Khandaani paandaans of Hyderabad
The paandaan is a small box with fitted spoons for storing the essential ingredients. To this day a Hyderabadi begum’s saliqa is judged with the way she keeps her paandaan, writes Lotika Ramchandani

Think of the professional paanwalla in our major metros, his gesticulating hands leaping, a conductor’s baton over gleaming stainless steel dabbas to orchestrate that perfect paan. For customers on the run, he will even offer paan masala in polypack sachets.
At one time the paandaan used to be a status symbol for the nawabs and begums in Hyderabad and Lucknow
At one time the paandaan used to be a status symbol for the nawabs and begums in Hyderabad and Lucknow

But that was not the case of in the land of nawabs of Hyderabad and Lucknow, especially in the former citadel. Paan-chewing had attained a hallowed status in pre-Independence years, as in the absence of the need to earn a living, leisure for the nawabs and begums was the art of keeping busy an elaborate, gracious way of life, in which how one did something was as important as why one did it.

Perhaps nothing exemplifies this idea as clearly as the etiquette of Hyderabadi paandaan which can be roughly translated as the art of offering/chewing paan. The word paandaan itself refers to the elaborate containers in which all the ingredients were kept.

The Moghul emperors relished the practice of eating paan. By the end of the 17th century, a paandaan was given as a royal present to ambassadors and nobles. Strangely, the seventh nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan, was more fond of paandaans than paan. Knowing this, on the silver jubilee of his rule, his vassals used to present him with gold paandaans encrusted with diamonds.

The processing of paan itself was honed to a fine art. To this day a Hyderabadi begum’s saliqa is judged with the way she keeps her paandaan. Wedding invitations were delivered with paan, supari and elaichi. When a baby was born the good tidings were conveyed with paan and clove. You are blessed with the words “may your paandaan be never be empty.”

Hyderabadis were so enamoured with paan that the affluent provided a paan servant along with a magnificent paandaan when daughters were married off, with a special allowance known as kharchi-e-paandaan (betel box expense).

Usually the paandaan was a small box with fitted spoons on a removable tray for storing the essential ingredients. There’s one for chikni—a processed supari; another for special spices such as elaichi-laung; others that hold katha and chuna, not to mention three types of zarda. To serve these individually in little pinches, one never used one’s bare fingers but separate mango-shaped miniature implements poetically called chutki.

The size of the paandaan began to increase until it came to weigh as much as 20 to 40 pounds. Just as the joke ‘the larger the turban, the greater the learning’, so also the larger the betel box, the greater was the status and grandeur of the owner.

Today in 2008 Nawab Mir Jaffar Abdullah of Lucknow, who traces his lineage back to Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the last ruler of Awadh, has one weighing 35 pounds, all silver. One begum from Hyderabad stated in her memoirs that her grandmother’s paandaan was a huge silver chest on wheels and there was a young servant whose sole duty it was to ply it in and out. For those on the go, there were smaller, more compact paandaans, called bididaans. Side by side with the paandaan, you had three more utencils, two of them exquisitely made filigree containers known as the nagardaan. The betel leaves were washed and kept in the nagardan, a silver box with a cover usually the shape of a leaf, and was placed next to the paandaan. The khasdaan was a dome-shaped receptacle for keeping freshly made paans. The third was the ugaldaan—a big   jug of silver/ brass /steel (not transparent and very heavy so that it does not  fall over)  usually placed in the corner of the room or on a side of the room where one can spot it and spit out the chewed paan.  

Preparation of paan was an art in itself. There were basically four types of preparations —meetha, sadaa, kimam and zarda. While the first two don’t use tobacco, the other two are meant for tobacco lovers. Meetha and sada paan had a sweet flavour and were taken as a mouth freshener.

Alas, the paandaans are today only used as a family treasure to pass it on to the next generation. Though the culture of paan is alive in the shops of paanwalas in cities, there is one thing that has definitely vanished from the elite households of India—the paandaans. — MF