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Doma Pani: A Stimulating Experience

Like elsewhere in South Asia, chewing doma pani () is popular


throughout Bhutan. Also referred to simply as doma (), the collation
consists of a quarter or more of the areca nut (Areca catechu; doma),
betel leaves (pani or paan) as it is known in South Asia, and a dab of
slaked lime (tsuni, derived from chuna in Hindi). Scholars trace the
origin of doma substances to the Indonesian archipelago. It is said to
have reached the Indian sub-continent in the first half of the first
millennium and gained widespread use as a snack encompassing a
range of social meanings including hospitality, love, honour,
commitment, and auspiciousness. It is difficult to say exactly when the
practice of eating doma reached Bhutan but there are clear accounts
of betel leaves and areca nuts being imported into Bhutan from India in
the later part of the 18th century.

Some traditional scholars believe that betel and areca were included as
auspicious substances in the zhugdrel ceremony by Zhabdrung
Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651), the religious figure who unified
Bhutan. Others even go further to claim that the habit of eating doma,
pani, and tsuni was introduced in the eighth century by Guru Rinpoche
in order to replace the cannibalistic habits of the pre-Buddhist
Bhutanese. The betel leaf is said to substitute the skin, the areca nut
the heart, and the lime the brain of a human, and the resultant red
juice, human blood. What is clear is that both stories aim to justify the
strong Bhutanese penchant of eating doma and encourages the
consumption of doma as an important aspect of social culture. Doma is
offered as the last item among of the range of food and fruits offered
during zhugdrel ceremonies to cultivate auspiciousness and represent
auspiciousness and prosperity after almost every tea or meal during
religious rituals. It is also offered during greetings and receptions as
mark of hospitality, as gifts to express gratitude, as tokens of love, and
above all as refreshment, because of its addictive power that imparts a
heightened stimulant effect upon the consumer. Thus, doma is
ubiquitous in Bhutanese festivals and ceremonies.

Bhutanese consume two kinds of betel leaves. The rata or shingpan is


the smaller leaf from a creeper which commonly grows in the
subtropical forests of Bhutan. The trodompan is a larger leaf cultivated
in some areas of southern Bhutan but mostly imported from India or
Bangladesh. The areca nut grows in southern parts of Bhutan and in
the adjacent plains of India. Bhutanese eat both the fresh nut and the
nut seasoned by burying in the ground but the latter is generally
preferred. When they dont have areca nuts, people sometimes use
rushing or the dried bark of a creeper, peach trees, chir pine (Pinus
roxburghii) or other plants, or the gunra root as they give the same
effect of producing red juice when chewed with betel leaves and lime.
The slaked lime is either imported or made locally in Bhutan, using
rock lime extracted in Bumthang and Kengkar areas, though its
believed that the best lime is found in Chendebji, Trongsa. Sometimes,
a pinch of yellow tumeric is added to the white lime to give it pink
colour.

Traditional Bhutanese made special containers for doma consumers.


For those of sufficient means, silver containers with beautiful carvings
called chakar are used to contain betel leaves and areca nuts. The
slaked lime paste is contained in a smaller container called timi.
Bhutanese housewives often carry a small penknife which is used to
remove the skin of the areca nut and split it into pieces. When people
lose teeth and can no longer chew large pieces of the nut, a metal tool
called a drecha and a sharp knife are used to break them into small
pieces. There are also decorated bamboo or wooden containers used to
hold and serve doma, especially when it is being served to a large
number of people.

In the past, doma was an expensive and rare commodity. Thus,


important people often gave gifts of doma made into single sets called
khamto. Today, with economic development and enhanced trade with
India, doma is both easily available and affordable. Thus, many people
eat doma more frequently and gifts of doma are also given in large
quantities. Despite social and health awareness campaigns to minimize
its use due to the negative consequences it has on personal health and
social environment, the culture of eating doma thrives in modern
Bhutan. It is common to see people take out a small plastic packet of
doma when greeting a person on the road or to please an official
behind the desk. Many Bhutanese, both young and old, are addicted to
doma. They relish it, despite the resulting red lips and heavily stained
teeth.

Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden
Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History
of Bhutan.