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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Bring forth the rains! Indian folklore and tribal practices to invoke rainfall

While local traditions around propitiating rain gods - ranging from a frog wedding to women ploughing the fields naked - have often stirred controversies, folklorists say one shouldn't dismiss their importance ethnographically.

Written by Shruti Chakraborty | New Delhi | Updated: July 5, 2018 6:35:47 pm
Indian folklore, tribal people, how tribals invoke rainfall, Chhatarpur, Madhya Pradesh, Monsoon Ecologies, MD Muthukumaraswamy, Assam, tamil nadu, jharkhand, West bengal, odisha, bihar, indian express, indian express news Know the importance of local traditions around propitiating rain gods. (Source: Reuters/File)

‘Stop looking at it from a rational point of view. It is a traditional belief, it is a local tradition and that is how these rituals should be viewed as — with a socio-cultural and ethnographical perspective.’ This was the common diktat from every folklorist and historian who contributed to this piece when asked to comment on the wedding of the two frogs in Chhatarpur, Madhya Pradesh, that was splashed across headlines after a local MP attended the ceremony.

While such practices – ranging from a frog wedding to women ploughing the fields naked – make an annual appearance in news reports, it was the presence of a public official at one such event that triggered a protest against the ‘rationality’ of such rituals, and whether this can be read as giving credence to ‘superstitions’. “Although all of these sayings may sound superstitious, they did represent a complex web of meanings and values, which the rural folk attached to different phenomena of nature,” writes Associate Professor Mayank Kumar in his book ‘Monsoon Ecologies’ of Rajasthan.

For any agricultural society and economy, such as the one India is, monsoons have prime importance. “The uncertainty associated with seasons, winds, rains, etc., have caused immense anxiety among the peasantry since ancient times. The absence of scientific instruments to measure or record the meteorological features, led to the growth of a series of conjunctures based on the different permutations and combinations of those visible factors. Such observations were converted into popular sayings” and practices, says Kumar, adding, “it is important to keep in mind that such beliefs may not be scientifically provable.”

Folklorists such as MD Muthukumaraswamy “do not give credibility to such practices,” but ask people to view it as “part of the realm of the popular”, as Shashank Shekhar Sinha calls it. Take, for instance, the “frog marriage as a rain-compelling ceremony”, which is popularly called Bhekul Biye in Assam and its surrounding regions.

Folklorists say the marriage of frogs to invoke rainfall still has a sense of connection with the weather. It’s a fact that the amphibians come out of the water and croak as a means to attract a mate during monsoons. It has also been seen that ants and frogs tend to have an idea of impending monsoons, much like a natural MET department. Which is why, in various parts of the country – including Madhya Pradesh and Assam – the idea of marrying off two animals that are connected with the rain, is akin to coaxing the rain clouds to burst. Marriage, a societal stamp of approval for mating, which is an act the frog performs during the monsoon, is also representative of procreation, ergo fertility. This is further interpreted to symbolise the land made fertile by a good rainfall, and thus prosper. Much like the lineage of the said animal.

Not that such practices are unique to India. Cat splashing is a traditional rain ritual in Thailand, wherein a caged cat is splashed with water. The cat’s cries are believed to bring rain. Although, in recent times this practice has been modernised and a stuffed cat is used instead. Similarly, Native Americans perform a traditional rain dance to break open the heavens. As Kumar says, “man’s desperation for rain can be viewed in the extreme measures he’s willing to take,” from the willingness to sacrifice ‘100’ female camels (Rajasthan) to walling up of Musalamma (Andhra Pradesh) and Nallathangal’s suicide (Tamil Nadu).

Muthukumaraswamy, editor of the Indian Folklore Research Journal, says the prominence of women in these rituals can be attributed to viewing them as the mother, as a symbolism of fertility. So, why do these rituals continue to be practised in a modern and literate society? Sinha, a Delhi-based historian, who has worked on the subject of tribal societies, enumerates four reasons:

* The ‘domain of the popular’ is numerically bigger than the ‘domain of the modern’ and like the latter, it has its own narratives, rhythms, understandings and politics.

* Sometimes one attempts to rationalise or appropriate such customs in the current socio-political environment.

* It is the idea of exoticism associated with these practices that creates interest and intrigue in modern society, so some people sometimes take recourse to such practices to garner attention – after all, a frog wedding is infinitely more interesting than a feature on effective methods of irrigation or water supply – but this should not lead us to homogenize or stereotype the host communities or societies.

* The ‘breaking news phenomenon’ that results in such practices get more attention, visibility and we exoticise them by participating in this debate as well.

As the case may be, while the interest in such rituals persists, we take a look at some of the other popular beliefs and rituals around “rain compelling” that exist in various states in India. Mind you, this list is by no means exhaustive.

TAMIL NADU

Muthukumaraswamy talks about the ballad called Nallathangal (which translates to ‘the good younger sister’), performed with shadow puppets when the region is hit by a drought. The story is about the young Nallathangal, who – along with her seven children – has been abandoned by her husband. In despair, she takes refuge with her sister-in-law, but there too she is ill-treated. Heartbroken, Nallathangal commits suicide along with her children. It is believed that when performed for 10 nights straight, the hearts of the gods would melt, and it would rain.

RAJASTHAN

The desert state of Rajasthan has a plethora of sayings and beliefs around the advent of monsoons, many of which are connected to celestial bodies, flora and plantation. But one such saying that interestingly brings together conception and rainfall has been documented by Kanhiya Lal Sahal in ‘Rajasthan ki Varsha Sambandhi Kahavaten’, which highlights the need of rains for agricultural production. The desperation of the common man is clearly visible in these sayings. It is further evident from the following saying where even the initial formation of clouds has been analysed in an attempt to predict the good and timely arrival of rains.

Jin din hovey garbharo, tin thakki chhey maas
Upar panra dihade, barse meh sugaj.
(Rains occur due to formation of clouds which is identified as conception. The pregnancy lasts for six months and only then rains occur.)

JHARKHAND

During the annual festival of Chaitra Parva in Seraikela, Jharkhand, one of the rituals practised concerns the prediction of rainfall in the region for the coming year. Men collect water in pots from the nearby Kharkei river, and a procession – called the Kalash Yatra – is taken out to a Shiva temple. These water-filled pots are buried in the temple compound overnight. The priest then digs out these pots the next day and the water level is analysed. If the level is almost the same, it is indicative of a year of good rainfall and productivity, whereas if there is a significant dip in the water, then it predicts a dry year, for which the people must perform a ritual to appease the gods.

This ritual usually involves men – usually Dalits – rolling over thorns, asking the gods for forgiveness for any sins they might have committed, requesting them not to punish them by not taking away the rainfall.

Sinha talks about another version of this water-vessel oracle. Organised as part of the annual Sarhul festival, which is a Spring celebration in April. The flowering of the indigenous Sal trees announces the arrival of spring and harvest, which is when pots filled with water are kept under a Sal tree, a ritual officiated by the Pahan (village priest). These vessels would be observed the next day, and – again – a prediction of rainfall and harvest would be made depending on the water level.

Another variant of this, as Sinha says, is the placing of two twigs in the water. Should the twigs meet or drift closer, the rainfall will be good, if not then there is cause for concern. Interestingly, there is a slight parallel with a very popular post-wedding game here. Played in Bengal, Odisha and Bihar, after the wedding, bits of the bride and groom’s headgear are placed into the water and it is swirled around. The bit that leads the movement is said to be the dominant player in the marriage. Here again, we see a connection of wedding ritual with invocation of rain.

Sinha says that anthropologists have also written about acts of imitative magic or ritualistic symbolism connected with rain—like the rain making ceremony among the Oraons of Jharkhand. When struck by drought, the women would gather at a village pond or spring on an appointed day (no one else would be allowed to use the pond that day till women were done with their ritual) under the aegis of the Pahan. After washing themselves, they would fill up their jars with water, walk to the Peepul tree, anoint it with vermillion and other sacred ingredients, and collectively pour water on it. This is intended to indicate that rain will fall in equal multitude. Sometimes, a cock will be sacrificed as part of the appeasement ritual.

Another, rather bizarre and fun practice also among the Oraon tribe, is of people throwing mud at each other – much like the Tomatina festival in Spain, but here it’s meant to convince the rain god that it needs to rain so that these hard-working farmers can wash away the dirt and muck.

Members of the Hos tribe, says Sinha, create a canopy of smoke by burning sticks across the village to represent rain clouds as a means of coaxing the actual clouds to come visiting, while the Mundas pelt stones from atop a hill to produce a rumbling sound akin to the thunder with the same intent.

BIHAR, UP AND TAMIL NADU

Muthukumaraswamy also speaks of the ritual involving unwed women to plough the field naked at night as a means to shame God Indra, the god of rain, for the lack of rainfall. In fact, over the years, this ritual has been covered by not only Indian but foreign press as well. A Reuters story from July 2009, which was a trying year for the agricultural industry and said to be the worst start in 80 years, created quite an uproar at the time. “They (villagers) believe their acts would get the weather gods badly embarrassed, who in turn would ensure bumper crops by sending rains… This is the most trusted social custom in the area and the villagers have vowed to continue this practice until it rains very heavily,” Upendra Kumar, a village council official, told Reuters from Bihar’s remote Banke Bazaar town.

The same ritual is known to be practised in UP and Tamil Nadu as well, and has even found mention in pop culture by virtue of films and novels.

CHHATTISGARH

Bheem, the third of the Pandava brothers, is a folk deity of the Gond tribe in Bastar. He is said to be representative of Shakti and rain. According to local lore, it rains every time he plays the Tumba. There is a sect among the Gonds who play this instrument, which is why they are called the Bhimmas. Because of this association, these people are highly respected among the Gonds, and they are invited to sing, play and dance during ceremonies. They believe that Bheem is channelled through them and it’s him who is playing for the locals.

Even today people believe that it is only when the Bhimmas play the Tumba, it rains. This is also indicative of prosperity, which is why these musicians are also given a lot of alms. Much like in classical music, it is believed that the singing of Raga Malhar invokes rain, and the locals of the Gond region say that if the Bhimmas play and sing, it will certainly rain.

Another variant of the invocation of rain, is by the Muria tribe in the Narayanpur region of Bastar. In this, a post representing Bheema Dev, is covered in cow dung and mud, with the idea that this will cause the deity to feel suffocation. Thus, in order to relieve himself of the suffering, he will cause it to rain so that the mud-pack will wash away.

UP

This practice is very similar to another ritual in UP, wherein young boys are made to lie in sludge and covered in mud, with the hope of inducing the gods to make it rain.

While most of these rituals are practised among the various Indian tribes, there is an interesting correlation between music and the invocation of rain in literature and folklore as well. There are stories of certain ragas being made to reflect particular natural phenomena, and some even with the power to control the weather. While many are familiar with the legend of Tansen and his famous Raga Deepak to light up the king’s court (a scene immortalised in the 1962 film ‘Sangeet Samrat Tansen’, sung by Md Rafi), there are those who say that singing the Carnatic raga of Amrithavarshini, which is parallel to Raga Malhar in Hindustani music, would cause it to rain. In fact, there is a popular anecdote of the heavens opening up in answer to Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s prayer in this raga.

Shruti Chakraborty is Editor, Digital with www.sahapedia.org, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India.

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