While walking on the street, especially on places like the bus stand, you will notice everywhere red/orange colour spots on the surface. It is the juice which is spit out by people who chew betel nuts, a custom which has been practiced in South and South East Asia for ages. It is made as a set, called ‘bulathvida’, consisting of a cracked betel nut, some chewing tobacco and lime paste. The contents is rolled into a betel leaf and put into the mouth to chew. It is used as a tonic stimulant. The red substance spreads all over the mouth and covers the tooth like paint. Regularly chewing betel nut might have consequences for one’s health, because it may cause cancer. Some people prepare the bulath themselves, but you can also buy it in grocery shops and the local restaurants (hotels).
Betel leaves have a long tradition in the Sri Lankan culture. A sheaf of betel is associated almost with every important event and milestone in the life of a Sri Lankan Singhalese person. It is used in welcoming, showing reverence, communicating good and bad news and demonstrating give and take. In the rural society even today a visitor to the house is welcomed by offering betel leaves from a tray. Sharing betel is a sign of companionship. The tray of betel leaves cuts across all social distinctions. It is an expression of equality. It is also a sign of affection. The betel is offered by the young to the elders as a symbol of respect. A person should offer it with the stem away from one’s self. Sometimes he may go down on his knees, once the sheaf is accepted. On the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year’s Day it is customary for the young to offer a sheaf of betel to the elders and worship them. The chief guest for a cultural function would be invited with a sheaf of betel. A student on his first day in school and after the New Year offers a sheaf of betel and worships his or her teacher. Betel is significant in the performance of a Singhalese marriage. Relatives are invited for weddings with the betel leaf, like an invitation card. A family will get as many leaves as the number invited. At ceremonies when money is exchanged, the money would be on a betel leaf or wrapped in it. This adds dignity to the deed. This is because till recent times the Sri Lankan society held no respect for cash. In the past, Buddhist monks and Ayurvedic physicians were never offered money.