Archive for the 'Seasonal Poetry' Category


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।

सलिलसंततिमध्वगयोषितामतनुतातनुतापकृतं दृशाम्॥

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.


The śephālikā puts forth its tiny scented flowers, white for the most part but bright orange at the base, in the evening.  By the morning they cover the ground beneath the small tree.  Dymock, Warden and Hooper, in their Pharmocographia Indica, relate the story behind the flowers’ short life:

“According to the Indian legend, a certain Nāga (prince) called Pārijāta had a daughter of whom the Sun became enamoured, but he soon deserted her for another sweetheart; whereupon the damsel pined away and died of grief.”

The śephālikā is thus also known as pārijātaka, although, as the notes below under ‘Names’ explain, there is a certain amount of confusion over this.  It is one of the many species of jasmine native to India.

It is on the authority of Rājaśekhara and Kālidāsa, who both include the śephālikā in their description of śarad, that the tree is included here in this season. It is certainly not associated with any other season, but nor does it appear often in śarad descriptions.


The Amarakośa lists three synonyms for śephālikā: suvahā (probably ‘patient’), nirguṇḍī, and nīlikā (‘the blue one’).  It also lists what it says is the white variety thereof: śveta-surasā (surasa/ā, which means ‘lovely’, being the name of several plants this simply means ‘a white surasa’) and bhūta-veśī.  As the śephālikā is mostly white, save for its orange stem, it is not clear what this might mean.  Does it refer to an entirely white flowered variety or are we to assume that the śephālikā listed here is not white?

While all agree on the name śephālikā – the Nyctanthes arbor tristis – neither Monier Williams nor VS Apte concur on the other synonyms.  Apte identifies the nīlikā as the indigo plant, which seems more likely.  Monier Williams lists śvetasurasā as a white flowering variety of the Nyctanthes or the Vitex negundo – sindhuvāra, covered in vasanta here – and refers to the bhūtaveṣī (but not bhūtaveśī) as a white flowering variety of the Vitex, but not the Nyctanthes.  Apte has the same entry but for bhūtaveśī, which, interestingly he says is known as nirguḍī in Marathi.

Dymock and Warden note that the śephālikā is also known as the pārijātaka, as per the story above, but this causes a new set of problems. The pārijāta(ka) is normally identified as Erythrina variegata or indica, a larger tree with spectacular orange flowers.  Known as paribhadra or mandāra in Sanskrit and the coral tree in English, it is one of the five divine trees which Krishna stole from Indra’s garden to give to Satyabhāmā.  Pandanus and Monier Williams both identify the pārijāta(ka) as such and don’t link it to the Nyctanthes but Apte identifies the pārijāta(ka) solely as the Nycanthes while relating the same story of Krishna stealing it from heaven and noting that it is one of the five divine trees.

To confound matters further, the śephālikā seems to be popularly known now as the pārijātaka – at least in some parts of the country.  For the purposes of this article, though, pārijāta(ka) is assumed to be Erythrina and mentions to it in kāvya were not included partly because it is difficult to tell which plant is being referred to in any given verse, and partly because most of the time it is unlikely to be the śephālikā.

Other names are more straightforward.  Rajanī-hāsa could mean either ‘the one who forms the night’s smile’ (smiles are characterised as white) or ‘the one who smiles (ie: blooms) at night’.  Atyūhā means ‘the one who thinks too much’.

The śephālikā is known as sebhāliā, sehālī and sehāliā in Prakrit, and modern Indian names for the śephālikā include:

–          Hindi: harsiṅgār, parjā

–          Bengali: śephālikā, śephāli, śiuli

–          Tamil: paviḻamallikai

–          Mal: paviḻamalli, pārijātam

It is known in English as night jasmine or coral jasmine.

Botanical Description

The Pandanus database of Indian plants describes the Nyctanthes thus:

A large shrub or a small tree up to 10m high, fragrant white flowers with orange corolla, grows all over India up to 1500m elevation, also cultivated in gardens.


पर्याप्तं ते पवनचलितैर् अङ्गरागं परागैः

स्थाने कुर्युस्समसमुदयाद्बन्धवो बन्धुजीवाः।


चूडाचन्द्रं पुरविजयिनः स्वर्णदीपेन पूर्णम्॥

paryāptam te pavana-calitaiḥ aṅga-rāgam parāgaiḥ

sthāne kuryuḥ sama-samudayāt bandhavaḥ bandhu-jīvāḥ |

yena anviṣyasi a-cala-tanayā-pāda-lākṣā-anuṣaktam

cūḍā-candram pura-vijayinaḥ svarṇadī-phena-pūrṇam ||

The bandhujīva trees will powder you all over with red pollen dislodged by the wind, and appropriately so, as they are relatives of yours – they blossom at the very time you set off. Once you’ve been anointed you’ll look like the moon on Śiva’s head, smeared with the lac of Parvatī’s feet and filled with Gaṅgā’s foam.

1.12 – Haṃsasandeśa, Vedānta Deśika (the ‘you’ referred to is a white swan, a rājahaṃsa, who is to carry Rāma’s message to the imprisoned Sītā)

The bandhūka or bandhujīva has a bright red flower that is the default standard of comparison, along with the bimba (a small, and popular, vegetable that turns from green to red when very ripe), for a lady’s lips – the lower one in particular.  At times, the flower plays a more active role – eclipsing, along with the white mālatī, the moonshine of women’s bright-teethed smiles in the Ṛtusaṃhāra, and rivalling the lak-smeared lip of the dancing gopikā in the Kirātārjunīya whose forehead it adorns.

The bandhūka, though, is also an important part of śarad.  In the Ṛtusaṃhāra the departing śarad entrusts each of her best aspects to women; the blush of the bandhūka flower of course is deposited in their lower lips.  And at times, the bandhūka forms the lower lip of Ṥarad herself.

Monier Williams notes that the flower opens at midday – hence the synonym madhyāhnika (‘the noon flower’) – and withers the next morning.  Oddly though this doesn’t seem to have been picked up by the poets – who have an extravaganza with the day-blooming lotus and night-blooming lily – at least not in the kāvya that I have read.


The Amarakośa lists only raktaka (‘the red one’) and bandhujīvaka as synonyms.  The literal meaning of bandhujīva(ka) is ‘one who lives with his kin’.  The word ‘bandhu’ which refers to a friend or kinsman can also refer to this plant – and the name andhūka is derived from this – hence the word-play in the verse at the top of this post with bandhavaḥ (the bahuvacana or plural of bandhu).  Does this refer to a tendency of the bandhūka to grow in clusters?  The Pandanus description specifically notes that it grows singly or in pairs.  It is not much found in the South and the one plant I have seen was indeed growing alone.

Apart from the synonym madhyāhnika, the only other Sanskrit name seems to be ‘arka-vallabha’ – lover of the sun – which we may imagine has something to do with its tendency to flower at midday.

Modern Indian names include:

–          Hindi – gul dupahariyā, dopahariyā, gojuniyāṃ

–          Marathi – dupārī

–          Bengali – bandhūka

–          Gujarati – beporiyo

–          Tamil: uccittilakam

–          Mal: uccamalari

In English it is known as the noon plant, a direct translation of madhyāhnika, and its botanical name is Pentapetes phoenicea.

Botanical Description

The Pandanus database of Indian plants describes it as:

An annual herb, 60 – 150 cm high, growing in marshy and wet places in north-western India, Bengal and Gujarat, leaves lanceolate, serrate, flowers pink or red, solitary or in pairs, fruits subglobose capsules

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