Betel Leaf: Malay Culture

sireh9 (1)DURING my childhood years, one of happy occasions which I remember vividly was when neighbours came over and asked for betel leaf (daun sireh) from mom’s garden because it signified happy social event was about to happen.

Before I proceed, all the information here are a mixture of my own observations which is very limited, and my mother’s narratives. In her ripe 80s now, my mother is culturally inclined as she grew up while all these practices are still dominant. The rest are gathered from the Internet.

Pictures here are for illustration and education only and I don’t claim ownership of any of them.

One of the most significant presence of betel leaf in Malay community is how the fresh leaves are used in the making of a Tepak Sireh. For the uninitiated, a Tepak Sireh is essentially a metal or wooden container that is used for storing betel leaves. These fresh leaves are meant for chewing and have been an important part of the Malay culture since the ancient times. The container, to keep the leaves as well as all the ingredients and accessories for making the betel leaf relish, is generally made of metal but can also be made from wood at times.

Generally, the tepak sireh ( betel leaf cases) will feature uniquely selected items such as tobacco, betel nut, lime (locally known as kapur), extract from gambier plant leaves, betel leaves and a kacip or nutcracker. Except the nutcracker, all the items are contained in 6 different compartments, known as cembul. The betel leaves are arranged inside the container in a group of 5 to 7 pieces that are folded together neatly. All the other ingredients are placed in a very organized and systematic way. Precise sections of Tepak Sirehs are designated for holding different ingredients.

In the old day, the act of receiving and offering a complete Tepak Sireh has a very strong significance for both the receiver and the giver. Each ingredient in the container has a special significance.

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The way sireh leaves behave in their natural environment and the characteristics they display have led to these being viewed as a symbol of respect for fellow beings. The kapur or lime, being white in color, reflects the purity of heart and nobility which, when disturbed, can also turn bitter like the kapur tang. Honest and integrity are symbolised by the betel nut, which comes from a slender and tall palm tree. The nut is also a symbol of heritage or noble descent. Tobacco is often viewed as a symbol of bravery and the willingness to make any and every sacrifice when needed.

In the past, there were people who would chew this concoction because it was believed to be good for the teeth as well as overall oral hygiene.

The sireh chewing tradition was also the determinant of what was polite, acceptable and to a certain extent, what was beautiful. Today, sirih consumption is associated with bad habits and backwardness.

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The other occasion in which fresh betel leaves are used generously is in a Malay wedding. It is a must-have in the forms of Tepak Sireh and Sireh Junjung/Dara respectively.

Traditionally, leading to a Malay wedding ceremony, the potential bridegroom’s representatives would carry a betel leaves set (tepak sireh) to offer to the parents of the prospective bride. If this was returned unused, it was understood that the proposal had been declined, thus saving everyone any embarrassment. On the other hand, if the sireh set was returned consumed, it was a message of acceptance.

On the wedding day, sireh leaves neatly arranged in tiers with flowers called the sireh junjung (pic, right), decorated the wedding dais. Guests would be given the Malay potpourri, the bunga rampai wrapped in sireh leaves.

However, nowadays, this practice is hardly being carried out as most couple have already met and know each other well before they decide to get married.

But majority of weddings still retain some of the traditional elements such as tepak sireh and sireh junjung (a traditional arrangement of betel leaves used in Malay weddings and welcoming ceremonies)

The traditional betel leaves being arranged beautifully with and accompaniments with beautiful flowers, better known as the ‘Sireh Junjung’ or ‘Sireh Dara’ in Malay is the main component of the ‘Hantaran’ or a dowry. A sireh junjung arrangement is a must item for the wedding gifts ‘hantaran’,

The Sireh Junjung is the one from the groom and is normally taller than the Sireh Dara as it symbolises the new role that the groom will be taking – the role of the head of the family, the highest position in a brand new family that will be established.

The ‘Sireh Dara’ on the other hand is from the bride and traditionally it symbolises the chastity of the bride. However, nowadays it is normally used as a decoration piece and placed on the main dias ‘Pelamin’.

Unlike sireh chewing habit which hardly being practiced today, the sireh junjung/dara is still very much being included in Malay wedding. Although sireh still plays a symbolic role in Malay weddings and other social ceremonies, much of the knowledge of its traditional uses has been forgotten. Sadly, much of its cultural heritage has been lost, save for the sireh sets and their paraphernalias, now served as testimonials to a bygone era… A

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