Ceremonial Crafts


A quid of betel‑that is betel (sirih) leaves, betel nut (pinang) tobacco and gambir combined and folded neatly together and sometimes held in place by a clove, reflects Malay life as a whole and the value placed by the Malay community upon traditional customs (adat) and codes of behaviour. To some the folded leaves symbolise unity. Further devotion to adat is symbolised by the placing together in a sirih container (tepak sirih) of the various ingredients that constitute a quid of betel, for the arrangement is not done haphazardly. There are precise sections that hold the ingredients. The offering of sirih indicates the value placed upon respect for others and upon refined behaviour.

From the earliest times, the offering as well as the receiving of sirih and its ingredients has had a tremendous significance for both the giver and the receiver. Yet this is not all, for each of the elements that goes into the making of the tepak sirih has its own symbolic value. The sirih leaf due to its characteristic behaviour in its natural environment, has been used as a symbol of respect for others. The lime (kapur) represents the purity of the heart in its whiteness, a whiteness that is basically noble but which when angered can turn bitter like the tang of the kapur itself. The gambir represents stoutness of heart while the betel nut, which comes from a tall and straight palm and whose flowers are produced in bunches symbolises 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 sacrifices.

The offering of a sirih quid or the placing of the complete tepak sirih set carries a message 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 by the giver of himself before the receiver. Other such hidden meanings have also been given to various elements in the complete tepak sirih.

The betel leaf has traditionally found a place in almost every ceremonial institution of the Malays as well as in social gatherings. It also has an important place in folk rituals. As a rule, the manner in which the leaf is offered to people of different social classes varies and there are clear cut rules for this. In the village public gathering, the leaf is offered in such a way that the leader of a prayer congregation (Tok Iman) receives it first, followed by the medicine man (Tok bomoh). Then comes the turn of the elders and after this, that of 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. In traditional Malay society such misdemeanours were subject to fines. Tepak sirih continue to be used in ceremonial situations such as those marking the completion of the Holy Quran and 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.


Like all uses of sirih, that in the pokok sirih has its own significance. The offering of the pokok sirih symbolises the purity of the bride. Should it be discovered after the wedding that she is in fact not a virgin, the pokok sirih is overturned. In the past the marriage itself was often declared invalid through such an act. This precise function of the pokok sirih no longer exists. The decorated tray of betel leave is still however offered as part of the wedding gifts (hantaran).

The cost of the wedding (wang belanja) generally borne by the bridegroom is presented as a part of the wedding gifts (hantaran) in a form of a miniature money tree (pokok duit), composed of folded currency notes ($501‑, $10/‑, $1/‑), usually to an odd figure of $1,101, is sent together in ceremony to the bride’s house before the religious ceremony (akad nikah) takes place.

Also highly significant in this situation as part of the wedding gifts (hantaran) presented by the bridegroom is the pokok nasi, consisting of boiled eggs attached to golden‑leafed stems (bunga telur ) planted in a tray of glutinous rice (pulut) stained yellow with tumeric. Both the eggs attached to golden twigs and leaves as well as the glutinous rice are traditional symbols of fertility.