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Doma Pani
Areca nut, betel leaf and lime

Thousands of miles away from home at a conference in Japan, Ugyen Tshewang couldn't resist chewing a khamto (quid) of doma pani (areca nut and betel leaf with a dash of lime) which he had brought along, after the conference dinner.

An old woman uses a drecha to crush doma into a chewable pulp

He was enjoying the chew when a Cambodian conference delegate sitting beside him asked what on earth he was munching. As he bent closer to her to explain the beauty of chewing doma after meal, the women wrinkled her face and said: "This thing gives me a headache."

Ugyen Tshewang's grandfather, 80, toothless and a doma chewer since a boy, uses a drecha (a cylindrical wooden or metal tube and a pestle) to crush the hard nut and chew doma.

His 54-year old mother is finding it more difficult each day to crush the hard nut with her aging set of teeth, while his younger siblings have already become avid doma chewers.

Doma is an integral part of Bhutanese life culture; it is chewed everywhere, by all sections of society on all occasions.

It takes the form of a traditional offering during the auspicious Zhugdrel Phuensum Tshogpa ceremony and as casual offering or gift among strangers and friends. Often doma is also the first thing offered to a guest.


What doctors say about doma

Although no scientific studies have been carried out on the contents of the nut, doctors say that it contains arecadonic acid which is a substance, hence the addictive side of doma. "It not only gives a sort of temporary high but also makes people warm," says the senior surgeon with the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital, Dr. Sonam Drukpa.

Doma pani

Doma pani has three main ingredients: doma or areca nut (Areca catechu), pani or betel leaf (Piper betel), and tsune or lime (Calcium Carbonate).

Excessive chewing of doma could be harmful to health, according to Dr. Sonam Drukpa. "Doma diverts blood from vital organs of the body to the skin. That is why the skin gets red and the body starts heating up producing warmth."

Repeated use of doma, doctors say, will affect vital organs of the body leading to high blood pressure and stress. It also disturbs the smooth function of other vital body organs.

The impact of doma on the body system starts from the mouth. It changes the normal mucosa (the tender pink inner lining of the mouth) to an abnormal one that can lead to mouth cancer in the long run.

As the red juice is swallowed it can cause lesions of the throat wall and the intestine and stomach wall. When the juice reaches the stomach it can cause harm to stomach mucosa resulting in dysplasia leading to early stages of stomach cancer, according to doctors.

"Doma might not be the direct cause of the cancer but is one of the factors," Dr. Sonam Drukpa said. "Our clinical study of cancer patients has showed that almost 60 percent of stomach cancer patients have a history of chewing doma for a long time."

Doctors say that doma also causes significant dehydration if taken in excess. This was bad for the kidneys. It also kills taste buds and causes diarrhea if taken on an empty stomach.

Doctors strictly warn people suffering from diseases of intestinal tracts like ulcers and gastritis not to indulge in domaa chewing. "Domacan aggravate this leading to serious complications like perforations," says the senior surgeon.

However, doma might have some benefits if cleaned properly and chewed. "If chewed after food once or twice a day it could have some benefits," says Dr. Sonam Drukpa. "The lime could provide calcium supplement and also help in digestion."


Doma in the past

In Bhutan, doma chewing defies time and space, age and gender. And, nobody exactly knows how, why and when doma became such a fundamental part of the Bhutanese culture and ethos.

The earliest documented mention of doma occurs in the ceremony of Zhugdrel Phuensum Tshogpa, a lead up to important functions.

According to the Driglam Namzhag Manual published by the National Library in Thimphu, in 1637 a huge gathering of people had come with variety of food products to "pay tribute and pledge loyalty" to the Zhabdrung in Punakha.

The book says that the Zhabdrung was deeply touched and he instructed everyone to be served with "food items of droma (kaser), drizang (saffron fragrance), suja (butter tea), dresi (fried sweet rice), doma pani, and a variety of fruits"

Even today, doma is served during the Zhugdrel Phuensum Tshogpa, a commemoration of the meal hosted by the Zhabdrung in 1637.

According to the History of Bhutan by Lopon Padma Tshedwang, some early settlers of the Moen Yul ate raw flesh and skin, drank blood and brain, and chewed bones. When Guru Rinpoche arrived spreading Buddhism he tamed these people by creating a substitute; Rushing (bark of Poikilospermum, a creeper plant) substituted flesh, areca nut the bones, betel leaf the skin, lime the brain, and the resulting red spit, blood.

The Tradition of Betel and Areca in Bhutan by Francoise Pommaret, a Bhutan researcher, says that none of the visitors (including George Bogle in 1774, Samuel Turner in 1783, Kisan Kant Bose in 1815, and Pemberton in 1838) who made political missions to Bhutan at different times make a direct mention of the Bhutanese chewing doma.

Some of them, however, mentioned that the Bhutanese imported 'betel nut' from Bengal and Assam.

J. C. White, the British political officer who attended Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck's enthronement in 1907, mentions that "three kinds of tea, rice and pan were offered in turn" to the guests.

Scholars agree that doma most likely came from the neighbouring Indian states of Bengal and Assam where it grew and was chewed in plenty. Many Indian writers have drawn similar conclusions.

One Indian writer, Chakravarti, says: "The Bhutanese seemed to have picked up this habit from the people of the plains in Assam in course of their trades and raids through centuries. Bhutan draws its requirement of betel leafs and areca nuts from Assam. Betel leafs, however, grow in some quantity in the jungles of lower Bhutan also."

Is doma then an imported culture? A corporate employee who occasionally chews doma agrees. He maintains that in the olden days when Bhutanese forayed down south into the Indian border the most-looked-forward-to gift was doma since it didn't grow in the mountains.

Among the recent Bhutanese folk Documents three popular stories, Gasa Lamey Senge, Namtala and Ap Wang Drugay make a mention of doma.

What is well known is that doma for a considerable time of its use in Bhutanese society was restricted only to the aristocrats.

"The whole elaborate tradition of handling doma has come from the aristocratic customs," says Choki Dhendup, a Dzongkha editor with the Bhutanese media. "Since it had to be imported from the southern plains doma remained a luxury of the richer section of the society."

The "elaborate tradition of handling doma" involved an ostentatious style of carrying the nut and the leaf in a rectangular box called chaka, while lime had a separate circular box with conical lid called trimi. Both the boxes were usually made of silver. Those carried by the royal family and noblemen were often gold plated and decorated with intricate lotus motifs.


Doma today

Today the tradition of chaka and trimi has been replaced by kaychung, a cloth pouch.

Doma also represents an all-time gift among all strata of society. It is often referred to as trozey, a conversation starter. In the past, however, it was generally a gift from aristocrats to common people.

"Common people would be thrilled to receive a gift of doma from important figures," says Choki Dhendup. "If doma was offered from the chaka trimi it was a matter of immense pride for the receiver."

Pommaret relates from Namtala how when Namtala returned from a mission he took a gift of betel leafs to his master, the Lord of Drametse, and how his Lord accepted the gift with gratitude.

In the absence of doma people also used bark and roots of various trees like rushing (Poikilospermum) and gonra (Potentilla pendoncularis). Rushing's bark and gonra's roots were chopped into pieces and dried and chewed with a betel leaf. It produced a red juice like doma pani.

Today, however, with abundance of doma everywhere, rushing and gonra chewing is on the decline. "In fact, it has become a rare ingredient to be added in small quantities with doma," says Choki Dhendup.

On the decline is also its consumption among the younger generation. Many school-going children and young civil servants have never chewed doma in their lives.

The blood-red doma juice expectorated by numerous chewers has always been a topic of discussion. The red juice can be seen everywhere, from gutters to office corners to the walls of doma shops.

But doma nevertheless will always be indispensable to the Bhutanese. "It is a cross-society phenomenon with its use in both religious and temporal spheres," says Yeshey Lhendup, a Thimphu resident, who chews an average of 25 khamto a day.

This article was contributed by Gopilal Acharya, KUENSEL, Bhutan's National Newspaper
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