Greetings to all my young geographer-friends (and not-so-young readers, too)! You are now in a new academic year. Exciting possibilities, new things to learn, new friends to make, and I hope new ways to learn also.

Considering the season, I want to begin this year with these: rāga Amrtavarshinī, drought, legend, a place, its people, and those of us living in Bengaluru.

 

Amrtavarshinī

Amrtavarshinī translates to “She who rains ambrosia” (amrta). This takes us to the 18th century and a certain composer of southern Indian style of classical music – usually called karnātaka samgīta. We’ll look at the historical geography of it another time.

His name was Muttusvāmi Dīkshita (March 24, 1775 – October 21, 1835). In Tamil, an “r” is added to the end as an honorific. He was a great cultural geographer, though he did not intend to be one. You see, he was not only an adept musician (vocal and veena), musicologist, and musical composer, he also traveled a lot on pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage is a journey in geographical space – a quest for sacred places and sacred experiences. This is an ancient practice. When Dīkshitar went on pilgrimages, he not only worshiped at various holy places, he also composed songs to the deities at those places. In most of these songs, he also included considerable geographical details – physical features (the name of a river, mountain, etc.), historical points (the names of rulers), and connections between the places and the deities themselves.

On his journeys, he once stopped at a place called Sāttūr (pronounced SAAththoor) in southeastern Tamil Nadu. This area is in the rainshadow area of the southwest monsoons. And the northeast monsoons don’t bring it much rain. Cyclonic precipitation may bring some rain to the area. The region is prone to droughts. So, arriving in Sāttūr in the middle of a drought, Dīkshitar visited the temple there.

This visit gives us two things: (1) a composition in the rāga amrtavarshinī, and (2) a legend that ties the place to the song.

The legend goes like this:

The people in the area, hearing that a great person was visiting the temple, came to him and pleaded with him to pray for rain for them. They told him how much they were suffering from the lack of rains. Moved by compassion for them, Dikshitar composed and sang a song in the rāga amrtavarshinī, praying to the Mother Goddess (Bhavānī) for rain. “Please make the rain pour, let it pour, let it pour”, he pleaded in the last line of the song. The legend says that it rained copiously bringing much-needed relief to the people of the area.

Water stress – in the sense of getting stressed out due to lack of water – is a huge issue in semi-arid areas. A semi-arid area gets rainfall, but it is scant and undependable. Southeastern Tamil Nadu is such an area.

This is why, throughout the region, you will still find many human-made tanks – some of them quite old, dug by orders of rulers of yore. To this day, the anxiety over water is expressed in the proverbs and sayings of the region. For example: “When the rains will come and when the baby will be born, even God does not know!” and “If you spill water, you spill wealth!” (My mother used to give me the latter line when I was a kid – whenever I wasted water.)

Southwest monsoons

On the windward side of the Western Ghats, people are very lucky. Their geographic location gets them the most amazing amounts of the southwest monsoon rainfall. We, in Bengaluru, get some of that leftover rain – this brings us considerably cool weather and a little wetness.

The city itself is so pathetically managed that even the slightest rain causes all manner of problems – flooding, power outage, traffic congestion, and so on. And illnesses, too.

Alas, these rains rarely, if ever, reach the people in the region of Sattur. There, they continue to experience the heat and watch the dark southwest monsoon clouds fly by – the kind of experience captured in the song from the Hindi movie Lagaan, some years ago (kāley megha kāley megha).

This year, the southwest monsoon (also called the “advancing” or “wet” monsoon) is expected to reach the Kerala coast around 6 June. Give it another week or so, and it will give us some rain here in Bengaluru also.

Then watch the chaos all over the city! Squish, squash, squelching all over the place.

You should go out and get soaked in the first proper rain of the season (preferably without your school bag and phone). Don’t worry about “getting a cold” – you will get well soon enough.

That first monsoon rain is … simply … amrta!

Things you can do:

  1. Visit the India Meteorological Department website (opens in a new tab/window) and check out the excellent satellite pictures they show. This is updated every 2 or 4 hours, I think.
  2. Ask around and find out any songs you know that celebrate rain. You will rarely find a song that complains about the monsoon rain. Why is this?
  3. If you hear anyone teaching little children “rain, rain, go away”, run from there! J
  4. What changes, if any, do you notice in the dishes served at home as the monsoon advances and the rains come down? Why the change?
  5. Whatever artistic talent you have, use it to express your experience of getting drenched in the first monsoon rain in Bengaluru.

A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition, 01 June 2016

Featured image courtesy: India Meteorological Department.

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