Hemanta is the coolest of the six seasons, India’s winter. It brings snow to the north, thick fog to Delhi and, further south, temperatures below thirty. Consisting of the months of agrahāṇya (or mārgaśīrṣa or sahas) and pauṣa, hemanta falls towards the end of November and continues until late January. Agrahaṇya, which literally means ‘the first half-year’, was at some point considered the beginning of the year (today caitra, the first month of vasanta or spring, is thought of as the beginning of the Hindu year).
Hemanta is followed by śiśira, ‘the cool season’, and it is difficult to distinguish the two. Rājaśekhara in his Kāvyamimāṃsa says that śiśira has the same characteristics as hemanta, bar a few oddities. Other poets, including Kālidāsa in the Ṛtusaṃhāra, seem to distinguish the two only by name.
Like śiśira, there is an abundance of snow, the sun shines weakly – resembling the moon – and those who can stay indoors, preferably with their lovers. Rice, sugarcane and various grains – which first appeared in śarad – still fill the fields and the krauñca (curlew) makes several appearances but there are very few references to flowering plants, apart from the kunda and the priyaṅgu.
As a result there is little to attract the poet’s attention outside the bedroom and the focus is on nocturnal pleasures and the morning-after. Everyone who can pairs up (Rājaśekhara tells us that this is the season when you can eat or drink anything and sleep with any type of woman), lovers forget their differences and the month of Sāhas in particular is said to be capable of taming the pride even of the most high-strung madam. The lengthening nights are designed to help lovers cross the vast ocean of lovemaking. Women, and specifically their breasts, are a welcome source of heat as the wind blows ever colder. Māgha plays with this hot-cold contrast:
गजपतिद्वयसीरपि हैमन्तस्तुहिनयत्सरितः पृषतां पतिः।
Gaja-pati-dvayasīr api haimantas tuhinayat saritaḥ pṛṣatāṃ patiḥ |
Salila-saṃtatim adhvaga-yoṣitām atanuta atanu-tāpa-kṛtaṃ dṛśām ||
The winter wind, lord of water drops, freezing even rivers deep as the mightiest of elephants is tall, produces a stream of hot, painful tears from the eyes of women whose husbands are away.
6.55 Ṥiśupālavadha – Māgha
And just as in śiśira, it is the travellers who bear the brunt of the season’s less welcome effects. Teeth chattering, trying to cover themselves with old, thread-bare rags, they grovel before proud farmers and unsympathetic housewives.
The hardship though is less apparent to the travelling trio of the Rāmāyana than the natural beauty of this season. Lakṣmaṇa, who says the season is ‘iṣṭa’ (‘longed for’) and ‘priya’ (‘dear’) to Rāma, captures the charm of misted dawns where a veiled sun is yet too weak to warm chilled limbs. The absence of flowers does not inhibit a poet like Vālmīki:
अवश्यायतमोनद्धा नीहारतमसा ऽवृता।
प्रुप्ता इव लक्ष्यन्ते विपुष्पा वनराजयः॥
Avaśyāya-tamo-naddhā nīhāra-tamas’’ āvṛtāḥ |
Prasuptā iva lakṣyante vipuṣpā vana-rājayaḥ ||
The expanses of forest seem fast asleep, wrapped up in the darkness of hoarfrost, blanketed by the darkness of snow, with not a blossom open.
3.15.21 Rāmāyana, Vāmīki – translated by Sheldon Pollock
This post completes the series of articles spread across a year on each season and its chief flowers or characteristics. To see the full list of seasonal posts, click here.