee.

Farouk Panwalla with all the Paan ingredients before the leaf is folded. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee

Of course there were other more potent paans, which can have tobacco and other so called uplifting but damaging items.

The adults had a paan with a tang, the white paste was a chuno that gave it a tang. Not only that but the paan had sopari, a nut of a palm tree. Also called a beetle nut, the sopariis a very hard nut that requires a very special cutter called suri. There are many varieties of suris. Exotic gold ones with a jangle, silver ones in all shapes and sizes and bronze ones too.

A collection of Suris, which are used to break the sopari into smaller sizes. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee

Soon the paan traveled from the courts of Raja to plebs and peasants.

So the well to do middle class family would have a paandania silver salver that held paan.

Paandani. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee

Paandanis from the collection of the Tayab Jeevanjee family. They date back to the time when making paan at home was an event after dinner, which was presided over by the man of the house. Photo: Tayab Jeevanjee family.


Inside the paandani were silver holders, one with paste, sopari, simsim, saunf,and daal, with aromatic leaves and coconut. Needless to say the up keep of the paandani was up to the woman. She ensured that the silver was polished, the sopari was cut, and the sim sim roasted.

The head of the family had the privilege of making the paan. It was only made after dinner, it was not chewed at lunch!

The first paan would go to the head of the family and then would come the sons and mother and daughters in law and then the children with their baby paans.

What a ritual it was!

Paan Goes Commercial  from India to Africa

Paan shops mushroomed along side eating houses.

In Kisumu where I was born, I recollect a paan shop called “Rambharos Paanghar,” meaning a paan shop trusting in God.

There were many other items on sale at a paan shop, soft drinks advertised as ‘soda’ ice creams, chocolates and sweets. The die-hard paan eaters would stop at the paan shop for a chat and local gossip.

Farouk Paanwalla with complete paan. "I do not count how many paans  I make  It is my life." Photo: Farida Keshavjee

My favourite memory is of riding in the car of an avid paan eater. He would come to a traffic light stop on Salim Road. This is the main road in Mombasa. As he stopped, the paanwalla, would come out and hand him a packet. This was an evening ritual. The paan packet contained enough paan to last till the next evening.

In Mombasa, paan shops were usually neighbours of places where we could purchase coconut water and crisps. Usually an open barbecue area had a paan shop close by. It was customary to eat paan after a meal. A popular place for paan today is the Diamond Plaza which has Indian shops and restaurants as well as at least five paan shops. Hashmi’s, a very popular chicken tikka place, also has a ‘Paan Corner’. This particular one is set up with a little fountain where paan leaves float and everything is clean and cheerful.

Sopari cutters sit outside the paan shop totally engrossed in cutting soparis with a commercial sopari cutters. Photo: Farida Keshavjee.

Paan with sugar syrup, dedicated coconut, sopari, sari sopari, variari, tal and roasted dar,  all ready to pop into the mouth. Photo: Shariffa Keshavjee.

The journey of the paan chewing fascinates me. The once exotic ritual practiced in the palaces of the maharajas went domestic. Then from domestic ritual to the commercial. Paan shops and stands are everywhere, in  India, of course,  but follow the Indian diaspora all over the world. Whereas at one time the paanwalla was an Indian, with the art of making paan going from father to son, today we find many local people making paan too.

My children eat paan, will our grand children? I wonder.

Date posted: Friday, January 30, 2015.
Last updated: Tuesday, February 3, 2015.

Copyright: Shariffa Keshavjee. 2015.


Shariffa Keshavjee - empowers women in the East African nation of KenyaAbout the writer: Shariffa Keshavjee is  a philanthropist and an entrepreneur with an objective to help women empower themselves. Raised in Kisumu, she considers herself a “pakaa” Kenyan. She is now based in the nation’s capital, Nairobi. Her other interest is in visual arts where she delights in painting on wood, silk  and porcelain using water colours, oils and acrylics. She also likes writing, especially for children, and bird watching

My Fascination with the Once “Exotic” World of Paan

03 February 2015

A Mamluk Manuscript on Horsemanship

During the rule of the Mamluks who ruled in Egypt and Syria from 1250 to 1517, the presence of Crusaders coming from Europe seems to have stimulated a great interest in the military arts, weaponry and cavalry training among rulers in the Near and Middle East. The cavalry training was designed to improve the skills of soldiers who practised jousting exercises and equestrian games to prepare them not only for battle against the Crusaders but also for entertaining large crowds of spectators in specially-built stadia or hippodromes.

Add 18866_f113r
A horseman impales a bear, from Book three of Nihāyat al-su’l which gives instructions on using lances. Dated 773/1371 (Add. MS. 18866, f. 113r)

A fourteenth-century Mamluk manual on horsemanship, military arts and technology from the British Library’s collection of Arabic manuscripts (Add. MS 18866) has just been uploaded to the Qatar Digital Library. Its author, Muḥammad ibn ‘Īsá ibn Ismā‘īl al-Ḥanafī al-Aqṣarā’ī, died in Damascus in 1348. The colophon states that this near contemporary copy of the manual was completed on 10 Muḥarram 773 (25 July 1371) by the scribe Aḥmad ibn ‘Umar ibn Aḥmad al-Miṣrī, but it is not certain whether in Egypt or Syria. The manuscript came into the Library of the British Museum (now British Library) in 1852, having been purchased at the auction of the estate of Sir Thomas Reade, one time jailer of Napoleon Bonaparte (for more on the manuscript’s provenance see our earlier post ‘Sir Thomas Read: knight ‘nincumpoop’ and collector of antiquities’). A very similar illustrated copy of the same work, dated 788/1366, is preserved at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin (CBL Ar 5655).

Add 18866_f292r
The colophon giving the name of the scribe Aḥmad ibn ‘Umar ibn Aḥmad the Egyptian (al-Miṣrī) and the date of completion as 10 Muḥarram 773 (25 July 1371). Although the scribe was Egyptian, it is not certain whether the manuscript was copied in Egypt or Syria (Add. MS 18866, f. 292r)

The title-page names the work Nihāyat al-su’l wa-al-umnīyah fī ta‘allum a‘māl al-furūsīyah (‘An End of Questioning and Desiring [Further Knowledge] concerning Learning of the Different Exercises of Horsemanship’) which is an example of furūsīyah, a popular genre of mediaeval Arabic literature embracing all aspects of horsemanship and chivalry. The manuscript itself deals with the care and training of horses; the weapons which horsemen carry such as the bow, the sword and the lance; the assembling of troops and the formation of battle lines.

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Diagram of a parade ground (Add. MS 18866, ff. 93v-94r)

This early dated manuscript from the Mamluk period is a veritable treasure in itself containing some of the most magnificent examples of Mamluk manuscript painting. It includes eighteen colour paintings depicting horses, riding equipment, body armour and weapons and twenty-five instructive diagrams on the layout of a parade ground, dressage and various military insignia. Beyond the military and equestrian arts, the paintings in this manuscript are full of details relating to contemporary costume and decorative style. It is one of the highlights of the British Library’s illustrated Arabic manuscripts and is notable also for its beautiful calligraphy and tooled leather Islamic binding that is likely to be contemporary with the manuscript.

Add 18866_bindingBrown goat-skin binding with envelope flap decorated with blind-tooled circular designs on both covers and flap; probably 8th/14th century with signs of later repair (Add. MS 18866, binding)
Below is a list of the manuscript’s eighteen paintings. For most of them the author provided his own captions which are given below. Please click on the hyperlinks to see the full images:

Add 18866_0201
(f. 97r) ‘Illustration of two horsemen whose lance-heads are between each other’s shoulder-blades’.

(f. 99r) ‘Illustration of a number of horsemen taking part in a contest, their lances on their shoulders’.

(f. 101r) ‘Illustration of a horseman taking part in a game with a lance, the lance-head being in his hand and its shaft to his rear’.

(f. 109r) Without caption; a horseman carrying two horizontal lances.

(f. 113r) Without caption; a horseman impales a bear with his lance.

(f. 121r) ‘Illustration of a horseman performing a sword exercise’.

(f. 122v) ‘Illustration of a horseman with a sword in his hand and his sleeve wound over his hand as he rises out of his saddle and strikes with the sword’.

(f. 125r) ‘Illustration of a horseman with a sword in his hand with which he strikes from the horse’s ear as far back as its right croup’.

(f. 127v) ‘Illustration of a horseman with the edge of the sword under his right armpit, the hilt in his left with the reins’.

(f. 129v) ‘Illustration of a horseman with a small shield around his neck and a sword in his hand which he brandishes to left and right’.

(f. 130r) ‘Illustration of a horseman with a hide shield over his face, the sword edge under his right armpit and the hilt on his left’.

(f. 131v) ‘Illustration of a horseman with an iron helmet on his head, with a sword. A fire is lit on the helmet, the sword blade and in the middle of the shield’.

(f.132v) ‘Illustration of a horseman with a sword in his right hand, its blade on his left shoulder and a sword in his left hand whose blade is under his right armpit’.

(f. 134r) ‘Illustration of a horseman with a sword in his left hand and its tip under his left arm pit’.

Add 18866_f135r
(f. 135r
) ‘Illustration of two horsemen wheeling around, with a sword in each one’s hand on the horse’s back’.

(f. 136r) ‘Illustration of a horseman with two swords and two small hide shields, on up at his face and the other in his hand with the sword’.

(f. 138v) ‘Illustration of a horseman with a lance in his hand which he is dragging behind him, and a shield in his other hand’.

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(f. 140r) ‘Illustration of four horsemen, each one with a sword and a hide shield, and each one carrying his shield on his horse’s croup’.

Further reading

G.Rex Smith, Medieval Muslim Horsemanship: A Fourteenth-century Arabic Cavalry Manual, London, The British Library, 1979.

Abul Lais Syed Muhammad  Lutful-Huq, A critical edition of Nihayat al-sul wa’l-umniyah fi ta’lim a’mal al-furusiyah of Muhammad b. ‘Isa b. Isma’il al-Hanafi, Ph.D. diss., School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1955. Download free from British Library Electronic Theses Online Services (ETHoS).

D. Haldane,  Mamluk Painting, Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1978.

E. Atıl, Renaissance of Islam: Art of the Mamluks, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press 1981.

Colin F. Baker, Lead Curator, Middle Eastern Studies

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