The monsoon has come again, swathing the skies,
Wafting through the breeze the rain fragrance beguiles.
This old soul of mine, echoes in thrill,
Watching the gathering clouds drill.
Steadily over the meadow, grows the rain clouds shadow,
It is here, shouts the heart, it is here sings the song
Delights eyes, rushes towards life.
The above lines from Rabindranath Tagore’s poem ‘Abar esheche ashar’ (The monsoon has come again) perhaps best describes the current mood in an India that is walking out of a dreadful summer, entering a period of joyous monsoons. The smoky dark clouds, the ethereal downpour that follows and the sweet petrichor, has forever been the highlight of Indian ecology and culture. The season of rains in India has a uniqueness to it, a sentiment of hope and joy attached that is unlike the perception attached to rains anywhere else in the world. Tailing behind the scorching tropical heat, the Indian monsoon is a time for relief. A time to rejoice and prosper.
Poets, travelers, lovers and everyone else in India have for centuries considered the monsoons one of the best incentives to strike pen on paper. One wonders though, that in a country that has for eternity been the centre of attraction for foreign travelers, traders and invaders, how must have the tropical rains appeared to the outsiders?
Historical documents suggest that the Indian monsoon along with the tropical summer were the biggest factors that led to the retreat of the Macedonian invader Alexander the Great and his army. The passionate outburst of rain showers that take place in the middle of the year has been extensively chronicled by foreign writers in India, accompanying expressions ranging from horror, awe and alarm to amusement and longing. Here we put together the historical accounts of four foreigners who were awed by the monsoons in India.
The British oriental scholar is best known for his work on the history of Rajasthan. During his time in India in the early 19th century, as an officer of the British East India Company, Tod travelled far and wide and documented the history and geography of the Indian subcontinent. The 12th chapter of his book, “Travels in Western India, Embracing a Visit to the Sacred Mounts of the Jains, and the Most Celebrated Shrines of Hindu Faith Between Rajpootana and the Indus,” documents Tod’s experience in the city of Ahmedabad where he was met with the Indian monsoons. Describing his experience of greeting the rains,Tod says the following:
“I was happy to come to an anchor at this place, and to ride out, in such anchorage as I found here, the increasing wrath of the monsoon.”
“Whatever amusement there may be in reading the wanderings of a traveller in India, when the ‘waters are out’ there is not much enjoyment for him, and still less for those about him.”
For the rest of the chapter, Tod comments upon the challenges faced while travelling during the monsoon including the difficulty in passing the horses, the scarcity of supplies and the horrors of a monsoon storm. “You get up and paddle for slippers in vain, and find that the force of the torrent has broken the embankment raised in the evening, and petty rivulets meander under your bed,” writes Tod.
Jean Baptiste Tavernier
The French traveller and merchant, Jean Baptiste Tavernier had made a number of voyages to the East, between Persia and India in the 17th century. Tavernier documented his experiences in a number of publications. In his work, “The travels in India,” Tavernier refers to his face off with tropical monsoons on several occasions throughout the book. In the beginning he writes about the precautions that need to be taken by sailors while travelling in the Indian seas, since the Indian climatic conditions are not conducive to sea voyages all year round. “Navigation in the Indian seas is not carried out at all seasons as it is in our European seas, it being necessary to take the proper season, outside which no one ventures to put to sea. The months of November, December, January, February and March are the only months in the year in which you embark at Hormuz for Surat, and at Surat for Hormuz.”
Tavernier describes the social and geographical implications of rains in India throughout his book. “When it rains in India the water falls like a deluge, and in less than an hour or two small streams rise 2 or 3 feet in depth,” he writes. Describing the city of Lahore, Tavernier writes that “the town is large and extends more than a coss in length, but the greater part of the houses, which are higher than those of Agra and Delhi, are falling into ruins, the excessive rains having overthrown a large number.”
The French physician and traveller, Bernier had made his way to the Mughal court in the 17th century during the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan. His work, “Travels in the Mogul empire AD 1656-1668,” is a detailed account of the socio-political conditions in the Mughal empire, including the war of succession that followed Shah Jahan’s death. Apart from the political events though, Bernier writes in length about the Indian geographical and human landscape of India during his time.
In the second volume of his work, Bernier devotes a special section to the rains in India. “The sun is so strong and violent in India during the whole year, particularly during eight months, that the ground would be completely burnt and rendered sterile and sterile and uninhabitable, if Providence did not kindly provide a remedy, and wisely ordained that in the month of July, when the heat is most intense, rains begin to fall, which continue three successive months.” he writes.
He further notes in detail the atmospheric conditions leading to rainfall in India and remarks on the fact that the intensity of rains in different parts of India varies according to the kind of summer heat the region received. “I had almost forgotten to notice another fact which fell under my observation while living in Delhi. There never falls any heavy rain until a great quantity of clouds have passed, during several days, to the westward; as if it were necessary that the expanse of atmosphere to the west of Delhi, should first be filled with clouds, and that those clouds finding some impediment, such as air less hot and less rarefied, and therefore more capable of resistance; or encountering other clouds and contrary winds, they become so thick, overcharged and heavy, as to burst and descend in rain,” notes Bernier.
Talking of contemporary times, the British-Australian travel writer, Alexander Frater’s account of monsoons in India is considered to be a modern day classic. Frater had been enamoured by the idea of Indian rains through the stories he heard from his father as a child when he grew up in the South Pacific islands in the mid-twentieth century. He finally visited India to trace the Indian monsoons from Kerala to Cherrapunji, and produced in 1990 a book by the name “Chasing the monsoon: A modern pilgrimage through India.”
Frater’s account moves from being a blissful longing for the torrential rains he had heard so much about to the emotion of awe on facing the deluge which he considered to be a “roaring cataract of falling, foaming water.” There were moments when he greeted the first rains, like that in Cochin, and then there were others when he just missed them, like that in Goa.
“At 1 p.m. the serious cloud build-up started. Two hours fifty minutes later racing cumulus extinguished the sun and left everything washed in an inky violet light. At 4.50, announced by deafening ground-level thunderclaps, the monsoon finally rode into Cochin. The cloud-base blew through the trees like smoke; rain foamed on the hotel’s harbourside lawn and produced a bank of hanging mist opaque as hill fog. In the coffee shop the waiters rushed to the windows, clapping and yelling, their customers forgotten. One, emerging from the kitchen bearing a teapot destined for the conference room (…), glimpsed the magniloquent spectacle outside, banged the teapot down on my table and ran to join them crying, ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!,” wrote Frater about the arrival of monsoons in Cochin.
For Frater, the monsoons in India remained the ideal romantic phenomenon, that was key to the country’s charm despite its impoverishment. “As a romantic ideal, turbulent, impoverished India could still weave its spell, and the key to it all – the colours, the moods, the scents, the subtle, mysterious light, the poetry, the heightened expectations, the kind of beauty that made your heart miss a beat – well, that remained the monsoon,” writes Frater.