In the 1960s John Lennon, along with his dynamic band created Beatle mania among music fans. Long since the “fab four” had ceased to play, a different betel mania has steadily invaded the quiet town of Alawwa.
This has led to a betel pola (open air market) held every Tuesday and Friday. My colleague Vipula and I set out exactly at midnight from Colombo in search of this lesser known trading venue. After a long, but quiet drive, we reached Alawwa at 2.30 a.m. We had to wait patiently for another hour. By 3.30 am we saw the first signs of life, a small tractor with a dim headlight slowly making its way.
The tractor halted. We approached. The old man eyed us with curiosity, mildly alarmed at the high tech camera Vipula carried. Another worthy, Aruna Shantha, boldly walked up to us. He introduced himself and thus began our lively chatter which lasted about half an hour.
Betel cultivation in this town is a full time job for some, and for others like school teachers, it is an income yielding hobby! The betel is a vine belonging to the piperaceae family. It is known as Nagavalli in Sanskrit.
The betel is grown in plots, and thankfully, does not attract any pests such as, bats, nor are they threatened by herds of elephants that usually invade any cultivation. A mature plant can live upto almost 10 years or even 12. The green leaves are picked by hand every 15 days and gently sorted out as per the size of leaf.
As we talk, a few other vendors join us. Production is somewhat low in January and February, but improves during May and June. I was surprised to find that a certain kind of betel named kalu bulath – is grown and sent to China.
This variety is popular in Kuliyapitiya. Aruna Shantha tells me that betel sales and its demand will increase in April owing to the Aluth Avurdu (New Year) where it is customary to venerate elders and parents offering them a sheaf of fresh betel leaves.
By 4 a.m., about 70 to 80 vendors begin pouring into the market square. Some are old men, a few youth and a couple of women too. They use bicycles, three wheelers and tractors to haul in their produce.
The betel is packed in a large round handmade basket called a “thattuwa”. This basket is covered and cushioned with dried banana leaves, and the betel leaves are mildly sprayed with water to retain their freshness.
The thattuwa has two categories, the large one has around 4,000 individual leaves and the small one contains between 2,000- 1,800 leaves.
As we watch, the chief of the auction, a well nourished man, calls the auction to order and walks around each basket aiming his flashlight (it’s 4 in the morning). Prices are discussed in dulcet tones, as some smile and some seem disappointed. An individual large leaf of top quality sells at Rs 3 and a small leaf at Rs1.50. Areca nuts (puwak) are sold by lots of 100, with each lot selling at Rs 150. On this particular day there weren’t any vendors selling puwak.
By 5 a.m. the auction is over, and the thattuwas are now loaded into the tractor to travel to Colombo and other regions of the island. This was the fastest, yet, the quietest auction of any kind I have witnessed, like a precision drill. By 5.30 a.m. the market square is empty, with no trace of the fascinating bargaining and selling that took place here. As we left Alawwa, the rest of the town was still immersed in silence, as the first radiant rays of sunlight begin to permeate the darkness.
Source of illness
I asked some vendors if chewing betel causes any form of oral cancer, they remained silent. One robust man, his own teeth stained red by chewing is quick to point out that it is the dried tobacco leaf eaten with the betel that was the source of illness! A pouch of betel in Colombo sells at Rs 35. (Sunday Observer)