It was a time of darkness (mon) in Bhutan, when the Guru first passed by what he called then, the Mon Yul (land of darkness), in the eighth century.
No religion then, savage and hostile, the early inhabitants of this land were said to be warring little tribal groups, who often took to cannibalism.
As is typical of most Buddhist saints, Guru Rinpoche (the precious master), had to subdue the inhabitants, in that, most commonly understood, teach the ways of the Buddha that preached in profuse, morals, wisdom and discipline.
But there was one thing the Guru needed to address at the outset, wean the inhabitants from their cannibalistic nature.
Ever wondered why Bhutanese chew doma (betel nut with scooped speck of lime wrapped in areca leaf)?
Well so far as the story goes, the Guru had introduced to the early inhabitants a combination of betel leaf sourced from the southern parts of the country, wherefrom he came, bark of a particular tree (rhushing) found on the hills of the country, or dried root of another tree (gonra) with lime found on the cliffs.
From paintings and sculptures made of him, the Guru also probably chomped on the mix.
The leaf was to be imagined for human skin, in which was wrapped the bark of the tree to replace human flesh, or bone and the lime was to take the place of the human brain.
What they swallowed was red, to resemble blood.
So far this has been a good substitute, one that has grown into an enduring tradition in the Bhutanese culture.
Although less evident today, it was once a common customary gesture. A jaw-breaker for strangers meeting for the first time and to befriend. In a crowd, aristocratic families would hand it out to a certain folk they favoured among the commons, for whom it was matter of immense pride and honor to meet such an acquaintance.
Rarity of ingredients locally (the leaf and the nut had to be bought from Assam in West Bengal, India) meant the tradition was limited to the royalty and those in the upper echelons of the society then. No wonder the ingredients were given stellar of a treatment gauging by the living standards of the time and for that matter even today. The leaf and the nut were carried in a rectangular gold-coated silver box called chaka, the length of an adult hand, and the lime was kept in a conical receptacle (trimi) made of similar material.
These receptacles have been rendered quaint, however, over time with easy availability of betel nut and areca leaf (in variety of types and sizes) today, prepackaged. The country has road-connectivity to the ingredients found down south and road linking to the rest of the country within.
There was a generation that took to the habit with almost slavish addiction. Now is a generation that is seeing a gradual disengagement from this customary chewing for health reasons and because the tradition no longer sits well with evolving modern etiquettes.
How it evolves and how far it goes, only time will tell.