A month of rain and ritual

Features Issue 213 Aug, 2019
Text by Sushma Joshi

Shravana, the month of monsoon rain and tender rice saplings, is eagerly looked forward to by Nepali women. The seedlings, which have been planted in Asar, are now free to grow, and the women have been released from the worries of the vagaries of the monsoon’s arrival. Just as Asar 15th is celebrated with yogurt and beaten rice, as workers busy in the fields with no time to make a proper meal munch down on this, so Shravana’s 15th day is celebrated with kheer—a rich preparation of rice and milk, full of umami taste, signifying the upcoming bonanza of rice.

In jyotish astrology, Shravana is one of the 27 nakshaktra or constellations which make up the zodiac. Shravana is ruled by Saturn, and its symbol is a huge hollow drum, the sound of which awakens the consciousness. Like Shiva’s damaru, the hollow sound of the drum beats deep into our souls, evoking depths of feelings and spectrums of energy we were not even aware existed. As the rain thunders down onto the earth, sounds echo and fade, the omnipresent traffic quietens, and there are pools of stillness in which to sit and reflect as the busyness of urban life is dampened by the rain. If we listen intently, we can hear the chirp of the birds, the croak of a frog (although that is increasingly fading from Kathmandu), the sudden shrill call of parrots. Shravana makes us aware of the universe that surrounds us, how we are part of this cycle of replanting and harvest, and of the infinite loop of life inside which we exist.

This year, the monsoon arrived almost two weeks late. Despite sudden showers which drum down on tin roofs with the joyful and then terrifying sound of the monsoon, there is much less rain than there should be. Despite the monsoon deficit, in the Terai and Bihar, the annual cycle of flooding has begun. People are once again inundated in their straw and mud huts. Perhaps listening more closely to the Himalayan rivers and the rhythm of the monsoon would make us realize that natural disasters are not inevitable, and better policy which emphasized building houses on stilts in floodplains like the Terai would help us weather this month better. If we lived with the wisdom of the geography, and built accordingly, these disasters would not be inevitable. But embankments which impede the flow of the rivers continue to be built, only to be washed away once again in the month of Shravana. The bamboos and forests that once held back the mighty flow of the Himalayas are also long gone—Shiva’s tresses cut down by a country which no longer believes in religion. The remaining community forests are at great risk in a country with very weak accountability mechanisms—a greedy profit seeker, a poor community lured by the prospect of money, can destroy within a few days a forest that took half a century to grow.

Shravana is the month women get to dress up in green and yellow bangles, signifying the sprouting, young rice plants. Green saris have also become fashionable during this time. Women wear these outfits to visit the Pashupatinath Temple or other Shiva temples in their vicinity, because the Mondays of Shravana are considered very auspicious. On these Mondays, women pray and fast for their marriages and husbands, and also for a partner in case they are unmarried. Any pap (sin) committed during this time is considered to have long consequences, so people are on their best behavior.

Also in Shravana, people celebrate Kusay Ausi. Ausi is the dark moon day, and kush is a sacred grass which is believed to have detoxifying and purifying properties. On this day, people put a small ring made of kush grass on their right hands. Kusay Ausi is also Father’s Day in Nepal, so people make delicious meals for their fathers and bring gifts on this day. For people whose fathers’ have passed away, this is the time to do shraddha (pay respects through traditional rites and rituals) and offer pinda to their dead ancestors. I remember going to Gokarneswar Mahadev with my maternal uncle when he offered shraddha to his dead father. The temple was quite isolated about ten years ago, and the river flew in a broad swathe of muddy rain. There was nobody around except for another family also offering shraddha. The temple and the time evoked a sense of connection with a grandfather who I had barely known, and who had died when I was a child. Unfortunately every temple in the Kathmandu Valley is now swamped with pilgrims, which takes away from the magic of river, forest and quietude, in which one could listen to the ancestral whisperings deep within oneself. Water is an essential element of Hindu dharma, but it is quickly getting swallowed up by those who believe a mall is more valuable than a sacred pond or a river.

Also in Shravana, people worship the nagas on Naga Panchami. Nagas are mythical snakelike beings who guard the water bodies. They are not seen or heard, except when they get angry, at which time they can be felt in the form of earthquakes or floods. Nagas hold special reverence and fear in Hindu culture. People will put a small picture of Lord Krishna dancing on a naga in front of their doors to symbolize that Krishna is protecting them from the wrath of the nagas.

In jyotish astrology, if people are born with all their planets on one side of the Rahu-Ketu axis, they are thought to have a Kal Sarpa (kaal means time, sarpa is snake) yoga. This is touted as a dreaded yoga (conjunction of planets). You can see posters everywhere advertising special poojas that can be done on Naga Panchami to ward off the malefic effects of this conjunction. Depending upon where the axis falls, there are 12 different kinds of kal sarpa yogas, and each one is supposed to affect the native malefically in areas of health, profession, money, marriage, children etc. Kal Sarpa yoga is also supposed to take people to high places, then bring them down just as fast. Jyotish will usually console people with the thought that the effects wear off after age 48, which is the age of Ketu’s maturity, after which the native can expect due rewards. Interestingly, I have found many famous people with great achievements to have this yoga.

The mythologies of Shravana are braided out the strands of joy and fear, rebirth and the unseen shadowy fears of unexpected forces beyond our control. The only way to get past it, it seems, is to enjoy the basketloads of mangoes and pumpkin shoots, and cut the chill of rain with some kheer during a Monday evening.