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Savista, at Village Sanjharia, Off Ajmer Road, Jaipur 302042, Rajasthan

Jaipur monsoon

Across India, the season of annual rains – the Monsoon – enters its  peak around the middle of July. For the thirty days from the middle of July until the middle of August – a lunar month – this period is observed as a sacred month. Since it is generally a month when it rains almost everyday and no active agricultural interventions are possible – the monsoon crop takes care of itself –  historically it left people free to turn their minds to other things. We may be living in a post-industrial cyber age today and climate change may be causing shifts in the pattern of the rains (this year, for instance, the rains in India set in later than usual, delaying the start of the peak season), but across the country among ordinary people, many of the religious rituals, social customs and festivals traditionally associated with this month continue to be observed according to the prescriptions of the traditional Hindu lunar calendar. Different Indian languages have different names for this month. In Hindi-speaking Jaipur, Rajasthan, and the rest of northern India, it is Shravan,  colloquially referred to as Sawan. In the Tamil country in southern India it is Aadi. In Kerala – also in south India – it is Karkadakam.

Those following tradition focus on spiritual and religious matters during this month,  marked by austere living and eating – no alcohol, no meat – and prayer.  In north India, the belief in the ‘big tradition’ is that the gods go into a period of sleep during this month, leaving humans to look inwards and address their own spiritual and physical well being.  But Hinduism is a religion that allows for multiple ways of relating to the notion of the divine.  Across Rajasthan, for example, there are multiple shrines tucked away in small villages that are dedicated to minor / tribal gods, and to men – called “pirs” – belonging to castes  lower down in the Hindu social hierarchy, men who led outstanding ethical lives and became icons for these social groups.  These  ‘gods’ are not seen as sleeping during this month and the shrines dedicated to them are revered and visited by ordinary able-bodied people in large numbers (often on foot, as a sign of devotion). Older people traditionally divide their time between prayer, ritual, and the self healing that goes with an austere diet.

For  youth,  the rains and free play of nature in all its fecundity have always evoked the spirit of romance and the enjoyment of the outdoors. It is also a time for music and dancing. North Indian classical music has a whole body of compositions dedicated to the romance of the rains. And folk music too is rich with compositions on this theme.

Overall, in Rajasthan and north India Shravan is a month of Shiva worship; Shiva is known as Adi Yogi or the “the Original Yogi”, symbolising deep meditation.  It is also a time dedicated to the worship of Parvati, the consort of Shiva who represents the principle of energy and creation.  Finally, Shravan is a time for the worship of water which is among the most vital of life’s resources.  In Rajasthan, the month begins with one of the most important festivals of the year,  Teej.  Teej is a women-focused festival. Married women, dressed in red bridal finery, collectively worship Parvati  celebrated here as the symbol of marital bliss in the union that she enjoys with Shiva.  Yet-to-be-married girls also dressed in brilliant clothes, are part of this festivity to pray for good husbands and happy married lives.  The worship takes place in the outdoors.  Women and girls collect in groups, and singing all the way walk  to ponds, streams or rivers near where they live and offer worship to the water as the giver of life, after which they picnic there and sing and dance.

As in the north, in peninsular south India Aadi or Karkadakam is a month of austere eating.  It is marked by the reading, recitation and singing of the Ramayana, one of the great epics of the Hindus which expounds on what is the virtuous life. In Kerala it is also the month of  Ayurvedic treatments and resting the body in keeping with the indigenous medical traditions of the region.  It is a time to visit temples, pamper domestic animals and visit and ceremonially feed the elephants attached to temples;  elephants are symbolically closely linked with both water and mother goddess worship. Across the country, the month culminates in the celebration of several festivals.

In Rajasthan, the month of Shravan ends with Raksha Bandhan on the full moon day. Raksha Bandhan is a family bonding festival that celebrates the renewal of the bonds of love and mutual support between brothers and sisters.  In a region where marriages have traditionally been arranged between families living hundreds of miles apart, this is a longed-for occasion when women return to their parents’ home and are reunited with their siblings. In the coastal (peninsular) regions of the country, the full moon is the occasion to offer worship to the sea.  It is of particular significance for people whose livelihood depends on the sea such as fishing communities. The festival of Narial Purnima is an annual occasion to pray for calm waves and winds and fecund oceans which would bring in a plentiful harvest in the coming year.  Fishermen refurbish their nets and boats in preparation for the new fishing season, boats are gaily decorated, and the new season for the year is ceremonially initiated with worship followed by a regatta.  After the ceremonies, people celebrate with feasting and dancing.   Among Brahmins across the country – the traditional priestly caste among the Hindus –  the full moon day is the culmination of a month of spiritual renewal, symbolised by the ceremonial annual changing of the ‘sacred thread’ (worn by men). This, too, was traditionally done collectively by the banks of rivers, lakes or ponds and water offered as homage to the ancestors. In Kerala, the month long recitation of the Ramayana ends in the Kerala people’s new year’s day, celebrated as Onam the festival of plenty.

Across India, eight days after the closure of this month comes the festival of Lord Krishna. Krishna is the ultimate symbol of devotion.  But he is also the supreme symbol of love, romance and music. His birthday is celebrated as Krishna Jayanti or Krishna Janmashtami.

As the rains slow down and begin to peter off over the fortnight following the full moon, it is time for farmers to get ready to set the next agricultural cycle in motion.  It is a time for salutation to Ganesha, the god of auspicious beginnings.  The festival  of Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated across the country and is one of the most popular festivals of the year.

India is a country that has historically been an agrarian one, and praying for good rains and fertility of the earth has always had an overriding meaning.   And for migrant communities such as traders, warriors, workers and herdsmen,  the rains are a time to return to the fold of the family, a time to renew primary kinship bonds.  This has always been the case particularly in Rajasthan which is an arid region, where farming is only one of several other means of livelihood. Even in our global secular environmental ethos, the well-being of nature is central to the well-being of all who inhabit planet earth – plants, animals, and humans alike.  And a dedicated period when we focus inwards on our own physical and spiritual healing is fast becoming a necessity given the stressful pace of the lives we lead.

We invite you, wherever you are, to celebrate with us this beautiful season of nature’s greatest bounty – water. _____________________________________

You can read past posts for more about this season of the rains: