Guwahati: The Secret Of This Northeastern City’s Name Is Hidden In A Betel Nut
- Reema Gowalla
Updated : June 13, 2022 11:06 IST
The secret may be hidden in the indigenous practice of eating betel nuts. Read on to know more…
Associating food with its place of origin is an endearing tradition seen around the world. Hyderabadi Biryani, Kerala Parotta and Banarasi Paan to Bombay Duck Fry, Agre Ka Petha and so on - there’s a plethora of famous dishes and food items in India that are named after the city or state where it was first made. This is a practice witnessed across the globe too. For instance, we all know of Yorkshire Pudding, Taiwanese Fried Chicken, Mississippi Mud Pie, Buffalo Wings and so many others. However, what is rare to find is the name of a food item hidden in the name of a place. Not many people know that the northeastern city of Guwahati actually got its name from something that people here love to chew on.
Etymologically, the term Guwahati can be divided into two parts - guva, an Assamese word that comes from the Sanskrit word guvaka, meaning areca nut and its trees, while the term hati is again an Assamese word meaning rows. So, the name Guwahati means ‘rows of areca nut trees’. While this is one explanation, some records claim that the term hati in the name of the place actually refers to ‘locality’, while others say it is derived from the term haat, meaning ‘a market area’. Thus, going by this legend, Guwahati means an ‘areca nut market’. More popularly known as betel nut - or tamul, the local word for it - areca nut is the seed of the areca palm (areca catechu) that grows abundantly in most parts of the tropical Pacific (Melanesia and Micronesia), Southeast and South Asia, as well as in some areas of east Africa.
Intrinsic to Assamese tradition and culture, tamul-paan (betel nut and betel leaf) is a significant symbol of gratitude, honour and love for the people of the state. In fact, no religious and social ritual in the state is complete without offering tamul-paan on a bota (a traditional bell metal tray or plate) along with the gamusa and xorai. Such is its importance that until a couple of decades ago, a wedding invitation without offering tamul-paan was considered disrespectful or inviting the ‘gracious presence’ of a guest without showing enough regard for them.
Even to this day, tamul-paan is the first thing offered to you when visiting someone’s house in the rural parts of the state. It’s okay if you cannot offer tea or snacks to a guest at home, but giving them tamul-paan is a must. This, however, is a dwindling practice in urban areas of the state, as more and more people are increasingly conscious of the health hazards of chewing betel nut. It’s important to note at this point that the tamul consumed locally is fermented for days before it’s eaten, leaving the nut with a very pungent taste and smell. That said, many also favour eating kesa tamul (tender betel nut). Tamul-paan, often eaten with a bit of soon (lime), is a heady combination that many struggle to digest.
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that tamul is pretty much an integral part of Assam’s dietary practices and food rituals. Assam-type houses (an architectural style typical of the state), flanked by huge courtyards, the boundaries of which are lined by areca nut trees, is a common sight throughout the length and breadth of Assam.
In the neighbouring state of Meghalaya too, symbolic significance is attached to the betel nut and betel leaf combination. Locally known as kwai among the Khasis, it’s offered as a mark of respect, unity and togetherness. People of the Jaintia tribe, on the other hand, use this in a unique manner - separate disputing groups hurl a bundle of kwai at the community court ground before taking their oath of integrity.
Referred to as Gauhati during British rule and in fact until the late 1980s, Guwahati comprises the ancient cities of ‘Pragjyotishpura’ and ‘Durjaya’ (modern-day north Guwahati). The biggest city in Assam, Guwahati is home to many historical gems and relics, and is commonly described as the ‘gateway to Northeast India’. Envisaged as a ‘cultural-commercial bridge to Southeast Asia’ in the Look East Policy, Bharat Ratna Bhupen Hazarika once said that the city of Guwahati will jilikabo Luitore paar (destined to dazzle the banks of Brahmaputra).
Published in 1901, ‘The Gazetteer of Bengal and North-East India’ describes ‘Goa-hathi’ as a highland covered with areca palms. In the document, hathi translates as elephant. It’s obviously a deviation from what’s considered more phonetically correct - hati. This, many say, could have simply been a ‘spelling mistake’. Dr John Peter Wade used the spelling ‘Goahawti’ in ‘An Account of Assam (1800)’. Through the course of history, ‘Gohatti’, ‘Gowhatee’, ‘Gowhatti’, ‘Gohati’, ‘Gwahatti’, ‘Gowhatty’ and ‘Gowahatty’ also appeared in different accounts. Statistician WW Hunter, however, finally spelled the official name as ‘Gauhati’ in ‘A Statistical Account of Assam (1879)’.
Situated on the banks of the Red River, Guwahati also has quirky food stories behind the names of its neighbourhoods. Panbazar, one of the oldest and most popular localities in the city, is called so because, several years ago traders from Dhaka used to run paan shops here. Their flourishing business eventually gave the name Panbazar (a market area selling paan) to this corner of the city. And there is more. Way back during the Ahom era, this was a suburb from where bundles of paan used to be supplied to the viceroy of the Ahom Kingdom’s western Region - the Borphukan. At that time, the area was called Paan Joganiar Khel (a habitation of paan suppliers). A sugar godown set up by an Englishman got the neighbourhood Chenikuthi its name. Although after the change in ownership, a Rajasthani trader shifted it elsewhere, the name of the place remained.
Tokobari found its name from the abundant toko palm plantation in the locality. Noonmati was earlier known as ‘Lonmati’ - lon, which translates to ‘salt’, and mati, meaning ‘soil’. The Khanapara locality too has an interesting history to narrate. This used to be an eating point for cartmen and their bullocks before they started their journey on the winding terrains of Shillong. Looks like this stopover for khana never changed its name.