For more than a century, betel leaves from Tirur in Kerala have been much in demand in the paan mandis of Pakistan. But rising train fares, Indo-Pak tensions and the demand for paan masala have seen these paan mandis reduced to memories.

Mustafa, 57, a betel farmer in Tirur, steps into the fields every morning with a prayer that the friendship between India and Pakistan should last and grow. This is a daily ritual for the community of betel farmers and traders in this small town in Malappuram district in Kerala, as their livelihood depends solely on the markets of Lahore and Karachi. They produce and export ‘Tirur Lanka Paan’, well known in the markets of Pakistan for its distinctive flavour.

No other paan, the farmers of Tirur and the Pakistani fans claim, comes close to the Tirur Lanka Paan in size and quality.

For more than a century, Tirur has been an exclusive centre for betel trade in Kerala. Before Independence, it was exported on a small scale via the railways. But after the Urdu-speaking Muslims, who saw Tirur’s potential for betel export, moved in from places such as Vellore, Ambur and Katpadi, trade began to flourish and gradually expanded to Pakistan. Soon enough, a paan bazaar sprung up in Tirur. Today, there are six betel exporters who send their consignment four to five days a week.

Betel is harvested based on the orders placed from Pakistan. The leaves are sent to the exporters’ godowns through middlemen where they are sorted and packed in bamboo baskets by skilled labourers. Packing is a long-drawn process that goes on till midnight. It is then sent by an early morning flight from the nearest airport: Karipur, in Kozhikode. By next morning, it reaches the paan mandis in Pakistan. Since there are no direct flights from Karipur to Pakistan, the packages are sent via Doha in Qatar. Before Karipur got an airport, the exporters used to send the consignment via Bombay, where they had established godowns.

Shankunni Kutty Menon, who has been in trade for 54 years, has much to say about the glorious past. He remembers how the business peaked in the 1980s. The Tirur paan bazaar never slept. It would be bustling with activity, as business was an all-night affair. Every evening, the farmers would bring in the harvest themselves, carrying it on their heads. Even the chai shops remained open all night.

However, as years went by, things began to change. The arrival of paan masala, rising freight fares and changes in the booking system began to affect business, says Menon. Traders in Tirur also believe that betel leaves produced in Sri Lanka that look similar to the Tirur betel and use the name ‘Lankan pan’, may have played a role in impacting their business.Until about 10 years ago, the Pakistani traders would visit their partners in Tirur for special occasions. Later, due to visa and security complications, they stopped coming. The Muslims, who popularised Tirur betel, have now either retired or quit. From 30, the number has dwindled to three, says Bappu of VP Kutbuddin & Sons, who hails from Vellore, Tamil Nadu. Some have returned to their hometowns. Bappu has also started to think about returning.

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