Calendars (Chinese, Lunar, Gregorian) are fascinating in how they tell time. I am reading about this, and hence wrote this piece.
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The Indian mind and the lunar calendar
Familiarizing yourself with the Indian lunar calendar is one of the ways by which one can access India’s heritage and mindset
This is the winter season in the Indian calendar. We call it Shishir Ritu (mid-January to mid-March) or leaf-letting season in Tamil. Fat, golden, tired leaves are tumbling from the trees, creating miniature typhoons.
Temperatures rise and fall. In Indian towns, people sit on charpoys on the terrace, guzzling hot kebabs and parathas (or lemon rice and mango pickles in the case of south India), learning to fly kites and waxing the strings with ground glass, as we all did as children.
A few weeks ago, we celebrated Basant Panchami, a seasonal festival that marks the march of time from winter to windy days and cool nights. Traditionally, this was celebrated by flying kites and hanging swings from trees. It wasn’t necessarily a religious festival; more of a seasonal one. As the book, The Partitions of Memory: The Afterlife of the Division of India, points out: “The festival was not particularly identified with Hinduism. Lahoris did not celebrate Basant as Hindus or Muslims, because Basant was simply a seasonal celebration. It marked the end of the cold weather.”
This is the season of mustard and marigold; the season in which young girls with long dark braids and colourful clothes sit on swings and burst into giggles as their companions push them higher and higher towards the sky; when eager young eyes turn towards the sky to see kites fly. This is the season that has been immortalized in numerous miniature paintings and murals. It is also a season that the average urban Indian knows nothing about.
There are many benefits of globalization and technology. There are many benefits of living in cosmopolitan communities with neighbours from different parts of India and the world. However, one of the casualties of this experience is the sense of place and time. Our parents had a very specific sense of who they were with respect to the place they were from and the time they lived in, which those of us who are immigrants—either within India or abroad—don’t have. In the case of the previous generation, if you were a Rajput in Manvar, you ate certain foods during certain seasons and sang specific songs. Distinct geographies give rise to very particular festivals that spring from the flora and fauna of that place, such as the bull-running festival in interior Tamil Nadu.
But this is not a lament for the glory days of yore, nor is it a Luddite rant against the sterile egalitarianism of technology. It is about cultural preservation of a very particular sort: through the calendar. It is part of a larger question: Is there an easy way by which one can access India’s heritage and mindset?
As far as I can tell, one way is by familiarizing yourself with the Indian calendar.
When I meet elders of the previous generation, I see a few similarities among them, whether they live in the north or south, east or west. One is a love for music, be it bhajan or gospel. There is always music playing in the house. The other is a discomfort with formality. Please and thank you are Western constructs for this generation, used as they are to the casual give-and-take that marked life in villages, whether in Goa or in Gurgaon. The third thing is marking time through the lunar calendar; through the waxing and waning of the moon.
I have been thinking about the notion of intangible heritage; of things that are lost without our even knowing it. Some traditions of putting cow dung in the courtyard and placing a yellow flower atop it, deserve to be lost. Who has a courtyard these days, let alone cow-dung? But what about telling time using a “daily tear-off” calendar? Is there any merit in doing this?
My calendar has nothing to do with the season. It has to do with school holidays, work appointments and field trips. It has nothing, in other words, that links me to the land and time zone that I inhabit. The reason I find this fascinating is because the lunar calendar is both tantalizingly out of reach and yet within grasp of many of us urban Indians.
Down the road from my home is a vegetable market that sells particular greens on particular days. Recently, garlands made of purple Calotropis flowers appeared. Apparently, it was a festival that celebrated the sun god’s transit through a festival called Ratha Saptami. The arka-patra, or leaves of the Calotropis, are offered to the sun god on this day. The fruit, vegetable and flower vendors of our markets, be they Christian, Hindu or Muslim, know these festivals because they bring seasonal fruits and vegetables on those specific days. The question for us is whether there is any merit in learning these ways?
Two states interest me in this regard: Kerala and Goa. In Kerala, all religions celebrate Onam and slow down during the monsoon Karkataka month to get Ayurvedic massages. Goa is gearing up for its Shigmo, or spring, festival but Goa celebrates it with parades and floats.
Most of us celebrate festivals to a greater or lesser degree. But here is an exercise that is not impossible to do, even in our busy urban lives. Pay attention to how your parents and grandparents talk. Pay attention to how they calculate time, on a daily, monthly and annual basis. Pay attention to the fruits that appear—not in supermarkets—but on vending carts. Right now, for instance, if you know where to look, you can find the bilva (bael) fruit that ripens at this time of year.
We all know when the mango season starts, but also notice the less glorious, more indigenous and rather shy fruits like the jamun. When does the jamun appear? What does it say about the season and the land? What about the festivals that coincide with the occurrence of the bilva, jamun and mango? What about bird calls during that time?
It is very easy to ignore the time and space we live in, caught up as we are in the cocoon of our laptops. But by viewing market produce and grandparents’ talking points, we can glimpse a past that is very distinctly and particularly Indian. It belongs to us should we want it.
Shoba Narayan tried bilva pulp from the roadside vendor. It is an acquired taste. Write to her at email@example.com