From time immemorial, tepak sirih (betel leaf container) has traditionally found a place in almost every ceremonial institution of the Malays as well as in social gatherings. Today, it is also used as a decorative item and one of the various exotic Malay handicrafts.
According to a local folk story, during the Malacca Sultanate era sometime in the 15th century AD, there was a huge fight between the most illustrious Malay hero known as Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat, his childhood playmate. Hang Jebat has betrayed the late Sultan Mahmud, ruler of the Malacca Empire at that time. Hang Tuah has offered a betel leaf from a tepak sirih owned by the late Sultan to Hang Jebat after they stopped for a while in their huge fight before he finally killed Hang Jebat.
In general, tepak sirih contains seven uniquely selected items: betel nut, lime (kapur), extract from the leaves of gambier plant (gambir), tobacco, betel leaves and nutcracker (kacip). All of the items except kacip are kept in six different smaller containers known as cembul.
The betel leaves are arranged in a group of five to seven pieces folded together. All ingredients are placed accordingly and are not done haphazardly. There are precise sections of the tepak sirih that hold the ingredients. A complete set of tepak sirih reflects Malay life as a whole and the value placed by the Malay community upon traditional customs (adab) and codes of behaviors. To some, the folded leaves symbolize unity.
In Malay tradition, the act of offering and receiving of tepak sirih complete with its ingredients has a substantial significance for both the giver as well as the receiver. Yet this is not all, for each of the elements that go into the making of the tepak sirih has its own symbolic value. The sirih leaf due to its characteristic behavior in its natural environment has been used as a symbol of respect for others. The lime (kapur) in its whiteness reflects the purity of the heart, a whiteness that conveys nobility and pure but which when disturbed or interfered can turn bitter like the tang of the kapur itself. The gambir symbolizes stoutness of heart while the betel nut, which comes from a tall and slender palm tree and whose flowers blossom in bunches represents noble descent or heritage as well as honesty and integrity. The final element which sometimes goes into a quid of betel is tobacco. This represents for the Malay sirih chewer, a willingness to make sacrifice.
From the earliest times, the offering of a sirih quid or the placing of the complete tepak sirih set conveys an implicit meaning from the giver to the receiver. While the giver presents himself humbly before the receiver, it is clear that such respect should not be interpreted as the demeaning of the giver himself before the receiver. Other such hidden meanings have also been given to various elements in the complete tepak sirih.
Betel leaf is also synonymous with Malay’s folk rituals. The manner in which the leaf is offered to people of different social classes varies and there are specific rules and customs that need to be obeyed. In the village public gathering, the leaf is offered to the leader of a prayer congregation (Tok Imam) first, followed by the medicine man (Tok bomoh). Then comes the turn of the elders and followed by the others present.
For special occasions, highly ornate sirih containers made of brass and covered with tekat embroidery are used. Within these tepak the ingredients are arranged in a precise order. These tepak, when used, must be offered in a specific manner, especially when the recipient is someone of the opposite sex. A mistake is likely to lead to misinterpretations. Tepak sirih continue to be used in ceremonial congregations such as weddings. Elaborate formations of betel leaves in trays carried on the heads of young maidens or older ladies (sirih junjung) mark ceremonial welcomes for dignitaries and perhaps one of the most important uses of sirih is in the betel leaf tree (pokok sirih) presented by the bride to her groom.
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