Indian Culture and Traditions - 18

Indian Culture and Traditions

Bharat Varsha India- A Monsoon Island
By Vimla Patil

Since the pre-Vedic era, the ‘Idea of India’ has been defined  by the Monsoons, a season which brings torrential rains to the plains and  mountains of the sub-continent. Awaited anxiously by millions, the Monsoons  turn India  into a soothing, green vision year after year, even as they fertilize its  sprawling farms and orchards. No wonder then that India’s agriculture, art, music, dance,  literature and religious texts are replete with magical vignettes of rain.  Indeed, the Monsoon is likened to Prana,  the life-force of fecundity in India’s  ornate culture!
    May the rains come on time; may the earth  bend with the weight of foodgrains,
    May  this land be free of scourge, may the learned be fearless,
    May the poor become wealthy and may all live  a hundred autumns,
    May the childless have children and those  with children have grandchildren,
    Lord, give all people a life of well-being….
This is one of India’s  oft-recited Vedic prayers. It is counted among the ten most powerful prayers of  India.  Like most others, this beautiful Sanskrit poem refers to rain as the  fertilizing power for the land, as well as the promoter of human welfare and  the longevity and health of generations of people. This is because Monsoon  rains have been the central theme of India’s history from times  immemorial.
“Monsoon rains are a  unique feature of the Indian sub-continent,” says Dr. Gautama Vajracharya of  the University of Wisconsin, Madison,  “It is the only country in the world which has the mighty barrier of the  Himalayas to block the passage of rain-bearing clouds that bring a magical rain-dance  to India  in a specific season every year. India is endowed with the largest  water-bearing cloud system in the world. It is estimated to be the size of the  entire continent of Europe! It feeds innumerable  rivers and their huge network of tributaries to fertilize the subcontinent  which is called Bharat Varsha – or  the Monsoon Island of the Bharatas in  religious literature. It is no wonder then, that the ‘Idea of India’ has been illuminated by the literature, art,  culture, music, religion and way of life inspired by the Monsoon tradition.  Indeed, Monsoons are considered the ‘Prana’  or life-force of India!  The Rigveda contains the famous Parjanya  Sukta and the Aap Sukta which are  recited by priests even today to propitiate rains.”
According to Dr.  Vajracharya, this concept of ‘Prana’ as  linked with the Monsoons, is expressed in all the three Indic religions – i.e. Sanatan  Dharam, Baudh Dharam, Jain Dharam – through sculpture, literature, art, music  and dance.  To begin with, countless  heritage monuments of these religions feature full-bodied men and  sensually-endowed women, well-fed animals and richly-plumed birds. Indeed, the  sculptures or frescoes of Barhut, Amaravati, Sanchi, Ajanta and Ellora as well  as innumerable temples of every historical age show apsaras, celestial beings  and godlings as being amply endowed and ornamented with luxuriant hair. Further,  even the figures of the Buddha and all Jain Tirthankaras – who were mendicants  with shaven heads – as well as Hindu gods and goddesses, are never shown as emaciated  or hairless. All these deities are always shown with well-rounded bodies and  curly hair tied up in a top-knot or arranged over the shoulders.  Similarly, animals – real and mythical –  portrayed in sculptures or paintings are ‘healthy’. Moreover, many sculptures  show the abundance of fruits and flowers together with the animals. Rarely do  we come across an emaciated animal or human being in all the monuments of India because Prana or rain is associated with  prosperity in Indian culture.  
A close look at some  heritage monuments of India  proves this point. In the Ajanta caves, the roof of a cave carries frescos of  all animals and birds – such as cattle, peacocks, tortoises (the symbol of the  River Yamuna), crocodiles (Makara, the mythical crocodile on which the Ganga  rides) and elephants – which are associated with rain or water. In the Barhut,  Amaravati and Sanchi monuments, the common motifs that illustrate this unflinching  devotion to the Monsoons are stylized figures of frogs, (some psalms of the  Rigveda and the Atharvaveda are about frogs), Makara, the mythical crocodile,  peacocks, swans and cattle as well as men and women who look prosperous. The  Kumbha – or the pot of fullness-prosperity – also features with these motifs. Further,  there are many references to the Ashwatha or Peepal tree in ancient literature  and sculptures as it is considered the symbol of rain. It features in  innumerable monuments either with Krishna,  Mahavir or the Buddha. Its leaf is a common motif used in all art in India. In fact,  in the Hindu tradition of creation, the child Krishna floats on a Peepal leaf  in the Cosmic Ocean contemplating the creation of the universe.
In Vedic literature,  the name Ashwatha is given to the first month of the Monsoon, though later,  this became Ashadha. The holy river Ganga, too, descends to the earth on the  tenth day of the month Jyeshtha, just 20 days before the Monsoons bring green  magic to India.  Indeed, so powerful is this sweeping vision of Prana (Monsoons) that its architectural features like the mythical  Makara have appeared in many Asian countries including Sri Lanka, Cambodia,  Jawa and Burma.  Some interesting facts: Kamadeva, the god of love, carries a flag on which the  Makara is resplendent. The zodiacal sign of Capricorn is called Makara in  Indian astrology. In jewellery, the Makara Kundala, or Makara-shaped ear  ornaments, are worn by Krishna. Makara is also  seen as a motif on railings or balustrades or as gargoyles carrying water from  a Shiva Linga to a pool outside the temple.
The omnipresence of  the Monsoon in Indian culture and religion did not end with the ancient ages. In  Medieval India, it took other forms. Sufi philosophy, with its central belief in  love between the individual soul and the universal soul (Raise thy veil and thou shall see thy beloved), added a vignette of  ‘ethereal romance in the rains’ to the plethora of its images. In Sufi songs  and dances, lovers danced and sang in the rains with a riveting abandon. The romance of Krishna and Radha was already  enveloped in the rain theme. Around these legends of love and rain, a huge  volume of music and poetry was created from the 12th century,  beginning with Jayadeva’s immortal Geet Govind. In this poetry, Krishna and Radha met in fragrant, floral bowers on  rain-drenched, thunder-lit nights to keep romantic trysts. When Krishna was gone, Radha’s longing was symbolized by  passionate prayers for rain and romance. Later, at Emperor Akbar’s court, this  passion for rain music reached a crescendo when Tansen (born a Brahmin) and  other great musicians composed specific Monsoon ragas or melodies to invite  rain. Krishna himself became Ghanashyam or the dark cloud that brings  the bliss of rain to a parched land. His mercy was likened to the ‘showers of  rain which moisten the soul’. Through the golden age of Islamic architecture  and art, Monsoons remained the throbbing heart of Indian life and culture. Classical  dance, music as well as folk songs sung by boatmen, farmers and  courtesan-singers reflected the longing of India for the enriching Monsoons.
Somewhere along the  way, Monsoon ragas found an immortal place in the classical music system of India. Many  scholars say that Monsoon ragas were composed by court musicians and then  dancers and painters adopted these for their art. The jewel among such  musicians was unquestionably Tansen (1506-1589) who was counted among the  Navaratnas – nine gems – at Emperor Akbar’s court. Tansen mastered all ragas  and created his own Monsoon melodies which are a proud part of India’s  music heritage even today. Legend says that he could actually initiate rains  when he sang Monsoon ragas like Megh,  Megh Malhar or his own composition Mian  Ki Malhar. Tansen and the great poet-saint Surdas were close friends and  shared their music mastery. Surdas created the Monsoon raga Sur Malhar. His  father Ramdas, a learned musician, contributed Ramdasi Malhar to the rich  cornucopia of music! Many more Monsoon ragas found expression during this  creative age. These were: Madhu Malhar, Mishra Mel Malhar, Dhulia Malhar and of  course the gentler Goud Malhar! There were also several varieties of Malkauns,  Sarang, Des and other ragas which were specific to the Monsoon.
Soon, a vast body of  devotional compositions based on Monsoon ragas became the rage. Surdas and Tulsidas,  the great author of the Ram Charit Manas, sang Monsoon compositions to allude  to the allegory that just as all rain falling from the skies flows to merge  with the ocean, all living beings flow finally into the shining pool of  divinity. Meerabai, Kabir, Surdas, his father Ramdas, Tulsidas – and many other  poets and saints of the Middle Ages, sang their songs of edgy eroticism in Monsoon  ragas whenever they wanted to express longing for the divine soul.
Krishna  became the icon of the Raga Megh Malhar and was seen in many paintings as the  initiator of the Monsoons! This legend found its way not only into Hindu  culture, but also in the Sufi and Sikh thought. A vast number of schools of  miniature painting showed Krishna as the  central figure of romance who could create the magic of the Monsoon with his  flute. Krishna, according to these artists,  was the quintessential god of love, romance and benevolence who appeared in the  form of rain to ‘shower’ his mercy and love on the world. For example, Guru  Arjun Dev, the fifth Guru of the Sikhs, composed his songs to the Raga Megh  Malhar for the Guru Granth Sahib. These are accompanied by a beautiful painting  of Krishna as the personification of the Raga  Megh Malhar, blowing his divine conch to initiate the Monsoons. In this  painting, Krishna stands under a cloudy sky,  watched by two Gopis, while cranes fly to the safety of their nests as lightning  flashes in the sky! Monsoon ragas were illustrated by every school of miniature  painting. An outstanding example is the Ragamala series which shows musical  modes in a pictorial manner. One of most beautiful paintings in this series is Raga  Megh by Madho Das of Narsinghgarh. It is presently on view at the National Museum,  New Delhi
Millenniums have  passed. Since time immemorial, India  has collected a resplendent treasure of art, architecture, music, dance,  culture and literature based on the theme of the Monsoons. What is more, additions  to this verdant pool of concepts continue to be created. Even today, the  Monsoons remain the scintillating theme of India’s economy, religion, culture  and art.
1. Translation of the Parjanya Sukta, from the Rigveda, which is  recited in Monsoon ragas with specific metres:
  “Then the winds blow…
  Then the lightning falls…
  Then, the flora sprouts and grows
  Then the space overflows,
  Then the land prepares for the welfare
  When Parjanya the Rain God protects the earth by waters!”
  Rigveda 8.53 Parjanya Sukta
  2. Translation of the Aap Sukta from the Rigveda also sung to  Monsoon Raga with specific metres.
  The waters that rain in the skies,
  The waters that spring themselves from below the earth
  And flow in the canals
  And go towards the ocean
  The waters that are clean and sacred
  These goddesses of water may protect me here”

The Romance Of The Wine Glass
By Vimla Patil

Long before European countries woke up to the ‘incredible taste of fermented grape juice’, prehistoric Indian communities were fully conversant with the intoxicating wines they could distill from plants and fruits. Beginning with the Rigveda, the first among India’s ancient Vedas, and ending with the poetry of Mirza Ghalib, eminent Urdu poet of the 18th century, India’s tradition and history prove that the temporal joys offered by a glass of wine and its complex spiritual symbolism were equally familiar to generations of Indians!

Mythology, say scholars, is the cornerstone of India’s ancient civilization. It successfully holds a mirror to societies that lived in this subcontinent long before the first book of history was written. What is more, the history of this country almost runs parallel to the thousands of legends spawned by the rich treasure of its mythology. Often, the strands of mythology and history are woven so intricately, that it is difficult to separate truth from fantasy. Thus, tracing the origin of wine drinking in India takes us on a joyful, evocative ride through various ages – both of mythology and history.
Rig Veda, the first among the four compendiums of wisdom from the earliest civilization of India, pays homage to Soma, liquor that was appreciated highly by the gods. Researchers point out that the ninth chapter of Rig Veda devotes 114 verses in praise of Soma, the ambrosial liquor, considered to be the ‘elixir of immortality’. Different sources from Vedic literature suggest that this liquor was extracted from the milkweed and was offered to the gods as libations during worship. The sources also mention that both priests and hosts were given to drinking Soma during Yagyas or fire rituals when holy chants praised Vedic deities of Nature. This practice, say scholars, gave rise to the belief that intoxication helped a drinker achieve a state of mysticism and brought him closer to a revelation of divinity. Indeed, Soma was the name of the Moon god, who in Hindu mythology is the lord of all herbs and plants.
In the practice of Yogic meditation too, Soma, the nectar of life, was considered to bring about a higher consciousness. The aim of many Yogic practices is the union of the ‘sun’ and the ‘moon’ energies – i.e. the hot and cool elements in a human body. This practice is equivalent to ‘drinking Soma juice (Amara-Varuni) or immortal wine’.
Indeed the word Varuni – or wine – tells its own story. Among the legends that are the pillars of Indian mythology, one that takes pride of place is Amrit Manthan, or the churning of the ocean to obtain Amrit. The legend appears in the Vishnu Purana and describes how the gods on one side and the demons on the other, churned the ocean to discover Amrit, the elixir of immortality. Among the ‘14 jewels’ that the ocean delivered during the churning, was: Mada or Sura, goddess of wine who married Varun, the sea god and became Varuni. Lakshmi, the goddess of good fortune and beauty, Uchchaisravas, the wonderful white horse, Airawat, the heavenly elephant; Kamadhenu, the divine cow signifying plentitude; Soma, the moon; Parijat, the tree of golden flowers; Kalpavriksha, the tree that fulfils wishes; Rambha, the celestial nymph; Shankha, the conch of victory; Gada, the mace of sovereignty; Dhanu, the magic bow and arrow of power; Ratna, jewels from the ocean, among which was the priceless Kaustubh diamond; Dhanvatanri, the physician of the gods and lastly, Amrit, the nectar of immortality carried by Dhanvantari. The ocean also threw up the final poison, which Lord Shiva drank up to save the universe from destruction!
In pursuance of this legend, Varuni became the oft-used word for wine or liquor in ancient literature. Cultural motifs that emerged after the Vedic and Puranic ages, described her as ‘the purifying nectar of immortality, the agent of transcendental wisdom’. Other sources in mythology said that Varuni did not always bring on divine meditation. In the Mahabharat, for example, the drunken Yadavas caused the destruction of their entire clan after the Nirvana of Shri Krishna. So also, the Kauravas, in drunken stupor and arrogance, committed unpardonable mistakes that led to their annihilation.
With the combined impact of these positive and negative aspects of intoxication, wine became a popular motif in Indian mythology. It was considered that the ‘fermented juice of grapes’ produced a beverage pleasant to taste and created profound physiological changes in the drinker.’ Wine drinking, over the millenniums, became a powerful symbol of life, death and rebirth and represented a medium through which the drinker could ‘enter the presence of divinity’.
This has not changed through various ages of Indian history. In the excavations of the earliest pre-historic civilizations of Mohen-Jo-Daro and Harappa, there is ample proof that wine drinking was a common practice. In the Sanghol Museum, which stands on the highway between Ludhiana and Chandigarh, there are 15,000 antiquities of the Harappan civilization, among which are sculptured images of voluptuous women called Surasundaris, holding wine flasks in their hands as well as women drinking wine from elongated vessels. Monuments and records of the early empires of India – the Maurya, the Gupta, the Chalukya, the Chola, the Solanki, the Vijayanagar and many others – amply prove that wine drinking was a royal prerogative and was a symbol of the power of the king and his courtiers.
Indeed, other cultures that came to India in the early years of the first millennium, endorsed these beliefs powerfully. When the Sufis came to India from Persia in the 12th century, they brought with them the mystical poetry of philosopher-astronomer Omar Khayyam (1048-1122 A.D.). His Rubaiyat, with its famous verse (A flask of wine, a book of verse and thou beside me singing in the wilderness, and wilderness is paradise enow) became the anthem of wine drinkers who sought a state of ecstasy to ‘remove the veil’ that separated the individual soul from the universal soul. Poets and mystics who followed the concurrent Bhakti Movement in India, as well as rulers who patronized the burgeoning arts of India, found the theme of ‘removing the veil to unite with divinity’ fascinating. The poetry of Hindu poets like Meerabai, Surdas and Kabir used the symbolism of ‘the elixir of love’ copiously in their poetry.
Long before any Europeans came to India, Sufi imagery of wine drinking and dancing to create a state of super consciousness created a profound impact on Hinduism and brought about a fusion of Islamic and Hindu cultures that enriched India’s literature, art and philosophy. Wine drinking was equated with ‘drinking a glass of love (prem ka pyala) and devotion’ and these images became common in both Islamic verse and Hindu bhajans through the centuries.
If the Sufis influenced Indian thought, the Mughal monarchy took it forcefully forward by making wine drinking a refined art in their courts. The wine cup and verse, featured in Mughul court poetry and paintings, was an allegory for ‘the realization of the divine world’. In time, it acquired a political nuance – it was called a ‘world in miniature’ with wine or ‘the elixir of life’ poured into it. The words ‘filling the cup’ meant living a full life of power and success or joy. This symbol was used by the Mughuls to create the theory that they were universal and immortal rulers of their empires! Historical records say that despite the fact that Islam bans intoxicating drinks, Mughal emperors like Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jehan not only followed the tradition of royal drinking, but also opened public bars in their kingdom. The ornate wine cups they made in gold with precious stones, are described in many documents of their eras.
But as the Mughul Empire approached its twilight years, the wine cup too changed its symbolism. In the empire’s decadent age, it became a symbol of eroticism. It created the lore of voluptuous courtesans dancing and singing while wine glasses passed from the ‘veiled saqui’ – who carried ornate flasks – to the drinkers. Mughul art – particularly miniature paintings – portrayed hedonistic scenes in which women served wine to the king and his courtiers. Court artists created wine cups from precious stones like onyx, jade or even rubies and emeralds. Several Indian museums, including the famous Bharat Kala Bhavan in Bhopal, display priceless wine cups carved out of precious stones, crystal and metals, carved with delicate wine leaves and creepers. The immortal poetry of Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869 A.D.) echoed the melancholy of this age. It bemoaned the loneliness of man; the indescribable sorrow of losing ‘the beloved behind the veil’ and the poet’s yearning for death through an otherworldly imagery.
Today, despite the burgeoning spread of the Western party-and-hospitality culture in the country, in good old Indian parlance, wine or liquor is still known as Varuni, Soma Rasa, Madya, Madhu or Mai. The bar – variously called ‘Maikhana’, ‘Maikada’ or ‘Madhushala’ – continues to be a symbol of man’s search for a higher consciousness and elevation to divine spaces. Two modern poets – one a Hindu and the other a Muslim – have contributed greatly to this continuing idiom. Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s masterpiece Madhushala has been immortalized through its rich, baritone recitations by his famous son, Amitabh Bachchan! And Nobel nominee Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s (1911-1984) touching lines (below) continue to mesmerize millions of Indians!
“Before you came, all things were what they are…
The sky was sight’s boundary…
The road, a road…
The glass of wine, a glass of wine!”


Om Tat Sat

(My humble salutations to  Ms.  Vimla Patil ji and hindu samskrit dot com  for the collection)


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