Śiśira is the much neglected step child among the seasons. Of uncertain origins, it is often not counted with its full-blooded siblings – the sixth season on a list of five. Where it does feature, it tends to be dismissed as too similar to hemanta (winter) – so similar that a verse one anthologist classifies as belonging to śiśira is grouped with hemanta by the next – to warrant much discussion or description. It is also the only season that defies a consensus among translators into English. Literally it is the ‘cool’ season but it is variously described as ‘late winter’ or ‘early spring’ (indeed at times it seems to be merely a prelude to vasanta) – deprived even here of a definition in its own right.
Spanning the Hindu calendar months of Magha and Phalguna, the season starts in late January and ends in mid to late March. Both Māhaśivarātri – the festival in celebration of the union of Śiva and Parvatī which is said to herald the beginning of the hot weather – and Holi – when Narasiṃha killed Hiraṇyakaśyapa, an event celebrated by the throwing of coloured powder or water (as in the picture above) – fall in this season. It is normally described as cold, cold enough to snow in some parts of India – and snow proves a popular subject for the poetic imagination, just as elsewhere in the world.
व्यधित यां हिमचन्दनमण्डिताम्
अवनतो रसिकः शिशिरः स्वयम्।
इह सती हसतीव मही स्म सा॥
vyadhita yāṃ hima-candana-maṇḍitām
avanato rasikaḥ śiśiraḥ svayam |
iha satī hasatîva mahī sma sā
The cold season, like a humble lover,
had personally adorned the earth, his beloved,
with snow, as if with sandal paste.
The earth, like a good wife, seemed to laugh,
her joy appearing in the form of white jasmine.
8.57 – Shivasvamin’s Kappinabhyudaya (Translation by Michael Hahn)
The sun shines weakly – and happily so – and even the moon is pale, wan like the face of a lady separated from her lover. Days are short, as if terrified of the cold we read in the Śārṅgadharapaddhati, and nights long, perfect for extended nocturnal sessions. Few flowers or trees are in bloom and the poets tend to focus on the beauty that resides within rather than without the house. Thus while several of the other seasons – vasanta (spring) in particular – kindle love with features such as the cooing of the cuckoo which are conventional stimulants to passion, in śiśira we are already in the bedroom.
Often the cold has persuaded feuding lovers to reconcile in the interests of warmth:
कारेणोत्पन्नकोपो ऽपि सांप्रतं प्रमदाजनः।
निशि शीतापदेशेन गाढमालिङ्गति प्रियम्॥
kāreṇ’ otpanna-kopo ‘pi sāṃprataṃ pramadā-janaḥ |
niśi śīta-apadeśena gāḍham āliṅgati priyam ||
Women, in spite of their justifiable anger, now embrace their lovers tightly at night citing the cold.
Verse 3938 in the Śārṅgadharapaddhati, attributed to Mahāmanuṣya
At other times the weak early morning sun reveals the debris of a passion-filled night: disshevelled hair, wrecked flower garlands, scratched breasts, punctured lips – and a happy after-glow.
गलितकुसुममालं धुन्वती कुञ्चिताग्रम्।
त्यजति गुरुनितम्बा निम्ननाभिः सुमध्या
उषसि शयनमन्या कामिनी चारुशोभा॥
aguru-surabhi-dhūp’-āmoditaṃ keśa-pāśaṃ galita-kusuma-mālaṃ dhunvatī kuñcit’-āgram |
tyajati guru-nitambā nimna-nābhiḥ su-madhyā uṣasi śayanam anyā kāminī cāru-śobhā ||
Another lover shakes out a mane of hair perfumed with the redolent smoke of aguru, bare of its flower wreaths and curling at the tips. Heavy-hipped, deep-navelled and slim-waisted she leaves her bed at daybreak, beautifully aglow.
5.12, Ṛtusaṃhāra – Kālidāsa
But the intense cold, especially in the mountains of northern India, is not always an excuse for pleasure. There are some carefully painted svabhāvoktis (literally a ‘saying about one’s true nature’ – essentially poetry that describes things as they are rather than as poetic convention demands, which is the norm in Sanskrit) which construe the suffering that the poor, travellers and animals experience:
कम्पन्ते कपयो भृशं जडकृशं गोजालकं ग्लायति
श्वा चुल्लीकुहरोदरं क्षणमपि क्षिप्तो ऽपि नैवोज्झति।
शीतार्तिव्यसनार्तुरः पुनरयं दीनो जनः कूर्मवत्
स्वान्यङ्गानि शरीर एव हि निजे निह्नोतुमाकाङ्क्षति ॥
Kampante kapayo bhṛśaṃ jaḍa-kṛśaṃ go-jālakaṃ glāyati
Śvā cullī-kuhar’-odaraṃ kṣaṇam api kṣipto ‘pi n’ aiv’ ojjhati |
Śīta-ārti-vyasana-āturaḥ punar ayaṃ dīno janaḥ kūrmavat
Svāny aṅgāni śarīra eva hi nije nihnotum ākāṅkṣati ||
The monkeys shiver violently and the herd of cows emaciated with the cold weakens. Despite being thrust aside, the dog will not quit the inner hollow of the fireplace for even a moment. And once again this wretched man, tormented by the ruinous pain of the cold, like a tortoise tries to hide his limbs within his frame.
3rd verse in the section on śiśira in the Saduktikarṇāmṛtam, attributed to Śatānanda
Although lacking flowering plants, śiśira is, like hemanta, a season rich in crops. Sugarcane and rice, both of which still grow in abundance, are the chief of these. It is thus celebrated for the harvest as well as the sensual pleasures it yields.
शिशिरसमय एष श्रेयसे वो ऽस्तु नित्यम्॥
pracura-guḍa-vikāraḥ svādu-śāl’-īkṣu-ramyaḥ prabala-surata-kelir jāta-kandarpa-darpaḥ |
priyatama-rahitānāṃ citta-santāpa-hetuḥ śiśira-samaya eṣa śreyase vo ‘stu nityam ||
Rich in sweets and lovely with its sweet rice and sugarcane, this is the season of feverish sex when Love lords it, the season that lights an inferno in the hearts of those separated from their beloveds. May this cool season always bode well for you.
5.16 Ṛtusaṃhāra – Kālidāsa
To view a full list of all posts on the seasons and their flowers, click here.