The Monsoons of Kerala

A legend about their origins

The monsoons are pouring in the South and so this is a bit topical. I for one, love monsoons, the pitter patter or pouring rain, the thunder, the lightning, the smell from the land and I miss it all now, though we saw a small shower yesterday in these hot parts. The farmers are happy, the rain timing is right and thus the economic stability pointer points itself in the required direction. Children have new uniforms and new books; all suitably drenched by the fresh rains, as it should be, umbrella manufacturers making money and life on as usual. Clothes are smelling musty due to the lack of sunlight to dry them (cotton clothes put away and replaced by quicker drying tere-cotton) , dhobis on a much needed go slow or vacation whatever way you may want to term it, photographers getting their rain shots and movie makers getting their rain frames done. Life is going on as usual in Kerala.

Much has been said and written about the monsoons of Kerala, of how the Zamorin told the Gama that he could take pepper corns or seedlings, but that he would never be able to replicate the monsoons of Kerala, and so Vasco will have to come back to buy the pepper from Malabar (a myth) . There are books written by people who followed the glorious SW monsoon from Kerala to Cherapunji and there is many a film and article marking the event often. For without rains in June-July, Kerala would just not be Kerala and would never have been, for the monsoon brought trade to these every shores after Hippalus told about it. Probably the word originated from the Arabic ‘mausim’ (season). But behind all these great rains that make our land green, is a legend. I am sure only a handful of you would have heard this, but well, now you are going to. It is quite interesting. I found this in a book by Diwan L.Anatakrishna Iyer, of Cochin, an anthropologist hailing from Palghat who worked for the Cochin king as Dewan and who wrote about the castes and tribes or Mysore &Cochin.

Why do we have so much rain? Let me recount Iyer’s story (based on a poem written by the mythical Parasuraman for the Brahmins and told in the Kerala Kalpam)..

The following story is told to account for so much rain in Kerala. In days of yore, there was, at one time, no rain in the kingdoms of Chera, Chola and Pandya, and all living beings were dying of starvation. The kings of the three kingdoms could not find means to mitigate the sufferings of their subjects. They consulted with one another and resolved to do penance to the God of rain. Temporarily leaving the administration of affairs in the hands of the ministers, they went to the forest, and did penance to Indra, the God of rain, who, at the intercession of the great Gods, took pity on them and blessed each of them with rain for four months in the year. Well pleased, they returned to their kingdoms. They soon become discontented, because the first (the Chera king) had not enough of rain, while the other two had too much of it. They again went to the rain god and conveyed to him their grievances. He thereupon directed the kings Cholan and Pandiyan to give two months' rain to the king Cheran. All the three rulers now felt quite satisfied. The king Cheran thus got 8 months' rain for his kingdom, while the other two were satisfied with two months' rain in their own kingdoms.

That is supposed to explain the situation we have in South India today. Now imagine a situation today where Oomen Chandy and Jayalalitha have to sit and discuss such a situation, let alone do a penance..

Back to Iyer’s account.

Their days of birth, namely Thiruvathira (the sixth asterism) in Mithunam (June-July) of Cheran, Swathi (Arcturus) in Thidavi (October-November) of Cholan, Mulam (19th constellation) in Kumbham (February-March) of Pandiyan are worthy of remembrance. For, on these auspicious days commence the monsoons, namely the South West monsoon in Malabar, the North East monsoon or Thulam Varsham in the kingdom of Chola, and the rainy season in the kingdom of Pandya. What are called ambrosial showers of rain are said to fall on these kingdoms rainy the two weeks beginning from the aforesaid date. It is the belief of all castes among the Hindus even now that seeds of plants sown on these days will produce a rich harvest. These days are called Njattu Velas (the best time for planting) in the respective kingdoms and held sacred by the people of these countries.

So now you know the story behind the rains, the planting seasons and how indebted we are to the Tamilians. Lesson - Next time do not blame a pandi lorry for every road mishap. But note also that the Cheranad of this story covers Malabar. Venad or Travancore belonged to the Pandyans.

The story continues to be a revelation in many ways. How many of you know what a para of rain actually means (today’s kids won’t even know what ‘para’ of rice is for that matter, they know only the SI system of grams and kilograms, not even the pound, till they hit British or American shores for higher studies and they think – wow we thought all this old system has gone away and now we have to re-learn the FPS system???)

The unit of measurement of the quantity of rain falling upon earth is called a para, which is the quantity of rain falling upon land, 60 yojanas or 600 miles in length and 100 yojanas or 1,000 miles in breadth.

And how would one make a forecast as to how much rain will fall in a season? A poem to that effect explains thus

If Vishu (1st of Medom) falls on a Satrurday, one para of rain will fall on Kerala and poor harvest and poverty will be the consequence. If it is on a Sunday or Tuesday you will get two paras of rain and the crops will be somewhat OK. If it is a Monday you will get three paras and the crops will be good. If it is a Thursday, you will get four paras and the crops will be bountiful. I think this forecast has changed over time, we had a monsoon break this year on Sunday and it has been raining cats and dogs, many many paras, not just two, so much for Parasurama’s predictions.

And legend also dictated who should NOT work on lands, in a very practical way.

1) Men with no piety to god, with no respect for their Guru and Brahmans

2) People addicted to drinking (does it mean that people drank even during Parasurama’s time?)

3) Men with no frugal habits

4) Dull and sleepy men

5) Men who do not keep proper accounts of income and expenditure.

6) men who do not provide themselves with a sufficient storage of grain for the wages of workmen under them

7) men without the necessary implements of industry 1) crowbar, 2) hatchet, 3) sword, 4) axe, 5) spade and 6) various kinds of wickerwork

8) Men who cannot maintain themselves in Karkadakam (July and August) the lean months

9) Men having no farm house, providing no straw for bullocks In Kanni (September-October),

10) Men having no adequate wages to be given to workmen.

Now it does not stop there, how about selection of bullocks for the land work?

Bullocks to be used for ploughing and other agricultural purposes should possess the following qualities:- (I) the hind part round and fat; (2) the back-bone nearly straight and raised; (3) white, black or red spots (active); (4) thick nose; (5) raised head, and bent horns; (6); no decaying teeth: (7) bent and small horns; 18) small and fair like ponies; (9) soft dung; (10) long tail; (11) eating its food quickly.

Bullocks that hare to be rejected are those having (1) long hoofs, (2) small tails, (3) bent back-bones, (4) thick and heavy horns, (5) marks of leprosy, (6) decaying teeth, (7) the hind legs touching each other while walking, (8) belly like a rattan box, (9) no horns, and (10.) passing loose dung. Buffaloes should be dark coloured and have their bodies round.

These monsoons are so important and affect the lives of over half the world’s population. They dictated wars, famines, disaster and richness over centuries and are a very special phenomenon. It was a period when men have invigorating tonics and rejuvenating massages, soups and so on, and women read holy books at dusk for the well being of their family. Today life goes on as usual, with the advent of modern technology that provides heat and dryness when needed, cold air when warm. You are ensconced in a cocoon created by development, warmed by the belief that all is well, as you sit back and watch life unfolding on TV, life dictated by the idiot box. And you dream of your childhood days and the fun and frolic when the rains came. So why not get out and stand in the pouring rain for a few minutes, with your family?

Do it..

It will do you a sea of good and you will not catch a cold…

The Ethnographical survey of the Cochin state – L Anatha Krishna Iyer (Dewan Bahadur)

India post, Rajasthan talkies, myopera


Wandering Around in Beijing – Part 2

There is so much to say about the short visit, as one is supposed to do when the things you see are so alien to you, but then again it takes a lot of space, so I will just hit on some highlights. Yes, we saw the awesome forbidden city, we climbed the great wall (it is not so easy – mind you), saw the summer palace and the temple of heaven, visited the lama temple and went to the very interesting markets like the Yashow, the antiques market at Panjiayuan and lolled around the Tiananmen square. We then went off the beaten track and took the bullet train to Tianjin and saw the city and went to Xian to see the terracota warriors…

At the Panjiayuan antique market
One thing you are made aware of often is Feng Shui. This is part of ancient and everyday life in Beijing. While it was frowned upon after 1949, people still follow it and had followed it since ancient times. The dragon line goes right through the Forbidden City and beyond…the line that only the emperor can walk on…Some Beijing natives admit that it has its origins in the ancient Vastu from India brought along by Buddhist monks and got a little altered along the way.. The basic assumptions are that the key to living a harmonious and rewarding life is to reflect the balance of nature in daily life, which principally involves the following concepts: yin and yang, qi , and the five elements of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. Many a person connects up immediately with India as the source of their religion Budhism, but the version followed in Beijing is Daoism (or Taoism) where one follows the tao or the way.

We did get pulled into a house of Chinese herbal medicine, and to be sure it was a kind of tourist trap where they hold your pulse and tell you what is wrong with you, much like we have in Ayurveda. The Mexican couple with us wanted to know more about how it was in Ayurveda and wanted to go to Kerala to figure it all out and we muttered words of encouragement for they seemed gung ho about the prospect..the cost of the CHM was astronomical (some 400$ for a 3 month supply) and nobody purchased any of the professed elixirs to a great life ahead, and I read in the same days paper that the stuff which is commonplace in Chinese medicine (they do not use much of allopathic medicines there) is priced at $15 for a few months supply and people were complaining that it was already double what it was a month ago...

At the village
The village - a happening place
The Village is the happening place in Beijing for foreigners, where you have the up market shops and many a different type of cuisine. You also have the massage centers where we had a fantastic foot massage done after the painful feet following many days of walk walk…..The yashow market was fun lukki lukki chipi chipi chants following us along the way (means look look cheap cheap). That is also where the Indian grocery shop is located…

Temple of heaven
The summer palace

 But the secret to the health in china is green tea. Many a person you see on the street or in any office has his or her own flask with a bunch of green tea leaves. They keep topping it up with hot water as the level goes down and take sit right through the day. Keeps all the nasty microbes at bay it seems. There are many brands ranging from a few dollars a kilo to many hundred dollars a kilo.

Lama temple
As you walk along Beijing’s parks, or open green spaces you see groups of people doing Taichi. They are employees taking a break and loosening up, it seems. As they explain - Thousands of mostly older people begin their day with a session of taichi (taijiquan) or qigong (exercise to channel qi or energy) in Beijing's parks and other open spaces. The younger people of course exercise mainly their fingers, you can see them texting on their smart phones incessantly and watching the latest recordings from TV on their phones or mp4 players while driving, sitting or standing in trains. That reminds me, even the beggars in trains (they are very rare mind you – I guess it is illegal & risky) are high-tech. They carry recordings of their begging chants and play them through mini PA systems strapped to their body.
A look at the skyline
One of the most fascinating things you see in the mornings as shops open is the Japanese style pep talk provided by the boss to all employees, who line up dutifully for a 5-10 minute session. I am not sure what is said, if it is strategy for the day or just pep talk, but you can see it in all small establishments like restaurants etc.

Tian Jin Colonial building - soon to be dwarfed by the modern
There is still more to say, but some other day I guess…Beijing is a study in contrasts, you have some access problems to the internet and many sites like blogger, youtube and facebook are not accessible, and then you have Chinese version of Youtube…but in many ways you can see things you can connect to with India…and someday I will tell you about the Chinese harkara, the dragon lady, a bit about tasty Uyghur food and the trip to Xian and slurping kanji (rice porridge) and pickle for breakfast 30,000 feet in the clouds….

At the forbidden city gates
The other side of Tiananmen square
I will stop prattling about China with this and get back to tradition with the next blog, but will recommend a visit to Beijing anytime, if you are interested in History and travel…