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Barahmasa: Songs Of Twelve Months

Article of the Month - September 2009
Viewed 41143 times since 15th Sep, 2009

Barahmasa, an ordinary term composed of two parts, 'barah' - twelve, and 'masa' - month, meaning that which covers or continues over twelve months and hence used sometimes also for perennially flowering plants and similar other things, has since long conventionalised in Indian tradition as a genre of poetry - folk or classical, secular or sectarian, but essentially romantic and intensely emotional. Not a wall-calendar, the leaves of which one tears off or turns after a month has passed, in the poetic convention of Barahmasa the soul, separated from the loved one, spans the time with every breath that it takes. Its calendar - days, weeks and months, is wide-writ on the nature's face, changing minute to minute, from ejecting a bud's petals or melting of a winter night into dew-drops and a friezing body sinking into another, to torrential rains with dark awful clouds rending with their roar the sky and the earth and shaking the body and soul. Intensity of emotions, especially the pangs of separation, in tune with or in contrast to what occurs in nature beyond, is a Barahmasa poem's pith, and it is in this passionate yearning, fervency and cosmic magnification of an emotion's intensity that Sufis and others in the line have discovered in the Barahmasa theme mystic connotations.

Barahmasa, the 'songs of twelve months', as the Barahmasa is sometimes defined, is primarily the poetry of viraha - separation, the pangs of which change its face with nature's every change but the degree of their severity does not change or rather only further aggravates with every change occurring around. Whoever the poet, male or female, it is usually a song presented as being sung in first person by a young woman tormented by the absence of her beloved and pining all twelve months for his return. It reveals on one hand her pain of separation, and on the other, nature's face further aggravating it. The intimately and lyrically presented nature is linked with the singer's pain either through similitude or by painful contrasts. Essentially full of pathos the Barahmasa is the song of a woman deeply engrossed in love so much so that even a Sufi saint, singing of his intense desire to unite with the Supreme, imagined himself to be his Lord's consort - a woman in love, every minute pining to unite with Him.


The Barahmasa poetry seeks thus its distinction on one hand in the intensity of an emotion - love in separation in particular, which attains sheerly by such intensity cosmic width and mystic dimensions, and on the other, in the portrayal of nature, which reveals to some its songs and symphony, and to others, its cruel tormenting face. Awe-striking or alluring, nature melts into lyrics, dances to its own tunes and rhythm and reels with an incessant series of pictures, delighting the eye but tormenting the lovelorn heart by its insensitive contrasts and cruel indifference or animosity. Barahmasa poetry is broadly a record of psycho-analytical reactions of the mind in love responding to cyclic changes of nature as they occur when its surroundings pass from one set of them to another, broadly, month-wise. Thus, a Barahmasa poem perceives its theme on two levels, one, whatever occurs in nature beyond, from this corner to that on the earth or in the sky, and secondly, the turmoil with which reels the heart in love that has its loved one sojourning in foreign lands. Nature affords to Barahmasa poetry its canvas, all pictures and colours, love, its spirit and essence, and endless continuity of its pangs month-after-month, its narrative technique and epical stretch and binds into one thread the two confronting worlds, the worlds of man and nature.


Pictorially very rich and emotionally most fervent, the Barahmasa poetry, which subsequently had its transforms in Indian art, is a genre confining to Indian land, her literature and art. It has given to Indian literature some of its best lyrics, to medieval miniature painting, a rare theme and some of its most brilliant painting series, and to the folk tradition, some of its heart-touching lore and the most popular instrument to dispel the monotony of a low-spirited shivering winter evening. Not that they do not have a song or a landscape painting of brilliant Spring, sad Autumn or monotonous Winter, other traditions of the world literature and art are not known to have woven their woes, or any other kind of emotions, around each cyclic change of nature in such continuity as would have epical stretch and constituted a genre different from any other.

Baramasa - Month of Bhadon (Varsha)
Baramasa - Month of Bhadon (Varsha)

Such inter-action-reaction of nature's phenomena and human emotions as a Baramasa poem or painting series portrays is a rare feature of India's literature and art; and perhaps, with her unique geography which subtle, constant and continuous cycle of seasons characterise, people's emotional temperament of which love and sacrifice are the core, and conventions like those seeking to classify young lovers, male and female, as Nayakas and Nayikas, the soil of India alone could breed a genre like Barahmasa, in literature or art. Neither the Western nor any other hemisphere has such subtly transforming nature with each season having a phenomenal distinction of its own, such emotional bent of mind and so minutely analysed understanding of those in love as has the Indian soil. Unlike many other theologies which do not attribute to love any kind of spiritual or heroic status, in Indian way love is both, personal timidity as also heroic, and mundane as well as transcendental, and this has helped a genre like Barahmasa to become the vehicle of both the mundane emotions and spiritual elevation.

Brimming with the finest of imagery and the tender-most emotions Barahmasa, ever the tool of masters and the most distinctive genre of Indian poetry and art, especially the miniature painting, comprises the rarest of the rare collection of any art lover. It is a live tradition in both literature and art - songs still composed and sung, and miniatures yet painted, both breathing the same medievalism as breathed a seventeenth-eighteenth century leaf. One might yet find artists trained in modern art institutions resorting to medieval miniature painting technique trying their hands on Barahmasa theme and seek their distinction.


Vasantotsava: The Spring Festivals of India Text & Traditions
Vasantotsava: The Spring Festivals of India Text & Traditions


Ritu-varnan, usually the shad-ritu-varnan - the portrayal of six seasons, or ritu-samhara - celebrating a season, Basant or other, was the initial form of Baramasa. However, while festivity, a mood to enjoy the budding of a new season, its colours and magic, was the nucleus of ritu-samhara, Barahmasa, the subsequent convention of vernacular literature seeking to wreathe human emotions, particularly pangs of separation, around the cycle of seasons, was more often the tool of a lovelorn heart. As suggest Ritu-Samhara, one of the Sanskrit classics by Kalidasa, and the rules ordained in a number of Sanskrit texts including Bharata's Natya-shashtra, the emergence of a ritu was a public event when entire town or village gathered to welcome and enjoy it with light, colours, and dance sometimes accompanied also by a stage performance. Basantotsava, the festival of Basant dedicated to love god Kamadeva and his consort Rati, was the most widely celebrated ritu festival.




Rta Ritu (An Exhibition on Cosmic Order and Cycle of Seasons)
Rta Ritu (An Exhibition on Cosmic Order and Cycle of Seasons)

The earliest allusion to the word 'ritu' is found in the Rig-Veda, though not exactly in the sense the term is now used. Yajna being the kernel of Vedic cult, the term 'ritu' has been used in the Rig-Veda in relation to yajna-rites. Though in the Rig-Veda the term 'ritu' also denoted a certain facet of nature, almost the same as it subsequently implied, in true Vedic context the term 'ritu' identified a period, or a division of time, specified for the performance of a certain yajna. The whole year was divided into - chaturamasa, three parts of the four months each and each part was associated with a specific yajna and was known as the ritu of such yajna. Sometimes the Vedas identify a certain season with a deity or god such as rains with Parjanya, another name for rain-god Indra and it is in invoking him that a certain ritu has been alluded to. Thus despite that terms like Basant, Grishma, Sharada etc., the names of various ritus, were also used in the Vedic literature, the term 'ritu' defined, not so much an aspect of nature's cycle as the period of a specific yajna in the annual schedule of yajnas.

A New Approach to Purusa-Suktam (A Hymn About the Supreme Being with Ranganatha Muni Krta Bhasyam)
A New Approach to Purusa-Suktam (A Hymn About the Supreme Being with Ranganatha Muni Krta Bhasyam)


Characteristic of Vedic mysticism, sometimes the Vedic literature perceives yajna as the manifestation of the Unmanifest Supreme, and 'ritus', as various aspects of yajna and thus of the Unmanifest. Through a metaphor, the Purush-sukta in the Rig-Veda perceives the cosmos as a great yajna dedicated to the Supreme Being, in which gods, the performers of yajna, used Basant, the spring, as the 'ghee' - melted butter, for oblation, Grishma, the summer, as fuel, Sharada, the autumn, as the food offered in the course of yajna, and Varsha, the rains, as the sacred water of sacrifice and for sprinkling it around the Supreme being, that is, ritus, the components of cosmic existence, were also the components of yajna, and thus His aspects. While talking of various species of frogs in yet another Sukta, the Rig-Veda not only alludes to Varsha as the originator of them all but in one of the verses also enumerates in perfect order all twelve months and the month-wise period of each ritu.



Baramasa - Month of Kartik (Sharad)
Baramasa - Month of Kartik (Sharad)


As regards the number of ritus, the Vedic literature has two perceptions. The Rig Vedic Samhitas classify the annual cycle into five seasons; namely, Pravard - rains, Gharma -summer, Sharada - autumn, Vasanta - spring, and Hemanta - winter. The Yajur-Veda and the Brahmans add Shishira - the season of cool days, to them and thus the cycle or the concept of Shad-ritus - six seasons, accepted as such ever since, becomes complete. Thus, by the time of Yajur-Veda and Brahmans the number of seasons as six had been finally determined. Sharada, the season of bright sun, lustrous moon and glowing blue sky, is the transitional phase between rains and winter, which corresponds to the days of autumn in the western hemisphere and is hence alike translated, though in Indian subcontinent autumn, the season when trees shed their leaves, comes after Spring and thus Sharada and Autumn are not the same.


In this cycle both Hemanta and Shishira relate to winter but while Hemanta represents its coldest part, Shishira defines its diminishing phase. Texts, even those passages of the Vedas, under which the number of ritus is five, consider Hemanta and Shishira as one.

Baramasa - Month of Vaishakh (Basant)
Baramasa - Month of Vaishakh (Basant)






It is the same with Basant, which unlike Grishma, the season of parching heat, is a pleasant phase of warmth which relieves from winter's stings and prepares for facing the oncoming summer.






Besides that many texts talk of the rains' four months, the convention of peregrinating Buddhist, Jain and ascetics of other sects staying at one place for the four months of the rains suggests that monsoon season was considered to stretch over four months. This convention identifies Sharada just as a part of rains. Alike many texts do not consider Shishira and Basant as ritus. They talk of them as mere months - Shishira-masa and Vasanta masa, perhaps as both were just transitory. Thus under broad frame and in line with the Rig-Vedic yajna-based classification there are three seasons - summer, rains and winter, but with each of them divided into two parts their number rises to six.

Obviously, the classification of the annual cycle into six ritus, made during later Vedic days, was more sensitive and minute. It was around then that a kind of inter-relationship between the changes of nature and man's emotional world was first recorded. The names that the Taittiriya Samhita has used for each of the months are strangely connotative. Not mere names, they denoted also the peculiarities of the season to which they belonged. Basant comprised two months, Madhu (February/March) and Madhava (March/April); one suggestive of honey - sweetness, and the other, of one brimming with honey, the essence of Basant. Grishma comprised Shukra (April/May) and Shuchi (May/June), which variously means grief of separation, as also the blazing light of summer. In old days summer was the period when traders, warriors, craftsmen, masons among others went away to earn money for the rainy days, Nabha (June/July) and Nabhasya (July/August), associated with rains, denoted sky and the clouds rising there; Isha (August/September), the seed laid, and Urja (September/October), or energy, the seed's sprouting, that is, fertility and vigour, denoted the post-rain season of sowing which is Sharada; Saha (October/November) and Sahasya (November/December), the months of winter, denoted one's obligation to bear, and the season's toughness; and Tapa (December/January) and Tapasya (January/February), associated with Shishira, were denotative of the earth's rough face which it acquired after the dry winter.


The Seasons In Mahakavya Literature
The Seasons In Mahakavya Literature

No doubt, the term 'ritu', the number of ritus, some of their broad features and their period in the annual calendar begin appearing in the Rig-Veda itself. It was, however, in the Great Epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, that the cult of describing a ritu as in Ritu-varnan - a secular poetic genre, first appears. Illustrating examples from early traditions, such as the Buddhist Thera-gathas, the songs of peregrinating Buddhist monks and nuns, some scholars opine that season-description might have been initially the subject matter of 'muktaka-kavya - free verse poetry, and only from such poetry the epical poetry might have borrowed it. Though nothing of such muktaka-kavya tradition now exists, except perhaps some religious songs of Thera-gathas estimated to have been composed in between 500 B. C. to 100 B. C., stylistic maturity and assimilation of numerous lyrical passages not directly linked with their principal themes into the Great Epics suggest that there must have been a long tradition of poetry before it reached its apex in the form of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Intrusion of expressions like blue-necked peacock, cool breeze, blue clouds, Indragopa-insects among others, all essentially the components of monsoon descriptions and obviously of muktaka-kavya poetry, into the religious Thera-gatha songs indicate that season descriptions might have been those days the dominating feature of poetry, whatever its type, the religious free-verse or an epic.


Barahmasa In Indian Literatures (Songs of the Twelve Months in Indo-Aryan Literatures)
Barahmasa In Indian Literatures (Songs of the Twelve Months in Indo-Aryan Literatures)

Whatever their source, the Great Epics are the earliest reported poetry to comprise season descriptions. However, none of the Epics has anywhere a full cycle of seasons. The seasons described in them are usually isolated and often unrelated to the main theme. The Ramayana has descriptions of four major seasons - winter, spring, the rains and autumn with a sarga - sub-canto, devoted to each. Though described in natural sequence, each of them occurs in different parts of the Epic and isolated from each other. It is, however, greatly significant that the cult of wreathing one's own world around a season begins to have its roots in the Ramayana. One winter morning during their sojourn in Panchavati when going towards river Godavari with Rama and Sita for ablutions, the harsh and cold winter reminds Lakshmana of the pathetic fate of his brother Bharata who has been used to luxuries and comforts and despite that he is ruling Ayodhya is passing his days like a hermit. He then criticizes Kekeyi, Bharata's mother, for whatever has happened but Rama forbids him from doing so. Not merely that winter serves as a mere stimulus for his retrospection but he also describes it formally as cold and harsh and endowed with snow and frost. It is alike significant that this entire sub-canto of Aranyaka-kanda has been composed as Lakshmana's direct speech, another essential feature of Barahmasa genre. The entire narration in first person but impersonally made and hardly anything in it relates to the three characters of the story or their situation.

The description of Basant in the Kishkindha kanda is far closer to the Barahmasa convention for after Sita's abduction by Ravana it truly transforms into a viraha song. Rama and Lakshmana have come to river Pampa in order to meet Sugriva. The passage begins with the description of the river's beauty to which is added the description of Basant and Rama's love-longings, something which seems to be merely contextual. However, this season-description is not context-born. In this well-conceived passage the poet attempts at exploring the turmoil in Rama's lovelorn heart after his separation from Sita in contrast to season's beautiful glowing face. It more intimately explores nature and how it acts on a lovelorn mind. Rama is made to himself speak to his brother of the beauty of Basant, and all personally and intimately, not impersonally as in Lakshmana's winter description. He often asks Lakshmana to look at the beauty of nature around and at the same time gives vent to his grief of separation which such beauty further aggravates. The descriptions of monsoon and autumn are also in identical veins. While roaming alone on mount Malyavat Rama witnesses clouds gathering in the sky. It reminds him how Bharata and Sugriva are with their wives and crowns and he is without both. Rama's encounter with autumn is scattered over several parts. If at one place he swoons when reminded of Sita, at other, he breaks with grief thinking how Sita enjoyed autumn in his company. Thus, despite that it describes just four seasons and those too isolated from each other, the Ramayana is the earliest known text to evolve the Barahmasa or at least the Ritu-varnan in Barahmasa vein, which sought to universalise a personal emotion using season or nature as its courier. The Mahabharata has hardly any kind of season descriptions except casually alluding to various months of the year or hours of the day like sun-set.

Continued in Page 2

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  • 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.
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