Kama with bow and arrow (left) and Krishna (right) enjoying vasanta with the gopis (cowgirls)
विहरति हरिरिह सरसवसन्ते।
नृत्यति युवतिजनेन समं सखि विरहिजनस्य दुरन्ते॥
viharati Harir iha sarasa-vasante
nṛtyati yuvati-janena samaṃ, sakhi,
When winsome westerly winds
caress comely creeping cloves
As bumblebees’ buzz-buzzing and cuckoos’ coo-cooing
resound in huts, in coves, in groves,
In springtime, the sensual season so langorously
long for forlorn lovers,
Krishna strays and plays, my friend,
dancing with young girls.
Verse 1, Song Three, Gita Govinda of Jayadeva – translated by Lee Siegel
Vasanta is the undisputed king of the seasons. In league with Kama, who roams triumphant bringing all under his sway with his unfailing arrows, vasanta causes almost every flower and tree to put forth magnificent blooms. It is – says Rama as vasanta arrives at lake Pampa amidst a rain of blossom – as if the trees are vying with each other. This is the season of the cuckoo and the bee, the mango and the aśoka. Painted with a fiery palate of the reds, golds, oranges and yellows of its flowers, vasanta kindles the flame of passion and burns the hearts of those separated from their lovers. Cliched though this metaphor has become in the hands of many poets, there are some verses that give it fresh life:
वने प्रियमपश्यन्ती चिरमन्विष्य कोकिला।
विरहार्ता प्रविष्टा नु रक्ताशोकं चितामिव॥
Vane priyam apaśyantī ciram anviṣya kokilā |
Vihar’-ārtā praviṣṭā nu rakt’-āśokaṃ citām iva ||
After searching the forest for an age the cuckoo, unable to find her beloved and tormented by their separation, entered the blazing red aśoka tree without further ado as though it were her funeral pyre.
Verse 1648 in the Subhāśitāvali, anonymous
The two months of vasanta, Madhu and Mādhava (or Madhu and Caitra), stretch from mid March, when the first day of the ‘white fortnight’ when the moon begins to wax marks the Hindu new year – the festival known as Ugadi here in Karnataka and by many other names elsewhere in India that is celebrated today, 16th March – to mid May. The snow and frost of śiśira sometimes linger – enough to stop women from shedding too many clothes, one poet mourns – but more often the warmth of the season, and the sports it encourages, induce women to perspire alluringly:
सपत्रलेखेषु विलासिनीनां वक्रेषु हेमाम्बुरुहोपमेषु।
रत्नान्तरे मौक्तिकसङ्गरम्यः स्वेदागमो विस्तरतामुपैति॥
sa-patra-lekheṣu vilāsinīnāṃ vaktreṣu hem’-āmbu-ruh’-opameṣu |
ratn’-āntare mauktika-saṅga-ramyaḥ sved’-odgamo vistaratām upaiti ||
Drops of sweat appear on women’s petal-patterned faces that glow like golden lotuses, as lovely as pearls set among other jewels.
6.7, Ṛtusaṃhāra, Kālidāsa
The flowers of the season furnish the poet with his paints. Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddhacarita describes the fire-like aśoka, the white of the tilaka joined to the mango’s yellow, the kurabaka red as freshly squeezed lak and the silk-white sinduvara, but his finest verse is reserved for the cūta mango:
पश्य भर्तश्चितं चूतं कुसुमैर्मधुगन्धिभिः।
हेमपञ्जररुद्धो वा कोकिलो यत्र कूजति॥
Paśya bhartaś citaṃ cūtaṃ kusumair madhu-gandhibhiḥ |
Hema-pancara-ruddho vā kokilo yatra kūjati ||
“See, my lord, this mango loaded with honey-scented flowers, in which the koil calls, looking as if imprisoned in a golden cage.”
4.44, Buddhacarita of Aśvaghoṣa – translated by EH Johnston
Radha in a restless mood while Kama (right) aims his bow at her
Coupled with this vibrant visual assault are the scents of the sahakara mango and the lotus and the sweet sound of the cuckoo and the bee, both of whom tend to be drunk on madhu – an intoxicating honey and indeed Madhu, the season itself. And among all of this struts Smara, with his bow at the ready and his five flower arrows – of the aravinda (white lotus), the aśoka, the cūta, the navamallikā and the nīlotpala (blue lotus) – throwing pollen in girls’ eyes, working mayhem upon their bodies and sparing no one. Who, ask the poets, would not fall victim?
It is not just men and women who succumb to the power of vasanta. Kālidāsa’s Kumārasaṃbhava describes how the bees, antelopes, elephants and birds too partner up and even ascetics – although not Shiva – find it difficult to control themselves.
It is in vasanta that the idea of nature influencing or acting in concert with man finds its fullest expression, and it is thus this season which provides the most scope for Sanskrit poets. Kālidāsa features vasanta in several of his works and as ever produces some beautiful pen-portraits. But more than this he seems to hint at a certain artificiality of these descriptions of nature. In the Kumārasaṃbhava, vasanta is brought on out of season at the instigation of Kama and Madhu – who is himself Vasanta – and its immediate effect on Shiva’s mountain ashram is brought to a similarly abrupt halt by Nandi, so that everything becomes still as if in a painting. Other poets, such as Śivasvāmin and Bhāravi in their cycle of seasons, also suggest that the appearance of each season owes more the demands of the poem – most often for the benefit of the hero – than to the year’s natural cycle. Vasanta, more than any other season, is susceptible to this artificiality. It is the most picturesque season and thus naturally lends itself to description and description of a very stylised nature. We can imagine these verses as series of paintings in the miniature tradition of northern India: elaborate, detailed and beautiful – and definitely not a representation of things as they are. Svabhavoktis are much rarer in vasanta than in the other seasons.
Indeed so popular is vasanta that the sheer wealth of verses related to it is overwhelming. Almost every poet and playright worth his salt has at the very least paid tribute to vasanta with a verse or two. This series of posts will show how some of the more popular seasonal flowers are depicted – I have come across over 75 different types in vasanta in the poetry I have read – and, rather than dwelling on the hundreds of bee and cuckoo verses which are already well established and can be rather tired, will aim to highlight some of the less well known aspects of the season, the vasanta-vāyu (vasanta-breeze) for instance.
A friend shows Radha the charms of vasanta, including the cuckoos in the tree
All these pictures are taken from a painting depicting Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda by Pradeep Mukherjee, painted on cloth in the phad style of Rajasthan. In the poem, which was quoted at the beginning of this post, Radha and Krishna, the divine couple who indulge in the playful passion so typical of this season, are at play as ever in what seems to be an eternal vasanta.
To view a full list of all posts on the seasons and their flowers, click here.