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



zurabeth said...

Dear maddy,
Monsoon brings back many good and old memmories.
well its been told that we have a good monsoon this year,but we also had a very hot hot summer too!!!!!.Chirapunji itself has been getting fewer rains these days due to mining and all.hope we wont hear a lore of a monsoon season coming in the future.

Maddy said...

Srini says


Do I detect a slight short changing of the ancient Kerala and Coromandel sailor in the above statement?

The classical Tamil texts (e.g., purananuru 66) do talk about a Tamil king Karikālaṉ as 'muṉṉīr nāvāy ōṭṭi vaḷi toḻil aṇta uravōṉ'
മുന്നീര്‍ നാവായ് ഒട്ടി വളി തൊഴില്‍ ആണ്ട ഉരവോന്‍
meaning 'the strong one who ruled the seasonal winds and plied his ships in the three seas'.
There are other references to the trade winds too which escape me at the moment.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the trade could well have originated at the other end viz., the Indian coast.


Maddy said...

Thanks Zubareth..
mining in Cherapunji?
i have an interesting book by binoo K john about Cherapunji - under a cloud, have to get my teeth into it.

Maddy said...

Thanks Srini..
No doubt that monsoon sailing existed much before Hippalus. Indian ships ventured out and back, Arab traders plied the Arabian seas. For the Greeks, it was regularized after Hippalus, I presume. But the sailing timing was different for Indian traders, not the SW monsoon. more on that some other day. And the trade pattern was thus
Arab & other traders - red sea route to Malabar.
Gujju traders - Gujarat ports to Persian Gulf ports.
Coromandel traders - Far east & china routes.

probably you will have some inputs on my Muziris blog

L N Srinivasakrishnan said...

Thanks, Maddy, for posting my comment. I was having difficulties with it earlier.


Sorcerer said...

Nice to come across another blogger from Kerala. :)
Was searching for a picture of Yakshi and Google Turned up a post in your blog as a search suggestion.

Yes..Monsoon at full swing in kerala..Atleast was at full swing.
NIce to read a wonderful blog ..its always refreshing to read about rain and all.

The pics in this posts are brilliant..quiet cool

subhie said...

planning to visit kerala some day...keep reading about it...and here i found a nice refreshing account of the monsoon beauty of kerala...nice :)

meena said...

One of the best books I read - Chasing the monsoon.
Found it in a second hand book shop and I love the semi-journalistic style of writing. Very thorough and still valid descriptions.Someone mentioned a BBC series on to dig that up.

Maddy said...

thanks meena
that was a good book, i have it.
try & read binoo K john's under a cloud, also a good book touching this topic

Bugs bunny said...

I doubt if L Anantakrishnaiyer was the Dewan of the Cochin maharaja.Yes he did write about the tribes , he hailed from lakshminarayanapuram in palakkad .quite an interesting piece as it came from my great grandfather! thanks

Maddy said...

thanks BB
You are right - my error . He just had the title Dewan Bahadur and was not a Dewan...apologies, the title misled me..

Unknown said...

Wow ! Wesome

Biju charles said...

I too love monsoon. Like most people, there are memories attached to the gushing water, or walking past the water logged fields. Thanks for sharing such natural pics of monsoon in all forms.

Suchithra said...

Beautifully written madhuetta..loved the story abt the history of rains,never ever knew such a story existed..