Kerala does not contain the wettest place on earth (Cherrapunji, Assam), or even the wettest place in south India (Agumbe, Karnataka), but it does get a lot of rain. That's apparent from the fact that Malayalam is flooded with rain-redolent idioms, stories and songs.
Dr CR Rajagopalan of the Institute of Folklore Studies at the Thiruvananthapuram University collects folklore and indigenous knowledge about everything from agriculture to musical instruments. Among his several publications is Summer Rain: Harvesting the Indigenous Knowledge of Kerala. It has a chapter on rain lore.
I met him at his house in the Kariavottam campus, which is located well away from the city. His cottage is right at the edge of the forest, where even though the rains were yet to start in earnest, there were still birds and insects doing their best to outshout each other.
He rattled off several idioms about the rains.
"Rain from the south and a Brahmin gone north will not return."
"Why construct dams after all the water has flowed away?"
"Chakki mukha chakrai vachonam karu. When clouds begin to take the shape of jaggery, rain will come."
“Every word has so many circles of meaning in Malayalam,” said Rajagopalan. “All these phrases mean more than just the shape of their words.”
He recited a verse from Chandrotsavam, a 14th century epic poem that is among the earliest references to the monsoon in Malayalam literature. The rain, like a mother to her child, flies across the ocean to nurture Kerala, it says.
References to the rain as an actor in a grand drama abound. K Santhosh at the Indian Meteorological Department also referred to the metaphor last week. After concluding what might have been for him a dry discussion about the prospects of the monsoon this year, Santhosh spoke passionately of how if the rain was only a small part of the whole, then our efforts to follow the rains became so small in perspective.
The Kannasa Ramayanam, another 14th century literary text, also compares the rain to an actor on a stage, with lamps as lightning and dancers as peacocks, said Rajagopalan.
“But if you really want to know about the seasons, you must visit Cheruvayalil Raman in Wayanad,” said Rajagopalan as he saw me to the door. “He knows more about folklore than most other people in Kerala.”
The rain is not uniformly a cause for joy.
Karkidaga maasam starts in the middle of July and ends in the middle of August. As torrential rains lash the state during this month, landed Hindus mark it by fasting and praying. They call the month Ramayanam maasam, a time for religious contemplation and reading the epic.
But the poor also know the month as panja maasam, a season of deprivation, when food and alternate jobs become scarce, and they have to make shift to survive until Onam, the harvest festival at the end of Karkidagam.
With fewer jobs closely tied to the land and the vagaries of the monsoon, panja maasam might no longer be as universally devastating, but memories of it linger in certain traditional foods.
In Thiruvananthapuram district, members of the female self-empowerment group Kudumbashri had gathered in Kilimanoor for a training session for Café Kudumbashri, a new scheme where they will set up their own restaurants in small collectives.
Liby Johnson took us for this meeting, where he asked the gathered women about traditional recipes during this period.
Two months before the Karkidaga maasam, people bury whole jackfruit seeds in the soil, or wrap them in rice husks, and let them dry. As the moisture disappears, the sweated skin comes off. They wash the kernel and boil it, then dry roast it with grated coconut, salt and chutney over fire. During Karkidaga, people eat the seeds with lemon, salt, green chilly or black tea. It is good for health, they say, and helps take the edge off the inevitable hunger.
All roads in Wayanad seem to lead to Cheruvayalil Raman, or Rametta, as he is commonly known. An organic cultivator, Rametta is known for his unparalleled collection of 41 indigenous varieties of rice, some of which were close to extinction before he found them.
A farmer of the old school, he told us a little more about the monsoon and its practices.
“In Wayanad, the first and last days of the monsoon are celebrated as Bishu and Onam,” he said. “The monsoon also means the starting of life. Frogs, birds, animals, all know when the monsoon will come and the older people can tell exactly when the rains will arrive by listening to and watching these animals.”
During the Karkadaga maasam, they do not clean their houses and stop eating certain kinds of food. Once the month is over, they begin to eat everything again.
He told us about the nyattuvela, the Malayali zodiac calendar that closely maps the changing seasons. Then he sang a tune that is usually sung at the time of Chingam, the first month of the calendar. Onam, the harvest festival, is celebrated on the first of that month.
“Golden paddy combs are coming out slowly, the month of Chingum has come,
Green birds are pecking the tips of paddy combs, and flying high in the sky,
Golden paddy combs have come, harvesting season has come.
The birds are pecking the paddy and flying high in the sky to their nests,
The sky has cleared, surroundings are cleared, houses have been repaired and painted.”
Read Mridula Chari's previous dispatches here.