Monsoon legends

The monsoon came 4 days late to the shores of Kerala, giving a huge respite to the burning masses. As it was a little bit delayed, people who depended on it got alarmed. Some like the IMD said the El Niño delayed it, other experts opined that the Indian Ocean dipole compensates the Niño and that there is nothing to be alarmed about. The stock markets swayed and teetered on the edge, the population already nervous after their favorite Maggi noodles got pulled off the shelves looking at alternate snacks would now be heaving large sighs of relief. Anyway I will dwell not on matters such as global warming and atmospheric depressions, and will leave it for meteorologists to explain and sort out in far better fashion.

But all that reminded me of a couple of characters who were as legends go were responsible for the onset of monsoons in our land. So I will take you back to a time well into the past, even before the Rig Veda which made the first mentions of the event, in which it is said that the rains were halted by Vritra an asura or demon, or perhaps, not exactly so. The story is interesting with so many connotations, contradictions and explanations and is set in a time frame well after the Himalayas were formed, for without the Himalayas, there would be no SW monsoon!

To understand it from a realistic perspective, you have to get a good handle on the time frames. Lifted by the collision of the Indian tectonic plate with the Eurasian Plate, the Himalayan range which was formed some 40-50 million years ago runs northwest to southeast in a 1,500 miles long arc. A lot of climatic changes occurred and it is presumed that the first coastal civilizations developed on Indian coast around 17,000BCE just as the ice age was tapering off. As warming started, the next 2,000 years brought about changes, and eventually with sea levels rising, the coasts started to get flooded. By 13,000 BCE, floods occurred, Matsya appears and as agreed with Manu, the Vedas are saved. And then things changed again around 11000 BCE as the younger Drya or mini ice age restarted (some say caused by a comet impact) and the freeze returned. Glaciers and ice covered the Northern regions, as the south and south East Asia continued to prosper. The climates change again by 9600 BCE, warming starts, the ice melts, the Sarasvati river dries up as time goes by, the western regions become desert like and hot and the monsoon phenomena which we see these days, sets in. Life since then is more or less as we know of it today, though the sea levels can be seen to be rising again….

This story has nicely been explained in a mythological fashion in many religions with the arrival of
Noah, Gods, goddesses and the demons or asuras. The changes for the good are wrought out after mighty duels with the good triumphing over evil. Why so, because after all, in those days and today, religion is and was a good way of bringing about a semblance of control  over a large group of relatively less literate people, across a large geographical area. These simple but graphic stories were understood easily by the masses when explained by a venerable sage or traveling mendicant and ultimately they took root in their psyche. Today they are part and parcel of our lives and in most cases we heard our own versions from our grandmothers and grandfathers.

The central myth of the monsoons is that Vritra, a demon, would prevents the breaking of the monsoon over India and in order to save the beings on earth, Indra comes out to destroy Vritra, so that the monsoon breaks and rainfall results. The precipitation from the dark water heavy clouds ( the battle within the cloud, accompanied with lots of lightning, thunder – the battle of Indra and Vritra) with the help of other gods like Marut/Vayu (the fast monsoon winds), Vajra – lightning and thunderbolt and Vishnu (Sun) is in reality just a climatic fact, explained off in a simple story.
And so with that, let us get to the fascinating duel between Indra the weather god and Vritra the demon who was a hindrance to creating a salubrious climate for the peoples of India. Note for a moment that the Rigveda was compiled in the post Dreya period in the Saraswati river basins up north, as the people moved from the coasts to the interior, following the retreat of the glaciers and the exposure of fertile cultivable land. The story we will now tell, first got mentioned in the Rig Veda. Its analysis and interpretation is varied, depending on which Sanskrit scholar reviewed it or which European author transcribed it as he saw it or understood it. I claim no particular expertise on such matters, but will stick as close as possible to the legendary story line.

Indra is an interesting character, he is godly and virtuous at times and no so at other times. He has a huge ego, is lustful, is quite non-vegetarian, prone to consuming Soma, and did a lot of things gods are not supposed to do. The story of Indra and Ahalya is something I will get into in a separate article, but this is about his altercation with Vritra. His character changes with time and as Brahmanism sets into North India, he can be seen to lose favor (perhaps due to his well-known attributes). But in Vedic times, he was the master of the heavens, though one can also practically assume that he was the personification of a powerful king of the region (the Sarasvati basin), fighting incessantly with the aboriginal tribes of the dasas for superiority.

Legends about Indra describe him as riding either in a golden chariot pulled by two horses or mounted on a white elephant named Airavata signaling his arrival with rainfall, a rainbow or the sound of a gathering storm. Indra, the king of the gods is central in the Rigveda and can be seen to be the Indo-European cousin of the German Wotan, Norse Odin, Greek Zeus, Zoroastrian Avesta, and Roman Jupiter. He has been given numerous titles including Sakra (Powerful), Vajri (the Thunderer), Purandara (Destroyer of Cities), Meghavahana (Rider of the Clouds), and Svargapati (the Lord of Heaven). Indra held court at Svarga, sometimes somewhere near Amaravati and said to be around the clouds surrounding the highest peak of the sacred mountain Meru.

In the Hindu legends, the story goes thus. Indra is the god of Swragaloka and as master of the gods is supremely arrogant. One day when his guru Brihaspati visited his court, Indra shows disrespect by not acknowledging him and with that the guru walks away. Without the guru guiding the gods, they lose their next battle with the Asuras, who incidentally are also their cousins. The distraught Indra is then advised by Brahma to seek another guru, this time from the enemy’s den and recommends Viswarupa, son of Twashta. Viswarupa readily agrees, and the gods win the next battle after learning Narayana Kavacha , but Indra still does not have full belief in Viswarupa who is also seen praying for his own brethren, the asuras. In a fit of fury, Indra kills Viswarupa and this naturally gets the enraged father to create a huge monster of a son named Virtra or Ahi who as designed, swears to destroy Indra.

Soon Indra has to fight the monster to save the heavens but realizes that he is no match for the huge and powerful Vritra who could swipe away a mountain with a flick of his tail. Again he realizes the folly of arrogance and now rushes to Vishnu for help. Vishnu ponders for a bit and tells him to approach a sage Dadhichi, persuade him to give up his life and use his bones of his arms (or backbone) to make a super powerful club called Vajrayudha (Two corollaries exist as to why this was so, one - Dadichi had been praying for years for salvation and his pure faith is attributed to the strength of his bones, two he as the armorer for the heavens had for security reasons converted all the weapons into liquid form and swallowed it, thus making his bones better than any weapon). Dadichi received Indra cordially and accedes to the request, after making Indra bring all rivers to one location for him to complete his penance, and soon after his soul ascending the stairway to heaven, his bones are ground up and converted into a weapon, the Vajrayudha, to kill Vritra.

Vritra in the meantime, had already made a nuisance of himself and created a huge drought by swallowing up all the waters of the world and ensconcing them in his mammoth stomach (hence his name – Vritra the enveloper). The world dried up and people suffered, the gods as well.

But there is still a complication, for Vritra had a boon that nobody could kill Vritra with any weapon made of wood, metal or stone, with anything dry or wet or at any time during the day or night. The fact that a weapon made of bone was now available to Indra was small consolation since the other two requirements were also tough to counter. To prep himself for the battle, Indra consumed a large amount of the Soma potion, which helped. Indra thus strengthened himself for the ballet of battles by eating a lot of meat (one account mentions 300 buffaloes and 3 lakes of soma) and drinks of the elixir of immortality, the soma, which priests offer to him. The fight starts, with Indra finding the going very difficult, but he eventually succeeded in drawing away Vritra to the sea shore, fought with him until dusk (neither night nor day, destroying some 99 forts built by Vritra during this period and the exchange of much magic and illusionary feats) and stunned him by flinging foam from the sea waves at Vritra (neither wet not dry). Using this opportunity Indra plunged the Vajrayudha into Vritra’s body, killing him. In other versions, he is actually swallowed by Vritra but he cuts up Vritra’s stomach from inside killing him and emerging out, victorious. Vritra incidentally was Chitraketu reborn as an Asura due to his insulting Parvathi who was seated on Rudra’s lap. He was therefore looking forward to getting killed so that he could also get salvation and join Vishnu’s side in heaven.
The waters held in the body of the cloudlike Vritra flowed down into the earth and that was the onset of the first monsoon. As the story goes, this is repeated every year (don’t ask me why, perhaps Vritra is like the Hydra) and that is the monsoon you see. The complete story has a lot of masala attached with the entry of his assistants, the Maruts or sons of Shiva (Rudra as he was known then), Vayu, Agni and so on. According to the Rig Veda, the Maruts are the ones who use their axes to split the clouds open so that rain could fall. During this event Indra also splits the Arnava and changes course of the Indus to flow northward!

But the story is not over, for it is said that by killing Vritra who was the son of a Brahmin, Indra was culpable to the sin called Brahmahatya. Indra was terrified realizing this (in some versions he is chased by a demoness Brahmahatya) and fled to hide himself inside the stalk of the lotus on which Brahma was usually seated. And he would not come out, and the whole world suffered as a result, for he was after all, the king of gods. So, Brahma had to come up with a novel solution by splitting the sin into four and allocating it to water, trees, fire and women. These elements agreed to accept the sin on condition that those who pollute nature get a share of it. One part is given to women who are supposed to pass it to a man who has intercourse with her during mensuration, another part to water which passes it on to people who dirty it, the third part to trees and herbs who pass it on to people who cut them up at the wrong time of the year and finally the forth part to Agni or fire who passes it on to the person who fails to kindle it. With this Indra gets acquitted but not fully, and I will cover that aspect when I tell you the Ahalya story.

One thing you will note is that in the Vedic times, Indra was held in great respect, but as the Brahmanic period started, he lost out to Vishnu and Siva and was cast off as a Brahmin killer and doer of unacceptable acts. But we do note that as a mortal king, he leads cattle raids against the dasas, or dasyus, native inhabitants of the lands over which his people now rule. Now comes the variations, if Indra was an Aryan invader or not, if he was godly or not, if the battle was mythical of just the documentation of a fight between Indra the local king and Vrita a dasa chief. The Dasyu were clearly a group of people that held religious beliefs different from the Arya. The Dasas and Dasyus are also described as brahma-dvisah or "prayer haters" (loosely meaning the people that don't follow the same religion as the Aryans, non-performers of Aryan sacrifices, and observers of other rites) and non-singers of laudatory hymns).

According to Bentley, the Vedas refer frequently to conflicts between Aryans and indigenous peoples whom the Aryans called dasas, meaning “enemies” or “subject peoples.” The Vedas identify Indra, the as a war god and military hero, as one who ravaged citadels, smashed dams, and destroyed forts the way age consumes cloth garments. These characterizations suggest that these people clashed frequently with the local inhabitants of the Indus valley, attacking their cities and wrecking the irrigation systems that had supported agriculture in Harappan society.

Brian Smith opines - In the view of the noble patrons of the Vedic poets, Indra, the greatest and most anthropomorphic god of the early Vedas, was primarily a warrior god who could be invoked to bring booty and victory. Agriculturalists and hunters emphasized Indra’s fecundity, celebrating his festivals to produce fertility, welfare, and happiness. Indra, however, was essentially a representative of useful force in nature and the cosmos; he was the great champion of an ordered and habitable world. His repeated victories over Vritra, the representative of obstruction and chaos, resulted in the separation of heaven and earth (the support of the former and the stabilization of the latter), the rise of the sun, and the release of the waters—in short, the organization of the universe

And like so many other Hindu legends, these stories also ended up in Greek mythology, and you can find parallels, with Jupiter, Heracles, and so on.

Now let us look at the monsoon business a bit scientifically - The southwestern summer monsoons
typically occur from June through September. The Thar Desert and adjoining areas up in the North heat up during the summer and the hot air rises up, causing a low pressure area over the northern and central Indian subcontinent. The moisture-laden winds from the Indian Ocean rush in to the void created by the low pressure, and are drawn towards the Himalayas and as they encounter the Ghats, forces them to rise. As the clouds rise, their temperature drops and precipitation occurs. The eastern areas of the Western Ghats do not receive much rain from this monsoon as the wind does not cross the Western Ghats. The Arabian Sea Branch of the Southwest Monsoon first hits the Sahyadri or Western Ghats (These mountains formed during the break-up of the supercontinent of Gondwana some 150 million years ago, intercept the rain-bearing westerly monsoon winds, and are consequently an area of high rainfall, particularly on their western side)off the coastal state of Kerala, India, thus making this area the first state in India to receive rain from the Southwest Monsoon. This branch of the monsoon moves northwards along the Western Ghats with precipitation on coastal areas, west of the Western Ghats.

NS Rajaram explains the evolution lucidly - During the Ice Age, the great Himalayan rivers from the Indus to the Mekong either did not exist or were minor seasonal flows that could at best support small populations that subsisted by hunting, fishing and food gathering. The monsoon was also weak because low temperatures meant less evaporation. Population centers were mainly in the tropics, in tropical Asia and Africa. These were concentrated in the Savannahs in Africa and by lakes and coastal regions in India and Southeast Asia. The Vedic civilization was sustained by agriculture. What triggered the agricultural revolution was the release of the frozen waters- an event that transformed not only India but also East Asia. Temperatures rose as much as 5 degrees Celsius, melting the Himalayan glaciers in which enormous quantities of fresh water had been locked up as ice and snow. Higher temperatures also meant increased evaporation and a more vigorous monsoon. Lakes and rivers had two new sources of freshwater- melting glaciers and the abundant monsoon. Great perennial rivers burst forth from the Himalayas- Indus, Sutlej, Sarasvati (now dry), Yamuna and Ganga in North India, and Brahmaputra, Irrawady and Mekong to the east. Of these the Sarasvati was the greatest- as the Rigveda describes, and as science now confirms. It was flowing in all its majesty from 8000 B.C. to 4,000 B.C. It began to decline about 3500 B.C. and dried up completely in the 2200 B.C. to 1900 B.C period.

But the joy and the beauty of the monsoon is usually felt only by the inhabitants who see it year after year. One foreigner, a French geographer, Elisée Reclus puts it so poetically - But to whatever causes it may be due, the monsoon is one of the most majestic of terrestrial phenomena. The spectacle presented at its first approach may be easily contemplated from Matheran, near Bombay, from Mahabaleshvar, or any of the other headlands of the Western Ghats, which command at once a view of the sea, the coast, and the mountain gorges. The first storm-clouds, forerunners of the tempest, usually gather between the 6th and 18th of June, according to the year. On one side of the horizon the coppery vapours are piled up like towers, or, according to the local expression, are massed together “ like elephants in battle; ” and as they move slowly towards the land, one half of the firmament becomes densely overcast, while not a speck sullies the deep azure in the opposite direction. On the one hand, mountains and valleys are wrapped in darkness; on the other, the outline of the seaboard stands out with intense sharpness, the surface of sea and rivers assumes the metallic hue of steel, the whole land, with its scattered towns, glitters with а weird glare. As the clouds strike the crags of the Western Ghats, the thunder begins to rumble, the whirlwind bursts over the land, the lightnings flash incessantly, the peals grow more frequent and prolonged, the rain is discharged Then the black clouds are suddenly rent asunder, the light of the day gradually returns, all nature is bathed in the rays of the setting sun, and of all the banked-up masses nothing remains except some fleecy vapor ascending the valleys or drifting over the tree-tops.

Such is usually the first outburst of the monsoon, after which follow the regular rains. But the watery mists will at times present themselves unescorted by the majesty of thunder and lightning, and then а midnight darkness unexpectedly overspreads the horizon, and the whole land is deluged by torrential rains.  At times also the dense masses drift slowly along the mantling headlands for hours together, like fleets of war-ships sailing by a line of strongholds, each cloud in its turn discharging its electric shocks as it doubles the capes. The heavens seem then to be at war with the frowning cliffs of the seaboard.

These winds which carried those dark clouds were the winds which brought traders and trade to the western shores and the land famed for its spices and pepper. During the rainy seasons, the ports close, people retire for their lean and jobless periods, and go in for rejuvenation and recuperation for a while as joints are made supple with oil massages, and light gruel and soup is consumed to tone up and fortify the immune system. The Ayurveda doctors are busy, so also the masseurs and the health spas. What was once a dreaded kalla karkidakam month is now a ‘healthy time’ vegetarian month while mothers listen to religious epics like Ramayana.

Schools have opened, umbrellas are out, school uniforms are ruined and children make merry while traffic snarls in those flooded roads. People smell musty with ‘not fully dry’ clothes, looking messy with tussled hair and no crease on trousers…

Oh! The rains are here in Kerala, Indra is at work, gouging out Vritra’s stomach as he does year after year, and the waters are pouring. I for one love it and so, here I go, headed to the land of my birth, if only for a few days, to Kerala, a place beautifully termed “gods own country’ or the place where rain is born. My hooked umbrella will come out, my dhoti will fly at half-mast and my rubber ‘Hawaii’ chappals (I am sure that the people of Hawaii do not know that their place is so well known in Kerala where flip flops are the order of the day, any time of the year, but then I could be wrong on this for some others opine that it comes after Hawaii or air sandals) will see the light of the day.

Ocean origins of Indian Civilization – NS Rajaram
Bala Bhagavatam - Swami Chinmayananda
Natural History of the Vedic Civilization - Navaratna Rajaram
The Earth and Its Inhabitants, South America, Volume 8 -  Elisée Reclus

"Rigvedic geography" by Dbachmann.

Indra fighting Vritra - Bidindia