Old man with betel pounder

This stylized wood carving of a seated old man was probably made in the 1930s. The man is depicted with a betel (or sirih) pounder and bag. Betel pounders were mainly used by old people who no longer had their own teeth, so that the nut and other ingredients could be pounded to a pulp and then more easily enjoyed. The pounder itself is therefore also a symbol of old age.

Betel chewing was widespread in Bali and offered to guests as a sign of welcome. The basic ingredients are betel leaf, areca nut and lime powder (from burned sea shells). Other ingredients, such as tobacco and spices, could be added to make it more fragrant. Betel chewing reduces the appetite and turns the teeth (and mouth) red and if they are not cleaned eventually black. It was also useful for Balinese women to color their lips red before the introduction of lipstick. And it was thought to be a cure for bad breath and to make people strong.

After the introduction of cigarettes most people stopped chewing betel. It’s central role in Balinese culture is still evident in the use of the three main betel ingredients in almost all offerings and ceremonies; the colours symbolising the colours of the three main Hindu gods. The red areca nut symbolises Brahma, the Creator; the green betel leaves symbolise Wisnu, the Preserver; and the white lime symbolises Siwa, the Destroyer.

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