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Barahmasa: Songs Of Twelve Months
Article of the Month - September 2009

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Rtu in Sanskrit Literature
Rtu in Sanskrit Literature


As regards the full length Shad-ritu-varnan in proper natural sequence, its earliest examples are found in the poetry of Kalidasa, though there are opinions that the genre had attained its fully evolved form during the period in between him and Ashwaghosa. Nature description is the core of many of Kalidasa's works - Kumarasambhava, Meghdoot, Raghuvansa among others; however it evolves in its fullest accomplished form in the Ritu-samhara. Running into six cantos the Ritu-samhara describes in detail the six seasons of the year as per Indian calendar and how with each change in the season the mood and behaviour of a young lover alters. In the Meghdoot the intensity of love-longing is far deeper. However, the Yaksha in exile weaves his passion only around the clouds and thus season description confines only to the rains. Most of the subsequent Sanskrit texts - Bhattikavya by Bhatti, Kiratarjuniya by Bharavi, Shishupala-vadha by Magha, Naishadhacharita by Shriharsha among others, have come out with season-descriptions occupying sizeable space in each.


The Citrasutra of The Visnudharmottara Purana (Sanskrit Text with English Translation)
The Citrasutra of The Visnudharmottara Purana (Sanskrit Text with English Translation)

Subject-matter in regard to season-description has its presence in canonical literature at least since 3rd-2nd century B. C. with its first appearance in the Natya-shashtra by sage Bharata. Basically a work of dramaturgy the Natya-shashtra directs how seasons should be represented in a drama, especially on the stage through an actor's performance - acts, gestures, facial demeanours and the like. In his Kavyadarsha, Dandin mandates that an epic should essentially include the descriptions of ocean, mountains, seasons, the moon and the sun rise, parks, gardens, water-sports and pleasures of love. The observations of Bharata and Dandin are quite brief aimed at giving some broad guidelines. It is however Rajashekhara who in his Kavyamimansha comes with all aspects of season description including each season's basic characteristic features, each season's months-wise division, temperament of each month, imagery that a poet should use in representing a season, besides how the human mind reacts to a particular season. Thus, while on one hand Rajashekhara summarized how the seasons were portrayed in prior literature, on the other, he laid the canonical standards for those aspiring to portray seasons in their writings. As in most other things, Puranas also showed interest in season-description. The Matsya Purana has a whole chapter dedicated only to the month of spring and the Samba Purana alludes to different colours of the sun in the six ritus. The Chitra-sutra in the Vishnudharmottarpurana prescribes certain general rules for the depiction of each of the four seasons.


Broadly, the genre known in the Sanskrit literature as ritu or shad-ritu-varnan is known in the literature of masses or in vernacular literature as Barahmasa, though while in the shad-ritu-varnan the annual calendar is classified into six parts, in Barahmasa, it is in twelve. In ritu-varnan the description of nature's changes is season-wise formalized and is often impersonal, in Barahmasa, it is more subtle, puritan, personal and intimate. The ritu-varnan aims at describing the aura and magic of nature as it emerges with the change of a season, or as conventionalised, though at times conjoining with it also the singer's emotions, the kernel of Barahmasa is the turmoil of a loving mind that each of nature's changes stimulates. The nature is dragged into the world of human emotions and represents the singer's own vision of it. Being formal and impersonal, shad-ritu-varnan is the genre of gentry and its literature, but intimately felt in the blood the songs of the twelve months, that is, everyday life, of lovelorn heart belong to unsophisticated, uncultivated folk. Actually, it is immaterial whether the poet perceives the cycle of time in the frame of six seasons or the twelve months, what matters is how he perceives it - formally and impersonally, or intimately and subjectively.

The Kumarasambhava and the Ramayana both are epics, but, while the Ramayana represents an amalgam of various folk traditions, the Kumarasambhava is a classic observing all set norms of poetics and other conventions. This variously characterises the nature description in the two great texts. Rama, whose divinity often reveals in the Ramayana and who is represented as Ayodhya's prince, on monsoon's onset gives vent to his feelings as would an ordinary village lad. Clouds gathering in the sky remind him of how Bharata and Sugriva are with their wives and in their kingdoms while he is without both. Such subjectivity does not reveal in the nature description of the Kumarasambhava, though it is also in context to Parvati doing penance for winning Shiva's love. Thus the ritu-varnan in the Ramayana is in Barahmasa vein, while that in the Kumarasambhava, in shad-ritu-varnan. Most Barahmasas are based on the lunar calendar having months as Chaitra, Vaishakha, Jyestha, Asadha, Sravana, Bhadaon, Ashvin, Karttika, Agrahayana, Pausha, Magha and Phalguna. Each two of them are respectively the months of Basant, Grishma, Varsha, Sharada, Hemanta and Shishira.


Adi Granth Paintings Raga-Ragamala & Barah-Maha
Adi Granth Paintings Raga-Ragamala & Barah-Maha


The Barahmasa has two basic forms, one, literary, and the other, oral. Literary Barahmasas are a part of the written literature and are endowed with poetic merit and compositional uniformity. In its other form Barahmasa is found in many oral traditions from Gujarat to Bengal and in entire north and central India. Several texts have just a part of Barahmasa, sometimes formalized as chaumasa - four months, chhayamasa - six months, or athamasa - eight months. In literary tradition there are two types of Barahmasa, one, viraha, and the other, religious. The religious Barahmasas are further divided into two categories, one spiritual, and other, personal or mundane. Kabir often talks of self as Rama's consort every moment longing to meet Him. Sikhs' first Guru Baba Nanak and fifth, Guru Arjan Deva, wove around twelve months the yearnings of his self to unite with the 'Karta Purukh' - the Creator, in the Barahmasa vein.


The twenty-second Jain Tirthankara Neminatha renounced the world when his marriage procession reached the house of Rajimati or Rajala, his bride. This unique situation of Rajimati's separation from Neminatha and its pangs have been the theme of a number of Barahmasa both in Jain texts and oral tradition. Kabir's metaphor and Guru Nanak's songs of twelve months comprise the spiritual type, while those of Rajimati, the mundane. Rajimati's does not class as the viraha Barahmasa, not only because it is the theme of Jains' religious texts but also because, even when personal, Rajimati's yearnings are for a Tirthankara, the highest divinity in Jain sect. The intensity of Rajimati's love for Neminatha had such sublimity that it transformed her into the Siddhi, an ascetic divine status to which none of the wives of other Tirthankaras could rise.

However, Barahmasa, oral or written, as a genre, has broad five types, namely, religious, farming-related, narrative, viraha, and the Barahmasa of chaste woman's trial. As suggest Thera-gatha songs, the religious type must have been the earliest, though its mystic dimensions might have been its later development after the emergence of devotionalism of which love was considered as the best ritual. In its initial form religious Barahmasa might have been a popular means for spreading the religious massage of Buddha and Mahavira in their respective religions. In some parts, especially Bengal, a farmer's activities round the year, described month-wise, and his pathetic condition in contrast to his enormous labour, comprised the theme of Barahmasa poetry. Almost all Barahmasas are composed in narrative form; however, some of them have epical stretch and its narrative aspect is more accentuated. Most popular form of the genre is viraha Barahmasa. The genre has yet another type sometimes known also as kutani or duti-kavya - poetry of go-between. It portrays efforts of a hero trying to seduce a woman separated from her husband through a messenger. A part of the poem comprises dialogues between the lovelorn and duti in which the duti persuades her by various temptations, and the other, the dialogue between the lovelorn and her sakhi - friend, who advises her to forget her faithless husband and enjoy the boon of her youth.


Saint Bulleh Shah The Mystic Muse
Saint Bulleh Shah The Mystic Muse





Not only literature, miniature painting and even music have resorted to the Barahmasa model for seeking in it narrative continuity, vivid imagery, intense emotions, lyrical fervency, rhythmic vibrancy and dramatic conflict of the worlds of man and nature, besides its mystic connotations. The mystics like the early 16th century poet Malik Mohammad Jayasi, Hindi poets like Keshavadasa, Senapati, Datta, and Deva and poets of regional languages like Mulla Daud, Bulle Shah




Krishna as Raga Hindola
Krishna as Raga Hindola






among others have resorted to Barahmasa motifs and technique. Most of the Ragas in the classical music are set in accordance to various seasons - Hindol to Basant,







Ritu Grishma Varsha Sounds of the Seasons (Audio CD)
Ritu Grishma Varsha Sounds of the Seasons (Audio CD)







Deepak to Grishma,







Raga Megha
Raga Megha







Megha to Varsha,







Sadabahar Bhairav (Audio CD)
Sadabahar Bhairav (Audio CD)






Bhairava to Sharada,






Ritu Sharad - Hemant Sounds of the Seasons (Audio CD)
Ritu Sharad - Hemant Sounds of the Seasons (Audio CD)







Shri to Hemanta,







Ritu Shishir Basant Sounds of the Seasons (Audio CD)
Ritu Shishir Basant Sounds of the Seasons (Audio CD)







and Shishira to Malkosha.







Illustrative from its initiation Indian miniature painting has borrowed a lot from literature in general but Barahmasa in particular, which is one of its most important themes. It usually comprises twelve leafs serializing various seasons, sometimes the festivals occurring during such seasons, such as Holi in the month of Phalguna. In some series Radha replaces the lonely heroine. However, in most other cases it is a nayika separated from her loved one, usually a warrior, in whose context the cycle of the changing seasons is depicted. Paintings from hill states, Rajasthan and even smaller schools from Central India have resorted to Baramasa genre. Datia, one of the schools of painting in Central India, has painted a timeless series of Ashtayama, another form of Barahmasa series, now in the collection of State Museum, Lucknow.


Prabandha Kosha (Rajashekhara) : edited by Muni Jinavijaya, Shantiniketan, 1935.

Rig-Veda Samhita : edited by F. Maxmuller; English translation by H. Wilson, Poona.

Valmiki Ramayana : Gita Press, Gorakhpur, 1976

Vishnudharmottarapurana : Bombay, 1912; English translation by Priyabala Shah, Baroda, 1961.

V. P. Dwivedi : Barahmasa, New Delhi, 1980.

Charlotte Vaudeville : Barahmasa in Indian Literature, Delhi, 1986

Danielle Feller : The Seasons in Mahakavya Literature, Delhi, 1995

W. G. Archer : Seasonal Songs of Patna District, Man in India, v. XXII, 1952

O. D. Dalal (ed) : Neminatha Phagu in Prachina Kavya Sangraha, Baroda, 1956

Agar Chand Nahta : Barahmasa ki Prachina Parampara, in Hindi Anushilana, V.S. 2010

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This article by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet.

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Article Reviews

  • Good Article. Even in the SANGAM LITERATURE of the south one can find a lot of information about the different seasons and not only that they even divided the area of living depending on the nature of the place like hilly , desert etc., with distinctive characters of thereon.
    - Shyamala R
    11th Oct 2009
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