The month of Magha arrives deep in the heart of the cold season and brings with it a change of season. Shishir rtu – the sixth and last rtu of the annual rtu chakra, starts with this month. Traditionally known as the cool season, Shishir is the season of endings and a time of transition. As Shishir rtu draws to a close, so does the traditional year in the lunisolar calendar of the subcontinent. The annual cycle starts afresh with the onset of Basanta rtu, which succeeds Shishir rtu.
As Magha dawns, the cold is intense. The Sun is a pale disc that resembles the Moon. Both the rtus of winter – Hemanta and Shishir, and the four months that constitute these two seasons – Margashirsha, Pausha, Magha and Phalguna, are seasons that focus on the interior world. Typically, these four months are seen as time for turning inwards, for strengthening and nourishing the body and mind. In the stillness imposed by the inclemency of weather, we have the time to reflect, to rest and rejuvenate our bodies and minds. In the subcontinent’s traditions, the oldest recorded names for the two months of Shishir rtu are Tapas (for Magha) and Tapasya (for Phalguna). Some scholars suggest that the names refer “perhaps to the way the earth is scorched by the withering of vegetation and the barrenness”. The root ‘tap’, which is at the heart of both Tapas and Tapasya, means "to heat, to give out warmth, to shine, to burn". The word ‘tap’ is also a verb, which translates to doing that which is arduous but ultimately rewarding. Especially in terms of spiritual and wellbeing practices.
Thus, the names of the months of Shishir are perhaps also a nudge towards the practices that we should adopt during these two winter months – practices that increase our inner fire, practices that involve ‘tapasya’ – which also means practices undertaken with discipline. In this sense Tapas is the ‘niyama’ or habit which is practiced daily, with regularity. Doing Yoga every day, practising silence or meditating every day, or even giving up sugar can all be forms of tapasya. And each offers its own rewards. So perhaps, the months of Tapas (Magha) and Tapasya (Phalguna) are meant to guide us towards adopting practices or doing the tapasya that will benefit us.
The month of Magha is also the time of Kunda flowers according to the descriptions left behind in classical Sanskrit literature.
“These kunda buds shine with a glistening sheen as if stars, terrified of the cold, have taken refuge in the kunda creeper.”
Kunda is also known as Star Jasmine. It is one of the many varieties of Jasmine found in the subcontinent. Legend attributes the origin of the Kunda to the grace of goddess Lakshmi. Identified as Jasminum Multiflorum or Jasminum Pubescens, Kunda is a white flower that beguiles with its blooms at a time when few other flowers bloom. Shishir rtu is also celebrated as the season of Kunda’s beauty. As befits a flower that is associated with Lakshmi, Kunda is beloved of Vishnu, Lakshmi’s consort. In classical literature Kunda, along with the Moon, was used as the marker of fairness. It was said, “Blooming in śiśira (Shishir rtu), the kunda withers at the onset of spring and is indeed one of the signs of the imminent change of season according to the Kāvyamimāṃsa.”
The eleventh month in the traditional lunisolar calendar, Magha is also a month that is considered very auspicious. Many ritual days of observance fall in this month and ritual baths in holy rivers are recommended in this month.
The most beautiful and celebrated day of Magha is Basant Panchami. It is traditional to wear yellow-coloured clothes on this day and to eat sweet yellow rice – made with turmeric and jaggery. Basant Panchami is on February 16 this year. This day is also celebrated as the day of the goddess Saraswati, she who presides over learning and the arts. Basant Panchami gestures towards the oncoming season of Spring and the new year, which starts with Basant rtu, which arrives exactly forty days after this Panchami. From Basant Panchami onwards the cold starts to decrease in intensity in small increments. The first of the green shoots begin to appear in preparation for the blooms of springtime.