The Areca Nut Cutters

As Nick wrote in his last post, each of the Casey Wood objects tells its own story, both for its original creators and for the modern observer.

The object I will discuss today is less immediately stiking than the blindness mask, but its story leads us right to the creation of the world.

The Areca nut cutters from the Casey Wood collection

The Areca nut cutters from the Casey Wood collection

Like most of the objects, the areca nut cutters have a label containing Casey Wood’s description:

Vederala’s brass root and fruit cutter for making medicinal mixtures. Its chief use is in slicing areca nuts for betel chewing. The present example is a rare, complete ceremonial instrument from c. 1670 AD.

While Casey Wood’s example is relatively unadorned, a number of the areca nut cutters which are preserved in the collection of the Kandy National Museum are highly decorated, with the figures of gods and mythical creatures. Like Casey Wood’s example, they are made from brass, except the cutting blade and some inlaid with silver or gold.

Areca nut cutters in the Kandy National Museum

Areca nut cutters in the Kandy National Museum

Vendum giraya, saluting areca nut cutter, from the Kandy museum

Vendum giraya, saluting areca nut cutter, from the Kandy museum

Areca nut cutters inlaid with gold

Areca nut cutters inlaid with gold, Kandy National Museum

Coomaraswamy (1956) describes a similar set of cutters from the Colombo museum and his own private collection, noting that the great variety of designs makes a comprehensive account of them impossible.

As Casey Wood told us, the cutters are intended primarily for slicing the areca nut.

Areca nuts are the product of the Areca catechu palm.

Areca nut palm illustrated in the 'Modern Herbal'  (1931)

Areca nut palm illustrated in the ‘Modern Herbal’ (1931)

They are chewed with the leaf of a betel leaf, a leaf from a vine of the Piperaceae family as a mild stimulant. Areca nut is also used in a variety of medical applications, including the treatment of tapeworm.

Slicing an areca nut

Slicing an areca nut

The areca nut has been a mainstay of Sri Lankan trade for centuries, perhaps even before the arrival of the first wave of Indian immigrants on the island.

The origins of the trade may even predate the settlement of the first waves of Indian immigrants on the island. The monk Fa Hien reported that the island

originally had no human inhabitants but was occupied only by spirits and nagas who carried on a trade with merchants of various countries

The Vëddās, often thought of as the descendants of Sri Lanka’s aboriginal people, are also described by Seligman as performing rituals centred on the areca nut.

It is perhaps for this reason that the areca nut cutters are so highly decorated and are endowed with special ceremonial significance.

In his manuscript notes, Casey Wood describes, along with photographs, a ceremony performed at the ancient capital of Anuradhapura, which encapsulates the importance attached to these seemingly everyday objects:

‘Ceremony of the Seven Stars, the making of the Areca-Nut cutter, performed near Anarajapura [sic] Ceylon, July 28/33’, photograph by Casey Wood

‘Ceremony of the Seven Stars, the making of the Areca-Nut cutter, performed near Anarajapura [sic] Ceylon, July 28/33’, photograph by Casey Wood

Mänikpāla, wife of the first king Maha-Sammata, was bewitched by the demon Māra. The demon Oḍḍisa cured her in a ceremony where he had to cut limes. Visvakarma, architect and artificer of the gods, invented the first areca nut cutter for the occasion. He first invented the hammer to do the work of construction, then smelted iron from Mt Meru to make the cutter. The limes, cut by Oḍḍisa, were golden limes. The areca nut cutter was used with spells and enchantments in cutting the limes at Oḍḍisa’s ceremony. The left eye of the cutter represents the moon, the right the sun. The blade represents the demon Rāhu, ‘the descending node’. The handles represent the four guardian gods of Ceylon, ^now called Nata, Vishnu, Kataragarma, Deviyo and Pattani^. Various ^other^ gods reside in the several parts of the areca-nut cutter.

As Kaepfer (1997) explains, this story has a cosmic significance. Mahasammata is the first ruler of the world, while his wife is the first to be afflicted by demon possession and hence the first patient. Oddi or Oddissa is the both the original sorcerer and the ultimate healer: an equasion that is also associated with the demon king Ravanna, who I will write more about in future posts. The areca nut cutters thus stand at the centre of the culture of healing that the objects in the Casey Wood collection reflect.

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