“When, O Wanderer at will,
you see her in the lap of the mountain
as if in that of a lover, her shawl the Ganga slipping off,
you will not fail to recognise Alaka”
Thus speaks Kalidasa in his immortal lyrical love poem Meghdoot – the cloud messenger. The poem is the request of a yaksha imprisoned by the God of Wealth – Kuber, through the rain bringing clouds, to take to his wife a message of his love. Written in the 4th-5th century CE, the 111 stanza poem is divided broadly into two parts – Purvamegha and Uttarmegha. While the crux of the poem is the letter of love carried by clouds, and the second part the message that the yaksha has sent; the first part describes the journey of the clouds over cities, hills, rivers and temples of the Indian subcontinent right up to Alkapuri in the Himalayas.
In this description is an intricate knowledge and familiarity with the Indian landscape and geography – something quite remarkable for that time period. Even more amazing is that the route of clouds illustrated so vividly, is the accurate route of the Indian monsoon.
The uniqueness of monsoons
The word monsoon itself was first used in English in the context of the rainy season in the Indian subcontinent. Monsoon is derived from the Arabic word mausam which is used in Hindustani to mean both season and weather.
The monsoon, for us in India, is something we believe as unique to us, perhaps because it is so important for us, where for several months in a year, the heavens stay open and life giving water maintains an almost steady downpour. However, the monsoon is traditionally defined as a seasonal reversing wind accompanied by corresponding changes in precipitation. A more detailed explanation stresses on the asymmetric heating of land and sea, and the atmospheric circulation caused as a result of it. Global monsoons are identified on every inhabited continent with Asia having two – a South Asian and an East Asian monsoon.
While the months of June to September are popularly recognised in India as the rainy season, in actuality, the country experiences two different monsoons – the much eulogised Southwest monsoons and the lesser known Northeast monsoons. The baking heat of the summer creates a low pressure area over north and central India, and to fill this void, moisture laden winds rush in from the Indian Ocean. The Himalayas block the movement of the wind and the winds begin to rise and as their temperature drops, precipitation occurs.
However, as these winds begin their passage into the subcontinent, due to the topography, they get branched into two separate formations – the Arabian Sea branch and the Bay of Bengal branch. The Arabian Sea branch is the more popular Southwest monsoon winds that first hit Kerala and then proceed northward along the western edge of the Western Ghats.
The Bay of Bengal branch continues towards the Northeast and over the bay picks up more moisture, all of which gets dumped in the regions of the Eastern Himalayas, with places like Cherapunjee and Mawsynram in Meghalaya holding the records for the highest amount of precipitation in the world. The influence of the Southwest monsoon is felt from Kerala right up to the Northwest Chinese region of Xinjiang which borders Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan.
While these changes in wind bring rain to the subcontinent, the sun begins its southern sojourn, and by September is fast slipping away south, causing pressure to build in the Indian landmass, while the ocean to the South still retains the heat. This causes the wind to move south from the colder Himalayan and Gangetic plain regions through peninsular India, to the ocean. It is from this monsoon that parts of South India and Sri Lanka receive a significant amount of rain. This monsoon of South India typically lasts from December till March.
The importance of the Indian monsoon
The importance of the monsoon to India is evident in the yearly ritual of over a billion people looking southward to spot the dark clouds. India is mainly rain-fed. Over three-fourths of the country’s water supply is carried in by the Southwest monsoon winds, and over half of the country’s farmlands that have no access to irrigation, depend on this timely event to grow crops that will feed one of the largest consumers of food in the world. As early as 1925, the Royal Commission on Agriculture in India had described the Indian economy as a gamble on the monsoons, and this spectre continues nearly a century later where it is still a good monsoon that drives the economy. Winds from the Indian Ocean remain the ex-officio, but true finance minister of India.
In Sanskrit, the monsoon is called ‘Nairutya Marut’. Maruts are storm gods and sons of Rudra, whereas Nairutya, in the Indian science of Vaastu is the name given to the south-west direction. So, though the ‘Southwest monsoon’ be a recent term in a new language on this ancient land, its speakers too saw the dark clouds and understood that from the Southwest, comes a season – the monsoon.
The first historically extant record of the knowledge and use of the monsoon phenomenon is from Hippalus (probably 45-47 CE or 1st century BCE) a Greek navigator/merchant who is credited with discovering a direct sea route from the Red Sea to India. However, given the knowledge that in the Hellenistic era of the time of Alexander, the wind currents were called Hypalus (note the similarity to Hippalus) and that the ancient Harappans, eight millennia prior carried on maritime trade beyond the Arabian, it is quite likely that both the sea routes and the seasonal winds were known to Indians and the peoples of middle eastern countries, long before Greeks and Romans took to these seas.
No matter who did it first – and the older it is, the more incredulous it gets – but the discovery that in late spring, a bolt across the sea would be faster…the guts to do that…at a time when sailing with the land in sight was the norm…that irreverence bordering on madness is what civilisations and human evolution are made of.
Just as the Arabs and the East Africans used the trade winds of the monsoon across the Arabian Sea, the dwellers of the eastern coast too used the monsoon winds such that the countries around the bay, became a hop across the pond of Bengal.
Coastal voyages from the mouth of the Ganga to Sri Lanka were once a regular phenomenon. The close ties of Emperor Ashoka (3rd century BCE) with the kingdom of Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka and the further multinational kingdom of the Cholas are evidence of global outreach. Along the East coast of India were ports known to the ancients as Tamralipti, Chilika, Palur, Kalingapatnam, Dharanikota, Masulipatnam, Arikamedu, Kaveripatnam, Nagapatnam and Sopatma, from where voyages were made to countries as far off as present day Bali and Vietnam.
However, where the sea farers of the Arabian used the summer monsoon winds to come to India and were able to return during the winter monsoon, those on the East coast set sail during the winter monsoon and returned during the summer monsoon. Traders usually travelled the distance of one monsoon, and used the reversing wind to go back to their home. It was these winds that brought spices from Southeast Asia and the gold from Europe to India. And when they reversed, the world was clothed in Indian fabric.
The Arabs had long held a choke grip on passage across the Arabian and it was only in the 15th century that Vasco da Gama broke through and landed at Calicut, and then along came the heavy cannon warships that began the era of European domination on the high seas. With the advent of the Dutch and then the British East India Companies, which made colonies in the areas it could once only yearn for, the flow of goods became unidirectional, breaking the back of all the Asian economies.
Normal dates of onset of monsoon in India
As the wheels of time turned, the age of science emerged triumphant, and along with it came the discovery of oil as wood was replaced with steel, and the triangle dhows that had dotted the blue expanses were relegated merely to a display of a primitive past.
The trade that the monsoons heralded and sustained the world for, they alone know how many thousands of years, may have been grounded, but the memory still lives on in wind and ocean currents and the social and religious festivals that mark their onset. Kartika Purnima (full moon day of Kartika in the month of November) is celebrated in Orissa as Bali Yatra (journey to Bali) and marks the time of commencement of these trips and Khudurukuni Osha is celebrated in the month of September, mainly by unmarried girls, imitating their ancestors who waited on the Southwest monsoons to return their brothers to them…hopefully richer.
Perhaps this shift of focus from being trade winds to just water bearing ones is all for the better. The need for fresh water today trumps everything else that humans do, and the monsoons are that magnanimous giver of life for a large number of the earth’s and India’s creatures.
While the need and importance of the monsoons turns ever precious and makes people regularly anxious; the calculations for understanding it and predicting it turn increasingly complex, for the monsoons are unmindful of what legions of algorithms decide.
As they have been for all of history, known and unknown, the mausam of the Maruts remain consistent in their vagaries.