The terrific arrival of the rains to bring the baking summer months to an end. The gradual stillness of autumn replacing the turbulence of the monsoon. The seasons have always proved fertile ground for poets, and India is no exception. Sanskrit poetry, often unfathomable for the uninitiated, offers a welcome immediacy in its depiction of the seasons, known as ṛtu-varṇana. Verses that describe the burning summer, spring in bloom and the drama of the rains are much less vulnerable to the passage of time which renders so much of ancient poetry, however brilliant, inaccessible to many modern readers.
Seasonal poetry has a long tradition in Sanskrit, starting with the Vedas and reaching a pinnacle of sorts under the mahakavis (great poets) – for which it became a statutory subject. Kalidasa’s Ṛtusaṃhāra is dedicated solely to this subject and the large anthologies of muktaka (single, free-standing) verses almost all contain sections on each of the seasons.
India now has four seasons officially, just as in the West, according to the government meteorological department. Unofficially the country has just three – ‘summers’, ‘winters’ and the monsoon. Traditionally, there are six (occasionally five – with śiśira, which is very similar to hemanta, dropped; and at times in the Vedas just three) ṛtus or seasons based on the 12 months of the lunar year. The allocation of two months to each season, though neat, is to a large extent artificial and at times vasanta, for instance, becomes just a month or, as in the Ramayana, the monsoon extends for four. According to the lunar calendar that is used today, the year starts with vasanta (spring) over the months of Madhu and Madhava – more popularly known as Chaitra and Vaishakha – and the first new moon of Chaitra is today celebrated as the Hindu new year. Next is grīṣma (summer) during Shukra and Shuci or Jyestha and Ashadha. Varśā (the rainy season) stretches over Nabhas and Nabashya or Shravana and Bhadrapada. Sharad (autumn) spans Isha and Urja or Ashwin and Kartik. Next comes hemanta (winter) over Sahas and Sahasya or Margashirsha and Pausha and finally śiśira, which consists of Tapas and Tapasya or Magha and Phalguna.
Each season is associated not only with different flowering plants and trees, and animals, but also with different human activities and emotions, chief of which is love. To a large extent, these associations are determined by poetic convention (kavi-samaya) – the peacock must dance only in varśā for instance – but they are not divorced from reality, in this instance the monsoon is the peacock’s mating season so for it to sing and dance at this time is natural. Rajashekhara’s Kavyamimamsa offers a sort of manual for poets who wish to write about the seasons in which he advises them to focus on sticking to the norms of their predecessors – the snow of hemanta and shishira for instance – rather than to try and describe the reality they see about them which, when you consider the different micro-climates within the Indian-subcontinent, varies hugely. Much poetry is in this vein but the seaons are also the subject of some fine svabhavoktis. Svabhavoktis are verses that describe, often in intense detail, a scene as truly as possible. The traveller who with only a thin and hole-ridden garment whose curled up body, his knees pressed to his chest, assumes a misshapen form in the cold of śiśira only too readily recalls similar scenes on city streets in India today. A more light-hearted svabhavokti example:
प्रयाति निम्नाभिमुखं नवोदकम्॥
Vipāṇḍuraṃ kīta-rajas-tṛṇa-anvitaṃ bhujaṃga-vad vakra-gati-prasarpitam |
a-sādhvasair bheka-kulair nirīkṣitaṃ prayāti nimna-abhimukhaṃ nav’-odakam ||
A colony of frogs watches with great alarm as a fresh trickle of water, dun coloured and covered in bugs, dust and grass, slithers along snake-fashion in an ‘s’ pattern towards the lower ground.
2.13, Ṛtusaṃhāra, Kālidāsa
Poets focused on the changing appearance of nature and how it affected people’s emotions – the sight of the aśoka tree in bloom in vasanta for instance would torment the girl whose lover was abroad but would only heighten the pleasure of the couple who were together. In many cases the beauty of the season imitates or is imitated by women; and the two are closely related.
स्त्रीणां विहाय वदनेषु शशाङ्कलक्ष्मीं
काम्यं च हंसवचनं मणिनूपुरेषु।
क्वापि प्रयाति सुभगा शरदागमश्रीः॥
strīṇāṃ nidhāya vadaneṣu śaśāṅka-lakṣmīṃ kāmyaṃ ca haṃsa-vacanaṃ maṇi-nūpureṣu |
bandhūka-kāntim adhareṣu manohareṣu kvāpi prayāti subhagā śarad-āgama-śrīḥ ||
Entrusting the moon’s luminescence to women’s faces, the irresistible call of the swan to their jewelled anklets and the blush of the bandhūka flower to their alluring lower lips, the glory of autumn’s arrival, so beautiful, departs for other climes.
3.25, Ṛtusaṃhāra – Kālidāsa
This series of posts is designed to highlight the beauty of some of this poetry in context: each season and its flowers will be presented through a selection of verses posted in that season. The verses have been taken from as wide a selection of kāvya (poetry) as possible, and include several mahākāvyas (major poems), sandeśakāvyas (messenger poems), plays and traditional compilations of muktakas.
Where possible images will accompany the verses. The painting at the top (a detail) and bottom (in full) of this post comes from the Mehangarh Museum Trust’s Ramacaritmanas of Tulsidas and depicts the gradual onset of the monsoon (from left to right) which Rama and Lakshmana wait out in a mountain cave. As Sreenivas Rao details at length there is both a musical and artistic tradition inspired by seasonal poetry, although it mainly draws on the later vernacular Barahmasa poetry rather than its Sanskrit predecessor. The miniature paintings in this tradition as well as some of the floral miniatures that come from Jehangir’s court in particular provide an appropriately stylised and intricate illustration of such poetry.
Often poets start a description of the seasons with vasanta, the richest season in terms of poetry. Kalidasa’s Ṛtusaṃhāra bucks this trend by starting with grīṣma, perhaps so that the poem could end with vasanta. These posts will start with śiśira, the season that started in late January, and end with hemanta in just under a year’s time.
To view a full list of all posts on the seasons and their flowers, click here.