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Malay Culture

Bersirih Custom & Its Cultural Significance

tepak sirih

By: Mahyudin Al Mudra, S.H., M.M.

1. Tracing Makan Sirih/Berkapur-Sirih Tradition

From time immemorial, the makan sirih (betel chewing) tradition, which began to appear in Neolithic era 3000 years ago, has been alive in South East Asia. It is practiced by almost all social classes from royalties, courtiers, dignitaries, noblemen to ordinary people. All of which perpetuate such unique tradition.

References to the makan sirih tradition show the uncertainty of the homeland of the unique tradition. Some folk stories, though, ensure India as the first place where the tradition appeared.

tepak sirihLinguistic evidences, on the other hand, suggest that the makan sirih tradition was first initiated and practiced In Indonesia. In the 13th century, the illustrious sailor, Marco Polo, recorded in his note that one of the traditions of Indian was to chew quid of tobacco. Ibn Batutah and Vasco de Gama, the great wanderers, concluded that it was usual amongst Eastern society to eat betel leaves.

Indian society, at the onset, presented the betel leaves in shrine as the sacred offerings to gods in their worship. Added with coconut (divided into two parts), and bananas, the betel leaves were presented.

The betel leaves are popular plant amongst Malay. Not only have the betel leaves been used as chewing for ordinary people, they are used as cultural symbol and integral part of Malay custom as well. The betel leaves are must in welcoming parties, merisik (to spy), meminang (to propose), marriage ceremony, traditional medicine, ceremonial congregations, and other social gatherings. In Malay weddings, together with sirih penyeri, the betel leaves, which are formatted artistically in trays in form of sirih junjung ( the betel leaves are carried out on the heads of young maiden or older ladies), become hantaran (gift) presented by the groom to his bride. In addition, the sirih junjung is also used to glorify and enliven royal ceremonies. Usually, the sirih junjung leads any kind of procession in Malay customs. 

2. Tepak Sirih: Necessary Equipment

tepak sirihAs equipment in Malay formal ceremonies, the tepak sirih (kapur-sirih container) is a must. The tepak sirih, in view of Malays, carries values and important meanings in their life. Accordingly, its usage should follow certain codes highlighted in the Malay customs.  

Within the tepak sirih, there is combol or cembul (small container shaped spherically made of brass) that keeps concoction of sirih pinang (ingredients of makan sirih). There are certain rules formulated to guide how to put the cembul in the tepak sirih.  

The complete tepak sirih has two parts. The upper part contains four cembul for betel nuts, lime, gambier leaves, and tobacco respectively. Cloves, betel leaves, and kacip (nut racker) are put in the lower part of the tepak sirih. The shape of the tepak sirih varies: circle shape, square shape, and rectangular shape. In the circle tepak sirih, (areca nuts, lime, gambier leaves, and tobacco). Malays called the square tepak sirih as puan, and rectangular one as tepak. Occasionally, the betel leaves are not folded in one tepak sirih, but in a separate container called bekas sirih. Such separation is aimed at causing artistic impression to appear.

The above arrangement, according to Malay, is to show the proper order (the first comes first and the last comes last) when someone wants to do mengapur sirih (betel chewing). To put the betel leaves in the tepak sirih, one should follow certain rules. The betel leaves should be folded in one bundle in which their stalks unite. In a bundle, there are roughly five to six betel leaves. While in a tepak sirih, there are four or five bundles of betel leaves. The even of the leaves that should be arranged orderly expresses the Malay philosophy in appreciating guests. The haphazard order of the even of leaves symbolizes insulting action to the guests. The complete tepak sirih, which is ornamented with blossoms, flowers and lovely embroidery, is popularly known amongst Malays as tepak sirih adat. 

tepak sirih

3. Filling the Tepak Sirih: Tools Needed

In general, the tepak sirih consists of seven uniquely selected items: combol, bekas sirih, kacip, gobek, celepa, ketur, and bujam epok. Nowadays, the bujam epok is rarely used when doing the mengapur sirih (betel chewing). The combol is used to put the betel nut, gambier leaves, tobacco, cloves and lime in.  

a. Combol

In the tepak sirih, combol is an important part that consists of four or five items. It functions as container for the betel nut, the lime, the gambier leaves, the tobacco, and the cloves. The combol‘s shape is circular with top on it, and its lower side is flat so that it can stand upright.  The combol for the lime is different from other as it has cylinder shape. The combol is made from metal materials such as copper, silver and sometimes overlaid with gold. The outer side of the combol and its top is usually trimmed with various carved objects such as petola flower, gold leaves, candik kacang leaves, tumpuk manggis, melur flowers, and other artistic ornaments. The combol makers will use their proficiency to enhance the splendour of combol‘s appearance. Nowadays, the ornaments around the tepak sirih vary according to certain traits and different objects.

tepak sirih

b. Bekas Sirih

bekas sirihOccasionally, the betel leaves are put not in the tepak sirih but in a separate container called bekas sirih (place for betel leaves waste). The bekas sirih is made of metal or silver, and some are made of ivory. Some of the bekas sirih are overlaid with golden, or trimmed with various Malay carving such as awan larat, kundur flowers, ketang guri flowers, petola flowers, pucuk rebung, tebuk carving, and other designs. To increase the aesthetic aspect of the tepak sirih, its main part is carved in lobed form. The bekas sirih‘s size is small, thin, and its top is wide. Generally, the top of bekas sirih is 8 cm and 6 cm in diameter in upper and lower side respectively, and 10 cm in height.

c. Kacip (nut racker)

kacip is a tool functioned as a knife that consists of two chips: sharp moving-chip (located at the upper side) and blunt hanging-chip. It is used to rack and mince betel nuts, and various plants used for traditional medicines.

The prevalent material for making a kacip is solid metal, but some are made of copper or silver. Besides for racking, the silver-made kacip is displayed for decoration. The size of the kacip varies, ranging from 10 cm to 22 cm, and even more. Generally, the form of the kacip is similar: consists of two connected chips having handle on them.


The upper chip has variety of unique forms, resembling heads of animals such as horse, buffalo, elephant, monkey, bird, roast, or deity. Some kacip are designed by stylization of flora styles to ornate their stalks, overlaid with gold or silver. Malay usually put identity on the kacip as it has different sexes: male kacip and female kacip. While other have no sexes as they have circle-shaped.

Malays recognize nut racker as kacip while Balineses name it as caket. In Deccani (India), Kannada (Karnataka), the popular name for it is adekkitta, though some call it as serota. Bengalineses know the kacip as yanti, while sudi or sudo is the preferable name amongst Gujarat people. In Sri Lanka, the kacip is called gire or giraya.

In the tepak sirih, the kacip is set beside the folded betel leaves. Besides the gobek, the kacip makes up the key tool in a complete tepak sirih. 

In addition, the kacip is used in every Malay important ceremonies. In the ceremony of melenggang perut, the kacip is a must. When a new baby is born, the kacip is put on its forehand or below the pillow. It is thought of that the kacip serves as a tool to protect the baby from the influence of bad spirits.

d. Gobek

gobekThe gobek, which is made of metal, consists of two parts. The first part is cylinder having hole in its middle. The top of the gobek is covered with woods measuring the diameter of cylinder. This part is called ibu gobek (main gobek). The other part is called anak gobek (minor gobek), having small size, consisting of solid iron with axe-shaped with tail in its end. Some decorations, usually by adopting local decorations, adorn the upper and down side of the anak gobek. The gobek functions as a mortar (for pounding rice) or a pestle. The betel leaves, together with other berkapur-sirih ingredients (betel nuts, gambier leaves, lime, and cloves) are put into the gobek and pounded until pulverized. Then, the covering wood at the top of cylinder is pushed with the anak gobek, until the pulverized ingredients can be chewed or eaten. Usually, the gobek is the main tool for elderly people who lose their teeth and can not chew the leaves. 

e. Ketur

Ketur is a place for spitting. The betel leaves, eaten with lime, gambier leaves, and betel nut will produce red, heavy, thick and dirty spittle so that people who eat the leaves will often expectorate.     

keturThe kentur is gourd-shaped, having big hole and legs in half ball-shaped. Some of the kentur are made of can. The kentur for spittle is usually made of copper.  

The kentur‘s height is about 20 cm – 25 cm. It is made of metal copper that makes it heavy. It is useful as the heavy ketur will not tumble and spill what is inside, and foul the floor. The ketur is used only if the berkapur-sirih (betel chewing) is done in house. To avoid stinky smell, the ketur should be cleaned every day.    

4. Berkapur-sirih Ingredients 

a. Betel leaves

Betel is a subtropical plant growing in Asia, Madagascar, East Arfica, and West Hindia. There are four types of the betel leaves found in Malay Peninsula: Malay betel, Chinese betel, Keling betel, and Udang betel. In Indonesian language, several species of betel are known such as Carang, Be, Bed, Siyeh, Sih, Camai, Kerekap, Serasa, Cabe, Jambi, Kengyek, and Kerak.

The botanical name for the betel leaves is Piper Betel Linn which is part of Piperaceae‘s family. The plant is known by a series of different names in the regions in which it is consumed. In Portuguese, it is called betle, while Malabar society who uses Malayam language calls it as vettilla. In Hindian and Sri Lanka language, the plant is widely known as pan/paan and bulat respectively. Tambula, in Sunskit language, is the name for this plant while Thai language calls it as plu. 

sirihThe betel leaves are a subtropical vine with heart-shaped leaves that have a smooth glossy surface and visible veins running through it. The fertile betel leaves have 8 cm – 10 cm in width, and 10 cm- 15 cm in length. The betel leaves usually grow in subtropical area, in loose soil with medium level of humidity. To have fresh leaves, the plant needs much water.

The betel leaves have different species: Sirih Udang which has red veins and red stalk, Sirih Keling which is familiar with its small size, spicy taste, green dark color, and stiff leave. Sirih Cina has soft taste than other species, especially than Sirih Melayu. The most favorable betel leaves used in any ceremonial congregations, and used by those who do the berkapur sirih, are the Sirih Melayu.     

The active ingredients of betel leaves are kind of oil, which is obtained from the leaves, than contains phenol, and terpenes compounds. These ingredients create spicy taste of the betel leaves. Nitrat calcium and tanin are other compounds that present in the betel leaves. The taste of the betel leaves is dependant on its leaves, age, sun light, and its position in the stalk. The most delicious betel leaves are those that attach to upper branch and have big size. Sirih Hutan, usually grows in tropical rain forest, has solid taste and hard leaves. Accordingly, this type of betel leaves is not used to combine the concoction of the berkapur sirih.     

There are various medicinal uses for the betel leaves, especially those that grow above stalk and have small size. Those leaves are preferred by most traditional Malay medics to cure some diseases. The most popular betel leaves in this usage is sirih bertemu urat (leaves with its veins attach each other). Though the betel leaves are rarely used, they still play an important role in Malay‘s life.    

b. Betel Nut

pinangBetel nut is fruit of a plant growing mostly in tropical areas. The plant whose tip has pointed shape is a medium-sized tree growing to 10 m tall, with a trunk 15-20 cm in diameter. Besides for its attractive appearance, the plant is grown for its economically important seed, the betel nut. Row betel nut has green color while the ripe one is yellow and sometimes red.

Areca catechu is the scientific name for the betel nut. In Hindian language, the betel nut is called supari while the activity of sirih-pinang is called pan-supari. Malayalam language names it as adakka or adekka while Srilanka language as puvak. It is popularly known as mak, and pin-lang amongst Thai and Chinese society respectively.

The betel nut tree is planted by planting its seeds. Usually, before planting in a pot, the seeds will pass the seedling process. When the size of the tree is small, a pot is the suitable container for it. However, the big areca tree is usually grown in large indoor areas, house yard for example.

pinangThe tip of the betel nut, together with tips of Areca borneensis and Areca trianda, is edible. In addition, it has medicinal uses. The remains of the betel nut which are poached can cure wound. The tip of Areca hutchinsoniana serves as medicine to eradicate fungus.

The active ingredients of the betel nut are alkaloids such as arecoline, arecaidine, arecain, guvacin, arecolidine, guvakolin, isoguvacoline, and coline. The arecoline is intoxicating for neurotic system. The substance can cause epilepsy which is ended with paralysis. If the respiration system suddenly discontinues, one can die for it.

The arecoline, acts like acetil coline, functions to deworm, and to terminate parasites. The areca nut contains about 15% of red tanin, and 14% of fat. The young areca nut is chewed and its liquid is swallowed for curing blood. Betel nut juice is used to treat near-sighted people.

c. Gambier leaves

gambirGambier is a genus of flowering plants in the family of Rubiaceae, native to East Asia. The gambier leaves has egg-shaped leaves, smooth glossy surface and gray flower. To do the berkapur-sirih, the betel leaves are accompanied with the gambier leaves. In terms of its uses, the gambier leaves have various medicinal properties. Not only have the gambier leaves been used for washing burn and scabies, for preventing diarrhea and dysentery, but also for moisturizing wounds in throat. 

d. Tobacco

Tobacco is an agricultural product planted for its fresh leaves, usually used for main ingredients of cigar/cigarette (called tobacco smoking) and stem pipe. The tobacco is in the genus of solancae family. One of advantages of tobacco is that it can be cultivated in any different seasons. In the early growth period, the tobacco requires medium heat, humidity and lot of water (usually supplied by the rain water). For getting good quality of tobacco leaves, it is suggested to pick them in dry season. However, the area where the tobacco is planted play significant role in controlling the quality of tobacco. The tobacco, with high quality, can be produced in some specific areas, while in other areas, with similar seed and method, the tobacco being produced has low quality.    

tembakauFertile cay/loam can produce high size of tobacco leaves, which are usually utilized for making cigar or pipe stem. While in acidic soil, the leaves with small size, which are usually used for smoking, will grow. The fertile tobacco plant can reach 2 meter in height, produces 30 cm – 40 cm of leaves in width and 40 – 50 cm of leaves in length.

The best tobacco for cigarette is those with light yellow leaves, having aromatic scent, fresh taste, producing acidic smoke. Leaves with these features usually contain carbohydrate, amide, nitrogen, foists and calcium. For cigar or pipe stem, the right tobacco are those with dark yellow leaves, produce alcalic smoke, and having subtle veins running through the leaves. 

e. Cloves

Cloves are the aromatic dried flower buds of tree. It is native to Malacca, Indonesia. Cloves are primarily harvested in Zanzibar, and Madagascar. The clove tree is an evergreen which grows to a height ranging from 8 m to 12 m, having large oval leaves. The flowers of cloves grow in every tips of branch. The buds of cloves are harvested and collected before developing into flowers.   

The scientific name for the flowers of clove is Eugenia aromatika. The clove tree requires heat and moist climate with rainfall about 150 – 250 mm each year and 15o - 38oC. The loose soil containing acid and laterit is a suitable soil for planting cloves.

Clove seeds are scattered onto the surface of the soil, as their germination is activated by sun light. The seeds are planted for about 1,5 – 2 years with distance for each seed 5 m. After seven or eight years, the cloves will be harvested for the first time. The clove tree still grows and produces flowers and petals until reaching 60 years, and even 130 years.


Clove flowers, which produce unique fragrant smell, are used for cuisine either whole or in a ground form, and also are chewed with the betel leaves to add flavor. The oil of the cloves makes up a key ingredient for medicinal uses and perfume. In some countries, the cloves are mixed together with tobacco to make cigarette.  

f. Lime

kapurLime, white and tough like a cream, is extracted from burned cockle shells until become a powder. Added with some water, the powder is lubricated on the betel leaves. Besides this type of edible lime, there is another type of lime called limestone that serves as building material.

The lime also can be obtained through burning the limestone (carbonate calcium/CaCO3). With certain level of heat, the limestone will produce CO2 that changes into CaO. Together with water, this substance will develop and become lime powder called Ca (OH) 2.

5. Philosophical meaning of Berkapur-sirih Ingredients

a. Betel Leaves

The betel leaves refer as the symbol of respects for others, generosity and altruisity. These values are understood from the way the betel leaves grow in which they live in and creep the woods or trees they like without creating any harm. The thick and dense leaves provide calm, quietness, and shelter for their surrounding.

b. Lime

The lime in its whiteness refers the purity of heart, that conveys the nobility and pure but which disturbed or interfered can turn bitter like the tang of the lime itself. The lime is the result of burning process of cockle shells or lime stone. The lime is white and clean, but, its chemical reactions can cause danger and harm.

c. Gambier

The gambier leaves is bitter in taste, symbolizes the stoutness of heart. The value can be seen in the yellowness of gambier leaves. To use them in the berkapur-sirih, the gambier leaves should pass a long process. Hence, before reaching and attaining some specific goals, one should be patient to get through several processes.

d. Betel Nut

Betel nut, which comes from the tall and slender palm tree and whose flowers blossom in bunches, represents noble descent or heritage as well as honesty and integrity. In addition, it reflects the willingness to do a specific job in proper manner and openness.

e. Tobacco

Tobacco, which has bitter taste, addiction substance and can be kept in long time, reflects determination and willingness to make sacrifice for other‘s sake.

macam-macam tepak sirihmacam-macam kacip



Mahyudin Al Mudra, SH. MM., is the founder and head of Center for Research and Development of Malay Culture. He is also the director of

References :

  • Tepak Sirih. Mahyudin Al Mudra. BKPBM Yogyakarta. 2006.
  • Koleksi Kacip Samuel Eilenberg, London, dan koleksi BKPBM Yogyakarta.
  • Alam Melayu. E. Rahman, dkk. Unri Press 2003.

Photo Credit : Koleksi Balai Kajian dan Pengembangan Budaya Melayu

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