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The six Indian seasons – magnificent displays of the cyclical phenomena of nature, of life and death, collapse and renewal – are perhaps no different from the continuum of our own breath of life

Bandana Tewari

In the Puranas the seasons are personified as mesmerising women who came dancing with trails of flowers, to the wedding of Parvati and Shiva. It is said that spring or basant, for instance, arrived with anklets of bees that tread gently on the lotuses of the forest, holding a mango branch, its newly formed sprouts signifying the season of renewal and hope; more importantly it was the poetic assertion of the Natural Order.

Vedanta is nothing if not lyrical in the way it portrays the Natural or Divine Order (Rta) in our Vedic seasons (Rtu). The six seasons are replete with their own rites and rituals that resonate with the Cosmic Order (Brahma) and their reverberations are said to feed the celestial frequencies that sustain every individual’s Divine Self (Atma). In fact, it is said the seasons — magnificent displays of the cyclical phenomena of nature, of life and death, collapse and renewal — are no different from the continuum of our own breath of life.

There are two halves to the Vedic seasons: Uttarayana — the exhalation and Daksinayana — the inhalation. Each half of the year is further divided into three parts, giving us six seasons; and so is the breath also divided into three natural parts. For instance, the quick exhalation after the lungs have been filled with air is shishir, the winter of your breath. And the balance that follows is spring. As propagated in yoga, the entire spectrum of breathwork is imperative for a balanced life of wellness and spiritual growth.

The six seasons is deep in the way they weave themselves to embed into the very fabric of human existence. Ayurveda states this very clearly. Rituacharya is the ancient Ayurvedic practice and is comprised of two words, “Rtu” which means season and “Charya”, which means discipline. For every season it provides guidance regarding the Ayurvedic diet that helps balance out the three doshas in our life.

And then there is romance of the Ragas which have been intrinsically associated with seasons. Ragas have been associated with seasons since time immemorial. Associated with each of the six seasons — Basant (spring), Grishma (summer), Varsha (monsoon), Sharad (autumn), Hemant (pre-winter), and Shishir (winter) – is a specific raga. These traditional melodies have been a part of the song and dance routines that continue to make India a cornucopia of festivities based on harvests and solstices, gods and goddesses. Rtu and Raga are intertwined in our consciousness.

In Vedic literature seasons are wondrous creatures of awe often anthropomorphized as living beings. They are said to have attended elaborate sacrifices as a magnificent bird: the head representing spring, the torso — winter, summer and autumn — the wings; and the tail a symbol of varsha, the Indian monsoon.

1.  GRISHMA (Summer)

The Indian summer is the season of Jasmine and gossamer whites as it calms the senses and invites poetic rituals to acclimatise to the heat. Women smear themselves with Sandalwood paste, which cools and hydrates. And indulging in noontime siestas behind wispy mulmul curtains that quiver in the warm summer breeze is pure luxury. Mangoes, Jamun, Melons, Lychees — the bounty of nature designed specifically for grishma are savoured. Preparing for Ekadashi, a spiritual day of fasting and introspection, linking our luminous inner with the lunar outer, is a time for redressing old pains with the promise of atonement and renewal. Ayurveda recommends that we increase our salt intake to retain more water in our bodies, stay away from grains and beans; but cold lassis (preferably bathed in the cool moonlight) heightens the sensual and the sacred in us.

2. VARSHA (Monsoon)

The rainy season is as dramatic as it is romantic. According to the Rig Veda it is the frogs that first make merry with the onslaught of rains, which are a welcome respite from the heat. Like the Vedic students loudly repeating the chants and verses heavenwards, the frogs croak in unison welcoming what sounds like Mother Earth’s own chanting — the rhythmic music of varsha. When rivers swell and rush to the seas, it is likened to the passionate meeting of lovers; nor merely carnal love, but celestial love, that deep Oneness that comes from the union of the Observer and the Observed. After death, the Vedas see souls return to earth from their ancestral world like raindrops to be reborn. But for ordinary farmers in India, varsha is a time of abundance and celebration of earth’s fertility. Valmiki writes in the Ramayana, “For nine months drawing through sun’s rays, the sky drank the waters of the ocean, and the time now is to give birth to a liquid offspring, the elixir of life.” (4.27.3)

The monsoon festivals are some of the most dramatic; Rath Yatra, Ganesh Chaturthi, Teej and Raksha Bandhan amongst others — a cultural cosmic explosion of rites, rituals and merrymaking. But it is the melodious music of monsoon that pierces the deepest darkest clouds, making raindrops symbolic of rejuvenation through music. It is believed that Tansen, the musician in the court of Mughal emperor Akbar sang Megh Malhar and it rained.

Bhairavi Ragini: Folio from a Ragamala series (Garland of Musical Modes) Date: ca. 1640–50. MOMA

Sharad is indeed the blossoming woman who is destined to nourish and nurture all who touch her fecund soul. It is the season of flowers and goddess energy.

3. SHARAD (Autumn)

Then there is sharad (Vedic autumn) when it is time for restoration to calmness and a conscious effort to gaze inward. After the vigour and virility of varsha this is the season when people with yogic dispositions clear the clouds of the corporeal world and reignite their devotion for spiritual quietude. But it is also joyful! The fields are abundant and ripe with crops, ready for harvesting. Sharad is indeed the blossoming woman who is destined to nourish and nurture all who touch her fecund soul. It is the season of flowers and goddess energy as Diwali, Laxmi Puja and Durga Puja take centre stage. It is a joyful time full of playfulness.

Ayurveda is very specific about the poetry of adornment — wear garlands of flowers, moon-bathe for the first three hours of the night, as the beams are healing in nature; and for the more intensive restorative practices like Virechana (cleansing), Rakta-Mokshana (phlebotomy), and so on, this is the right season.

4. HEMANTA (Pre-winter)

Hemanta Rtu is pre-winter, pleasant and comforting as activities move indoors and animals quieten but love blossoms as the energy of the Moon and the Sun live in equanimity. But the sun moves quietly in the direction governed by Agni.

In Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara it says: “Pleasant with many an attribute, stealer of the hearts of women, and at which time the confines of villages are overspread with many an abundant rice-crop on earth, and overlaid is the sky with the garlanded flights of ruddy geese (Ruddy Shelduck), that which is always with a heart-stealing environ, such as it is, let this season Hemanta, pre-winter, endow comfort to all of you passionate people…”.

The Ritusamhara, a Sanskrit Mahakavya or epic poem by Kalidasa, is one of India’s most beautiful epic poems about nature’s virtues and the garland of the six seasons; each season is also viewed through the lens of lovers. In this winter month lovers welcome the cold nights enveloped in amorous embrace, bringing the inner Agni to the fore. Even Ayurveda recommends it; in order to prepare for the chill, it is advised to find solace in the arms of a beautiful woman. Add to that the culinary advice: eat unctuous, sweet, tart, and salty foods. It is the time to savour grains and pulses and an abundance of Tila (sesame). This season is also ideal for Atapa – sevana (sunbath) and use of Agaru on the body.

The Ritusamhara, a Sanskrit Mahakavya or epic poem by Kalidasa, is one of India’s most beautiful epic poems about nature’s virtues and the garland of the six seasons; each season is also viewed through the lens of lovers.

Sanveri Ragini, Page from a Ragamala Series (Garland of Musical Modes) Date: ca. 1700–1710. MOMA

5. SHISHIR (Winter)

After the end of harvesting comes shishir. The cold, slow winter enters with the gradual ripening of the white mustard plants. Women in the past were known to generously smear their bodies with Saffron paste as this Rtu sets in. This is the time to carefully watch what you eat according to Ayurveda. For those with the Vata constitution for instance, a regular dose of ajwain (carom) and hing (asafoetida) are a must to activate their digestive systems. As for the inner rumblings of the soul, it is a time to reflect on the shadows that trail us every day and learn from the wisdom of the season’s migratory birds who choose only that which sustains them. Shishir offers you many changes in the fabric of your life because there is a powerful transformation of energy from Shakti to Shiva. It can be a season that leads to inner liberation. And shishir, despite its cold, offers a bouquet of colourful flowers that sprinkle the barren landscape with hope and joy. Kalidasa famously said about Priyangu creepers, “their young shoots bowed under their weight of golden yellow blossom, outshine the beautiful hue of women’s arms arrayed with jewellery.” And look out for Muttunga, Flame of the Forest with its orange radiance that outshines the others.

6. BASANT (Spring)

Think of a goddess who walks into the cold barren land of shishir but with every step she trails flowers and the growth of new life and spiritual invigoration. She is basant, the Indian spring, personified as a bride who brings new life into her husband’s house. Sometimes this Vedic spring is seen as love itself, a companion of Kama, striking with a bow made of flowers and manifesting love wherever the arrow drops.

The most auspicious day of the season is Basant Panchami. Goddess Saraswati, the deity of knowledge, was born on this day. Another popular legend is that the day is celebrated to honour the legendary poet Kalidasa. As per a folklore Lord Brahma created the universe on this day. This is the season for flying kites that aim for the bluest of skies and women flirt with strings of Jasmine garlands. The significance of Basant Rtu is far-reaching as it is seen as the right time to start new jobs and projects, get married or perform auspicious ceremonies. It is the most intoxicating season full of love and hope; but what’s most significant is the inner vigour basant generates, a need for renewal that resonates with the rasa of the universe.

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