“While all the other kids in the Montessori chirped in chorus pleading for the rain to go away, I was the … crazy one who sang, ‘Rain, please don’t go away …’ I am a born pluviophile. My soul longs for the petrichor. The earthy smell and the cloudy sky, they help me experience paradise on earth.” – Shreya Srihari, class 9 student in a recent newspaper article.
Petrichor is “a distinctive scent, usually described as earthy, pleasant, or sweet, produced by rainfall on very dry ground.” This is a recently coined word (1960–65), derived from the Greek petra (rock) in its combining form petro + ichor (ethereal fluid) (dictionary.com)
Like Shreya, we have all experienced the fragrance of petrichor. It signals the onset of rain. When the first monsoon showers occur after a long hot dry summer, the petrichor raises our hopes for a good monsoon.
She called herself a pluviophile. This is a lovely word. It’s derived from the Latin pluvia (rain), and the Greek philos (love). Thus, one who loves rain.In her essay, she goes on to make several associations she has with rain. Her savoring fried foods during the rainy season and her imagining the rain drops on the windowpane racing each other to the bottom (that’s gravity for you!).
Best of all, she celebrates getting drenched in the rain! This is something we should all experience. It’s a very sensual experience of nature. The first pre-monsoon and monsoon rains are superb for this experience. Wherever you can do so safely, you must welcome the seasonal rains by ‘embracing’ them. Try it out. And don’t worry that you will catch a cold from this. A slight chill is fairly easily treated with the right mixture of basic medicines that are often found in your kitchen!
As children, we used to sing this, celebrating rain (the translation is very poor, I know):
ಮಳೆ ಬಂತು ಮಳೆ The rain came, the rain
ಕೊಡೆ ಹಿಡಿದು ನಡೆ Walk holding an umbrella
ಜಾರಿ ಬಿದ್ದು ಬಟ್ಟೆಯೆಲ್ಲಾ ಕೊಳೆ Slipping and falling, all the clothes are dirty
What to do?
If the monsoons are late or appear not to be coming, scientists offer explanations and state the facts as far as they can make out.
However, regardless of this being the TwentyFirst Century, many cultures worldwide have non-scientific ways of engaging with rainfall.
When we were in primary school, we used to sing a Kannada song:
ಬಾರೋ ಬಾರೋ ಮಳೆರಾಯ Come, come, King Rain
ಬಾಳೆಯ ತೋಟಕೆ ನೀರಿಲ್ಲ There’s no water for the banana grove
ಹುಯ್ಯೋ ಹುಯ್ಯೋ ಮಳೆರಾಯ Pour, pour, King Rain
ಹೂವಿನ ತೋಟಕೆ ನೀರಿಲ್ಲ There’s no water for the flower garden
This is a prayer for the rains to come. Here are other examples of such intercessionary prayers (i.e., prayers on behalf of others) and rituals for rains:
Amphibious matrimony! Frogs are ritually married in the belief that this will bring rains. So also dogs in some places.
Song! In the late 1700s to early 1800s, Muttusvami Dikshitar, a renowned composer and scholar in Karnataka sangītam (also known as Carnatic music), was passing through Sattur in a drought-stricken area of southeastern Tamil Nadu. Southeastern Tamil Nadu is in the rainshadow area of the southwest monsoons, and the northeast monsoons are not very dependable. Local people heard that a ‘holy man’ was visiting and approached him to offer intercessionary prayers for rain so that the drought could be overcome. He composed a song in the raga amrtavarshini (rainer of amrta, the divine elixir). In that song he prays to the local deity, Bhavaani, and prays for her to ‘pour forth the rain, pour forth rain, pour forth the rain.’
In Hindustani music, the raaga megha malhar is associated with monsoon rains.
Here is a young boy singing an old French creole song written by Jean Claude Viadere some 49 years ago (according to my friend Ms Viviane) praying to God for rain:
Roughly the song prays for rain, but not too much, and at the right time, etc.
Dances and japam! In the Native American cultures, rain dances are integral to their engagement with the environment. Here, in India, we often have people performing the varuna japam (prayer to varuna, the god of water, rain).
A traditional samskrtam prayer we learned in our school days said:
काले वर्षतु पर्जन्यः पृथिवी सस्यशालिनी | May the rains be on time, Earth rich with vegetation
लोकोऽयं क्षोभरहितः सज्जनाः सन्तु निर्भयाः || May the world be free from want, may good people be fearless.
In Kalidasa’s beautiful poem, Meghadutam (‘cloud messenger’), the protagonist sends a message with a monsoon cloud – a dark, heavy, ponderous cloud. For unspecified reasons, he has had to come to southern India, leaving behind his wife in the north. (Note to myself: read this poem in full!)
He addresses the cloud in the most human (and poetic) ways beseeching it to carry the message of love to his wife. In this, he calls the cloud jeemoota (jee life; moota bundle – the very giver of life). This is Indian culture’s relationship with the monsoon clouds – especially, the southwest monsoons.Through the protagonist, the poet paints a verbal picture of an aerial view of the places that the cloud will fly over, giving it the natural and cultural features of what it will see.
My Samskrtam scholar friend Sri Suhas Mahesh gave me this list of synonyms for ‘cloud’ in Meghadutam:
- मेघः meghaha — “water-sprinkler”
- जीमूतः jeemootaha — “bundle of life”
- पयोदः payo-daha — “water-giver”
- जलदः jala-daha — “water-giver”
- घनः ghanaha — “dense” (Kalidasa uses this when he’s talking about the ponderous and labored movements of rainclouds.)
- जलधरः jala-dharaha — “water-bearer”
- जलमुक् jala-muk — “water-emitter”
- अंबुवाहः ambu-vaahaha — “water-carrier”
Thinking of Kalidasa led me to wonder if there is a Samskrtam word for petrichor. I couldn’t find it anywhere. So, of course, I asked Sri Suhas Mahesh about this. He reminded me that petrichor is a very recently-coined word, and gave me these words he himself coined in response to my query:
- वृष्टि-वासः vrshti-vaasaha – rain-fragrance
- जलदामोदः jalada-aamodaha – cloud-fragrance
- शक्रनिश्वासः shakra-nishvaasaha – The breath of Indra
My favorite is ‘the breath of Indra.’ Hence the title for this essay.
- What is a rainshadow area? What are a synonym and an antonym (opposite) of that word?
- Check out this article about ‘folklore and tribal practices to invoke rainfall.’
- What are the different kinds of clouds that you have studied in geography? What are their characteristics?
- What are your personal associations with rain and petrichor?
Join us for the 6th International Geography Youth Summit, IGYS-2020,
24-26 July 2020, Bengaluru
A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 30 October 2019
Featured image: Monsoon raincloud [Source: https://is.gd/tLk5Vm accessed on 30 Oct. 2019]