Bharat Varsha India- A Monsoon Island

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Since the pre-Vedic era, the ‘Idea of India’ has been defined  by the Monsoons, a season which brings torrential rains to the plains and  mountains of the sub-continent. Awaited anxiously by millions, the Monsoons  turn India  into a soothing, green vision year after year, even as they fertilize its  sprawling farms and orchards. No wonder then that India’s agriculture, art, music, dance,  literature and religious texts are replete with magical vignettes of rain.  Indeed, the Monsoon is likened to Prana,  the life-force of fecundity in India’s  ornate culture!
    May the rains come on time; may the earth  bend with the weight of foodgrains,
    May  this land be free of scourge, may the learned be fearless,
    May the poor become wealthy and may all live  a hundred autumns,
    May the childless have children and those  with children have grandchildren,
    Lord, give all people a life of well-being….

This is one of India’s  oft-recited Vedic prayers. It is counted among the ten most powerful prayers of  India.  Like most others, this beautiful Sanskrit poem refers to rain as the  fertilizing power for the land, as well as the promoter of human welfare and  the longevity and health of generations of people. This is because Monsoon  rains have been the central theme of India’s history from times  immemorial.

“Monsoon rains are a  unique feature of the Indian sub-continent,” says Dr. Gautama Vajracharya of  the University of Wisconsin, Madison,  “It is the only country in the world which has the mighty barrier of the  Himalayas to block the passage of rain-bearing clouds that bring a magical rain-dance  to India  in a specific season every year. India is endowed with the largest  water-bearing cloud system in the world. It is estimated to be the size of the  entire continent of Europe! It feeds innumerable  rivers and their huge network of tributaries to fertilize the subcontinent  which is called Bharat Varsha – or  the Monsoon Island of the Bharatas in  religious literature. It is no wonder then, that the ‘Idea of India’ has been illuminated by the literature, art,  culture, music, religion and way of life inspired by the Monsoon tradition.  Indeed, Monsoons are considered the ‘Prana’  or life-force of India!  The Rigveda contains the famous Parjanya  Sukta and the Aap Sukta which are  recited by priests even today to propitiate rains.”

According to Dr.  Vajracharya, this concept of ‘Prana’ as  linked with the Monsoons, is expressed in all the three Indic religions – i.e. Sanatan  Dharam, Baudh Dharam, Jain Dharam – through sculpture, literature, art, music  and dance.  To begin with, countless  heritage monuments of these religions feature full-bodied men and  sensually-endowed women, well-fed animals and richly-plumed birds. Indeed, the  sculptures or frescoes of Barhut, Amaravati, Sanchi, Ajanta and Ellora as well  as innumerable temples of every historical age show apsaras, celestial beings  and godlings as being amply endowed and ornamented with luxuriant hair. Further,  even the figures of the Buddha and all Jain Tirthankaras – who were mendicants  with shaven heads – as well as Hindu gods and goddesses, are never shown as emaciated  or hairless. All these deities are always shown with well-rounded bodies and  curly hair tied up in a top-knot or arranged over the shoulders.  Similarly, animals – real and mythical –  portrayed in sculptures or paintings are ‘healthy’. Moreover, many sculptures  show the abundance of fruits and flowers together with the animals. Rarely do  we come across an emaciated animal or human being in all the monuments of India because Prana or rain is associated with  prosperity in Indian culture.  

A close look at some  heritage monuments of India  proves this point. In the Ajanta caves, the roof of a cave carries frescos of  all animals and birds – such as cattle, peacocks, tortoises (the symbol of the  River Yamuna), crocodiles (Makara, the mythical crocodile on which the Ganga  rides) and elephants – which are associated with rain or water. In the Barhut,  Amaravati and Sanchi monuments, the common motifs that illustrate this unflinching  devotion to the Monsoons are stylized figures of frogs, (some psalms of the  Rigveda and the Atharvaveda are about frogs), Makara, the mythical crocodile,  peacocks, swans and cattle as well as men and women who look prosperous. The  Kumbha – or the pot of fullness-prosperity – also features with these motifs. Further,  there are many references to the Ashwatha or Peepal tree in ancient literature  and sculptures as it is considered the symbol of rain. It features in  innumerable monuments either with Krishna,  Mahavir or the Buddha. Its leaf is a common motif used in all art in India. In fact,  in the Hindu tradition of creation, the child Krishna floats on a Peepal leaf  in the Cosmic Ocean contemplating the creation of the universe.

In Vedic literature,  the name Ashwatha is given to the first month of the Monsoon, though later,  this became Ashadha. The holy river Ganga, too, descends to the earth on the  tenth day of the month Jyeshtha, just 20 days before the Monsoons bring green  magic to India.  Indeed, so powerful is this sweeping vision of Prana (Monsoons) that its architectural features like the mythical  Makara have appeared in many Asian countries including Sri Lanka, Cambodia,  Jawa and Burma.  Some interesting facts: Kamadeva, the god of love, carries a flag on which the  Makara is resplendent. The zodiacal sign of Capricorn is called Makara in  Indian astrology. In jewellery, the Makara Kundala, or Makara-shaped ear  ornaments, are worn by Krishna. Makara is also  seen as a motif on railings or balustrades or as gargoyles carrying water from  a Shiva Linga to a pool outside the temple.

The omnipresence of  the Monsoon in Indian culture and religion did not end with the ancient ages. In  Medieval India, it took other forms. Sufi philosophy, with its central belief in  love between the individual soul and the universal soul (Raise thy veil and thou shall see thy beloved), added a vignette of  ‘ethereal romance in the rains’ to the plethora of its images. In Sufi songs  and dances, lovers danced and sang in the rains with a riveting abandon. The romance of Krishna and Radha was already  enveloped in the rain theme. Around these legends of love and rain, a huge  volume of music and poetry was created from the 12th century,  beginning with Jayadeva’s immortal Geet Govind. In this poetry, Krishna and Radha met in fragrant, floral bowers on  rain-drenched, thunder-lit nights to keep romantic trysts. When Krishna was gone, Radha’s longing was symbolized by  passionate prayers for rain and romance. Later, at Emperor Akbar’s court, this  passion for rain music reached a crescendo when Tansen (born a Brahmin) and  other great musicians composed specific Monsoon ragas or melodies to invite  rain. Krishna himself became Ghanashyam or the dark cloud that brings  the bliss of rain to a parched land. His mercy was likened to the ‘showers of  rain which moisten the soul’. Through the golden age of Islamic architecture  and art, Monsoons remained the throbbing heart of Indian life and culture. Classical  dance, music as well as folk songs sung by boatmen, farmers and  courtesan-singers reflected the longing of India for the enriching Monsoons.

Somewhere along the  way, Monsoon ragas found an immortal place in the classical music system of India. Many  scholars say that Monsoon ragas were composed by court musicians and then  dancers and painters adopted these for their art. The jewel among such  musicians was unquestionably Tansen (1506-1589) who was counted among the  Navaratnas – nine gems – at Emperor Akbar’s court. Tansen mastered all ragas  and created his own Monsoon melodies which are a proud part of India’s  music heritage even today. Legend says that he could actually initiate rains  when he sang Monsoon ragas like Megh,  Megh Malhar or his own composition Mian  Ki Malhar. Tansen and the great poet-saint Surdas were close friends and  shared their music mastery. Surdas created the Monsoon raga Sur Malhar. His  father Ramdas, a learned musician, contributed Ramdasi Malhar to the rich  cornucopia of music! Many more Monsoon ragas found expression during this  creative age. These were: Madhu Malhar, Mishra Mel Malhar, Dhulia Malhar and of  course the gentler Goud Malhar! There were also several varieties of Malkauns,  Sarang, Des and other ragas which were specific to the Monsoon.

Soon, a vast body of  devotional compositions based on Monsoon ragas became the rage. Surdas and Tulsidas,  the great author of the Ram Charit Manas, sang Monsoon compositions to allude  to the allegory that just as all rain falling from the skies flows to merge  with the ocean, all living beings flow finally into the shining pool of  divinity. Meerabai, Kabir, Surdas, his father Ramdas, Tulsidas – and many other  poets and saints of the Middle Ages, sang their songs of edgy eroticism in Monsoon  ragas whenever they wanted to express longing for the divine soul.

Krishna  became the icon of the Raga Megh Malhar and was seen in many paintings as the  initiator of the Monsoons! This legend found its way not only into Hindu  culture, but also in the Sufi and Sikh thought. A vast number of schools of  miniature painting showed Krishna as the  central figure of romance who could create the magic of the Monsoon with his  flute. Krishna, according to these artists,  was the quintessential god of love, romance and benevolence who appeared in the  form of rain to ‘shower’ his mercy and love on the world. For example, Guru  Arjun Dev, the fifth Guru of the Sikhs, composed his songs to the Raga Megh  Malhar for the Guru Granth Sahib. These are accompanied by a beautiful painting  of Krishna as the personification of the Raga  Megh Malhar, blowing his divine conch to initiate the Monsoons. In this  painting, Krishna stands under a cloudy sky,  watched by two Gopis, while cranes fly to the safety of their nests as lightning  flashes in the sky! Monsoon ragas were illustrated by every school of miniature  painting. An outstanding example is the Ragamala series which shows musical  modes in a pictorial manner. One of most beautiful paintings in this series is Raga  Megh by Madho Das of Narsinghgarh. It is presently on view at the National Museum,  New Delhi

Millenniums have  passed. Since time immemorial, India  has collected a resplendent treasure of art, architecture, music, dance,  culture and literature based on the theme of the Monsoons. What is more, additions  to this verdant pool of concepts continue to be created. Even today, the  Monsoons remain the scintillating theme of India’s economy, religion, culture  and art.
1. Translation of the Parjanya Sukta, from the Rigveda, which is  recited in Monsoon ragas with specific metres:
  “Then the winds blow…
  Then the lightning falls…
  Then, the flora sprouts and grows
  Then the space overflows,
  Then the land prepares for the welfare
  When Parjanya the Rain God protects the earth by waters!”
  Rigveda 8.53 Parjanya Sukta
  2. Translation of the Aap Sukta from the Rigveda also sung to  Monsoon Raga with specific metres.
  The waters that rain in the skies,
  The waters that spring themselves from below the earth
  And flow in the canals
  And go towards the ocean
  The waters that are clean and sacred
  These goddesses of water may protect me here”

The author was Editor  of Femina for 25 years. Vimla Patil is among India's senior most  Journalists-Media persons. She excels in writing lifestyle pieces, women's concerns,  travelogues, celebrity interviews, art-culture pieces about India.

Also read:
1. Monsoon  Ragas
2. Seven Sacred Rivers


Bharatvarsha Makara sculpture

Bharatvarsha  Makara with peacock tail at Lakuddi near Gadag, Karnataka

Bharatvarsha Ajanta Elephant

Bharatvarsha makara kundala on Vithoba at Pandharpur Maharashtra