You’ve heard of the expression, “It’s the little things that count.” You know, those “little things” that add the special touch and essential nuance to every gesture and intention. And little things count even more when they turn out to be little “big” things, like these Khmer silver-coloured boxes.
A friend gave a similar Khmer box as a gift — a gift whose artistry and cultural background is highly appreciable (and appreciated!). What wasn’t obvious then was the cultural meaning of the piece in its contextual place within traditional Khmer society.
Cambodia has a betel-nut chewing tradition similar to many other countries in the same region (e.g., Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc.) and elsewhere, like India and Africa. The practice of betel-nut chewing is prehistoric and presumed to have originated in Southeast Asia. Although betel plants were thought to be indigenous to the Philippine islands due to its geographical diversity in that area, the practice of “betel nut chewing”, as noted above, has a much, much larger historical distribution with extraordinary significance on both mundane and consequential events. (http://www.lasieexotique.com/mag_betel/mag_betel.html)
Betel nut chewing has a special importance in the societies in which it is practiced. Being offered a betel nut “chew” upon entering a household is a sign of welcome. It is also a sign of good faith, as betel nut chewing is part and parcel of family gatherings and is used for receiving dignitaries, as well as being crucial in intimate negotiations, such as for marriage. More often, betel nut chewing is just part of daily life — as an expression of hospitality, as a soothing reprieve at the end of a long workday, or as a relaxing activity after a meal. Thus, chewing on the betel and areca nut combination has become an integral part of individual and social life. (http://www.lasieexotique.com/mag_betel/mag_betel.html, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Areca_nut)
This “betel nut chew” that is so essential to daily interaction is actually composed of a few ingredients. Generally, the nut being chewed is the “areca nut” from the areca palm. This nut is then cracked and sliced, then wrapped in a roll of betel leaf, along with a dollop of lime paste (calcium hydroxide, not the citrus fruit). (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Areca_nut, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calcium_hydroxide) Chewing tobacco is sometimes added to this combination, but this addition is a relatively new phenomenon.
Since a “bêtel nut chew” is not a one-ingredient operation, it is natural for paraphernalia to be developed which allow people to store and carry the ingredients to have on hand at all times. Aside from the fruit (areca), betel leaves, tobacco, and lime paste, nut cutters are also needed, and a serving tray for presenting the ingredients to visitors, such as the one below from the Philippines:
“A container or implement has evolved for every ingredient and process connected with the preparation of betel in Indonesia. There are boxes with or without lids, individual containers (sometimes in the shape of the fruit mangosteen) for the nuts, the lime and spices, elongated holders for the leaves, tweezers for picking up and mixing, cutters for the areca nut, a small flat spoon for the lime as well as spittoons.
The most common materials are brass but other sets are made out of wood, palm fibre, split rattan and even tortoiseshell. In Lampung there are exquisitely beaded sirih boxes. In Palembang there are red lacquer sets and silver boxes come with chains to facilitate carrying. In the Javanese kraton (sultan’s court), the sirih set was usually made of gold, sometimes studded with gems or decorated with exquisite repousse or stained gold work. Sometimes it is made of other metals inlaid with gold. So central is the custom that the sirih set forms part of the essential court regalia. The king’s retinue always included a slave or a servant who carried the master’s betel box.” (http://www.lasieexotique.com/mag_betel/mag_betel.html)
Some examples of betel nut sets include those made of wood, brass, mother of pearl, silver, and, in royal courts, gold. In Cambodia, the storage, carrying, and serving of betel nut chewing ingredients often came in metal containers or boxes which reflect the social position of the family. Silver sets, in particular, were indicative of wealth and status:
The prized accoutrements found in the sets also came in the form of animals from the Chinese zodiac. Many tourists travelling through Cambodia delight in taking one home because they are so cute and detailed. The craftsmanship and handiwork are exquisite. And, if you don’t use them as betel-nut holders, you can use them as jewelry boxes, coin holders, and will also make excellent and unique presents for your loved ones.
Don’t forget to pick up your very own betel nut box when you find yourself strolling through the markets in Phnom Penh, Jakarta, or elsewhere in the betel-nut chewing world. You would be taking a piece of history and indigenous tradition with you.
This little thing really is quite a precious big thing when you think about it.
Vireak, K. (2009). Khmer Silverwares. Phnom Penh: UNESCO & Reyum Publishing. Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0018/001879/187953e.pdf
For another information source on Khmer society, you could visit http://0-muco.alexanderstreet.com.libra.naz.edu/view/329037