Monsoon Culture

The Newar ritual of feeding frogs is immediately followed by the festive procession of the cow, which was actually the expected day for the monsoonal birth of the calves. All photos: NEPALI TIMES ARCHIVE

This Weekend Longread is an excerpt from the keynote address to the Madan Puraskar and Jagadamba Sri Award Ceremony in Kathmandu on 10 November. 

Some monsoon- and cow-related Vedic concepts and rituals remain discernible in the annual religious observances of South Asia, particularly in the Newar rituals and festivals of the Kathmandu Valley. In this paper, I will briefly explain my studies on the Vedic frog hymns, and the epithetic name of Vasudeva, Kṛṣṇa’s father. I will then elaborate on what I recently discovered regarding the association between Kṛṣṇa’s birthday and the Vedic cow calendar.

My investigation into the frog hymns and ancient Newar rituals and seasonal festivals, and particularly into the custom of frog worship, is related to my own life experience. Before I left Nepal for the United States in December 1974, I had never been outside of the monsoonal land of the Himalayan rimlands of the Subcontinent. While working with renowned art historian Pratapaditya Pal as a trainee at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I became familiar with important art history books by Zimmer, Coomaraswamy, and Kramrisch.

Because these scholars frequently refer to Vedic literature to explain Indian art, I began to take an interest in Vedic studies. After finishing my job at the museum, I entered the PhD program in the Department of South Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Read also: Curator of history, Ayesha Shakya

Compared to Kathmandu and Los Angeles, Madison is extremely cold. Winter lasts almost half of the year here, and the trees appear dead. Many varieties of birds migrate South, and reptiles, squirrels, rabbits, and frogs hibernate under the frozen ground. Cows remain inside their stalls for at least four months.

Only after snowmelt around the beginning of May does hibernation finally come to an end. The vernal sun enlivens the earth. All of a sudden, the bushes and trees turn fresh and green, the frogs come out and within a week they start croaking, which is in fact their mating call.

When the cows come out of the barn after a long period of imprisonment, they jump around the pasture in a way that can only be described as dancing. This was a new experience for me.

In most parts of South Asia, including the Kathmandu Valley, creatures do not hibernate – they estivate. During the hot summer season, snakes, turtles, and frogs hide inside the ground.

Water buffaloes and elephants cover themselves with mud and spend plenty of time in the water. Frogs and other estivating creatures emerge from the ground immediately after the first monsoonal showers. In accordance with the ancient tendency to reverse cause and effect, it was believed that it rains when frogs start croaking.

Thus, not only Newar farmers but also Vedic people believed that frogs were rainmakers. (See: Gautama V. Vajracharya, Frog Hymns and Rain Babies: Monsoon Culture and the Art of Ancient South Asia, Marg Foundation, 2013).

A careful study of the hymns also taught me of the existence of two different agrarian lifestyles in the world. In the regions in which frogs hibernate, planting begins after the vernal sun melts the snow and ice. This explains the popularity of solar deities in these regions.

In the regions in which the frogs estivate, agriculture begins after the monsoonal rains – which is why, in the Subcontinent rain gods rather than the sun god play the most significant role in cultural history.

This observation helped me to identify some of the great gods of Vedic Aryans, who originally belonged to a hibernation culture but gradually became the gods of monsoonal rain. According to the Atharvaveda 4.15.12, for instance, when the great god Varuṇa pours water from heaven, the frogs start croaking.

Throughout my study of Vedic literature, I have been in contact with Prof Michael Witzel. After reading his works and F. B. J. Kuiper’s Varuṇa and Vidūṣaka, I became aware that within the last three millennia, South Asian culture has gone through a metamorphic development discernible only through scholarly investigations.

This was indeed an eye-opening moment in my life. As a result, I quickly realised that Śrāvaṇī, the full-moon day of the month of Śrāvaṇa, is significant for many reasons. According to the Newar calendars, this is the day when the Himalayan river Sihlu, like the Sarasvati River, descends from heaven as a rain river.

This is also the day when the Vedic academic session of the rainy season begins and disciples are invested with the sacred threadupavīta, and thus become blessed with their second or spiritual birth and are qualified to learn the Vedas by heart.

On this day, all over South Asia, Brahmins, even now, ritually change their upavīta. Interestingly, however, on exactly the same day the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley worship frogs.

This should not be considered coincidental. The Rigvedic frog hymn clearly indicates that the monsoonal session for chanting and memorising Vedic hymns begins exactly when the dry summer ends and frogs start croaking. Thus, the author of the hymn, with a sense of humour, compares the croaking frogs to the disciples who repeat after their teachers.

At present, the full-moon day of Śrāvaṇa is not the beginning of the monsoon season but nearly the end of the season. Thus, we immediately notice that the Newar frog worship on this day contrasts with the Rigvedic frog hymn that describes the croaking of the frogs immediately after the monsoon begins.

Although, at first glance, such a time difference may appear to be problematic, in fact, it helps us understand the pre-Vedic antiquity of the Newar ritual of frog worship. In Vedic times the phenomenon of the monsoon began near the full-moon day of Śrāvaṇa, when the grass turns green.

Therefore, in the Ramayana, the following month, Proṣṭhapada, or Bhādrapada, was understood to be the first month of the rainy season. Because of this archaic connection between Śrāvaṇi and the beginning of monsoon, the practice of the Newar ritual of the frogs on this important day is as old as the Rigvedic hymn.

Because the Rigvedic people became familiar with the South Asian phenomena of estivation and monsoonal rain only after they migrated to the Himalayan foothills of the Subcontinent, it is even possible that the custom of frog worship is pre-Vedic.

Further support of our view derives from the real meaning of a significant Vedic word, saṃvatsara. Although in the Rigveda the word saṃvatsara was already used for the entire 12-month year, when it is used in the context of the pregnancy of a cow, the atmospheric mother or mothers, it means a period of gestation lasting less than ten lunar months, from autumn to the rainy season (See: Frog Hymns and Rain babies: Monsoon Culture and the Art of Ancient South Asia, pp. 29-32).

Although I was familiar with all these traditional concepts when I wrote about the frog hymns, I was not sure about the origin of this system of reckoning time. It was only a few years ago that I became familiar with the Vedic ritual called vṛṣotsarga (release of bulls) a practical annual ritual related to the autumnal impregnation of cows with the expectation of the calves being born at the beginning of the monsoons when plenty of green vegetation becomes available for the mother cows and calves.

This finding made it very clear to me that autumnal cow worship and the Newar custom of celebrating the New Year as the day of foetus worship and the monsoonal procession of calves is directly related to the Vedic custom of autumnal conception and monsoonal birth.

There is a difference of approximately 290 days between the autumnal ritual of the Newars called Hmapuja or Mopuja (‘foetus worship’) and the monsoon festival called Gaijatra (‘cow procession’) which coincides with the expected gestation period of cows known to Vedic people as saṃvatsara.

The Newar ritual of feeding frogs is immediately followed by the festive procession of the cow, which was actually the expected day for the monsoonal birth of the calves. Newar children participate in the cow procession by turning themselves into calves, wearing headgear decorated with the faces of cows.

Recently, however, I noticed that in the procession some children dress as baby Krishnas, as distinguished by the flutes they hold and the hairdos adorned with peacock feathers. The procession of the cows has gone through multiple changes over the centuries, but we have good reason to believe that the participation of the baby Krishnas in the procession is related to the original concept.

The eighth day of Krishna, or Kṛṣṇāṣṭamī, which is believed to be the birthday of Krishna, takes place exactly eight days after Śrāvaṇī, seven days after the monsoonal cow festival. This is because in ancient South Asia, the birth of a baby was not celebrated on the exact day of the birth, but only when the chief dangers for a child and mother were past (Vajracharya, Frog Hymns and Rain Babies pp. 175-176). In fact, Kṛṣṇāṣṭamī is not the exact day when Krishna was born, but the day of the celebration (jayanti) of his birth.

A popular Hindu story relates that on a stormy night when the Yamunā River was flooded, Vāsudeva escaped from prison and saved the life of his newly born child, Krishna. Although Vāsudeva is interpreted as a patronymic word for Krishna, the cult of Vāsudeva is not the same as the cult of Krishna.

For instance, the former has no association with Krishna’s romance with Rādhā and gopīs. The early cult of Vāsudeva was popular in India around the 1st century BCE, when not only Hindus but also foreigners, such as the Greek ambassador Heliodorus, were accepted as devotees of the Vaishnava deity.

The Greek ambassador erected a pillar in Beshnagar in honour of the deity. The pillar is still standing in situ, but the image of Garuda surmounted on the pillar is missing. This is actually one of the earliest Hindu monuments to have survived.

In the Mahabharata and Amarakośa, Vāsudeva has an interesting epithet Ānakadundubhi ‘A Drum called Ānaka’. According to the epic, this name was given to him at his birth because the gods, foreseeing that Vishnu would take a human form in his family, sounded the heavenly drum Ānaka for joy. This Hindu story, however, does not explain the significance of Ānakadundubhi in the Buddhist Jātaka story and its association with the much earlier Vedic belief that the sound of the thunder is the sound of the celestial cloud drum.

Jātaka 2.344 tells that Ānakadundubhi was made of a golden crab’s claws. When this divine crab died, asuras made the cloud drum, ālambaradundubhi, out of a claw, whereas the Daśārha warriors of the earth made the Ānaka drum out of the other claw.

There was prosperity in the kingdom of the Daśārha because the sound of the Ānaka drum could make rain. Keeping the tradition of the hibernation culture of their earlier homeland, Vedic priests continued the custom of beating the drum in the Mahāvrata ritual performed ‘at the winter solstice, for the purpose driving away influences hostile to the return of sun’ (Mcdonell & Keith, vol. I, 1967, 368) even though in most of the Subcontinent, one does not need to worry about the return of the sun.

Thus, as usual, in Vedic literature cloud and rain symbolism of the drum also began to appear, alongside the solar cult. For instance, Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa 2.404 and 3.105 relate that the sound of the atmospheric drum causes the aerial waterpots to overflow. Likewise, the sound of the earthly drum (bhūmidundubhi), whose mouth is covered by the skin of a bull, rains when bitten ritually (varṣukaḥ parjanyo bhavati 3.118).

Thus, Vāsudeva’s epithet, Ānakadundubhi, may suggest that Vāsudeva received this name because originally, he was a divinity of the thunder cloud. His real name, Vāsudeva, the god of vasu, ‘agrarian prosperity’, resembles Vasudhārā, worshipped by Buddhists as the goddess of the rice paddy. The Vedic version of Vasudhārā is vasor dhārā, symbolically identified with a cow. Her milk is rain flowing from her udders as clouds (Śatapatha Brahmaṇa

Agrarian wealth, vasu, is also associated with frogs. According to the Rigvedic frog hymn 7.103.10, the greenish-yellow frogs which croak at the beginning of the monsoon are the givers of vasu. Thus, the celebration of the birthday of Krishna (the son of the thundercloud at the very beginning of monsoonal rains) clearly indicates that baby Krishna was a rain child.

In accordance with my recent investigation, the eighth day of the dark half of the month of Bhādra, which is considered the birthday of Krishna, was actually the Vedic Ekāṣṭakā, the eighth day after the full moon. A main point of our argument is based on the Maitrāyaṇī Saṃhitā (2.5.9), which refers to two different Ekāṣṭakās, designated as Ekāṣṭakā and Aparā Ekāṣṭakā.

In the context of the ritual related to kṣudh (appetite or hunger), the author of the text mentions that on the day of Ekāṣṭakā a cow should be killed (4.2.3). Almost certainly, this Ekāṣṭakā is related to the statement of the Atharvaveda (14.1.13.) that mentions that cows are killed during the Maghā nakṣatra.

References to the Ekāṣṭakā of the month Māgha are, however, found in other Vedic texts as well. This Ekāṣṭakā is certainly different from Aparā Ekāṣṭakā, briefly mentioned in the Maitrāyaṇī Saṃhitā (4.2.8) as the day when newborn calves were collected each year for the ritual performed for the wellbeing of the calves.

In the Rigveda, frogs are eulogised as cow-givers. This makes sense because calves were expected to be born when frogs start croaking. The well-known Ekāṣṭakā hymn of the Atharvaveda is also related to the monsoonal birth of calves.

In this hymn, Ekāṣṭakā is identified with devānāṃ rātri, ‘the nighttime of the god’. The Ramayana refers to the rainy season as varṣārātra, which cannot be ignored as a post-Vedic development because the rainy season is equated with night in several Vedic texts, including the Rigveda (1.38.9).

Furthermore, we can clearly see the reflection of the Rigvedic frog hymn in the Ekāṣṭakā hymn of the Atharvaveda, particularly in the following sūkta (3.10.5). ‘vānaspatyā grāvāṇo ghoṣamakrata haviṣkṛṇvantaḥ parivavtsarīṇam = The mortar and pestle (like cloud) made thundering sound while preparing the oblation of the parivatsara time.’

Undoubtedly this sūkta was an imitation of one found in a Rigvedic frog hymn (7.103.8): ‘brāhmaṇasah somino vācamakrata brahma kṛṇvanta parivatsarīṇam = The soma drinking Brahmins made (loud) sound while chanting the prayer of the parivatsara time.  As in several other Vedic expressions, the grinding sound of the mortar and pestle in this Atharva hymn is equated with thunder.

The Lomash Rishi Cave inscription of the Maurya emperor Ashok refers to the rainy season as ghoṣāgama samaya ‘thunder time’.  This cannot be the Maurya period invention because already in the frog hymn of the Atharvavedaghoṣa is a word for the thunder.

Evidently, in the Rigvedic frog hymn and Ekāṣṭakā hymn, the word parivatsarīṇa has the same meaning. In the frog hymn (7.103. 7) the word is used to describe the time when brahmins start chanting Vedic mantra and the frog start croaking, in the Ekāṣṭakā hymn the rumbling sound of the thunder at the unset of the rainy season. Thus, we know that Ekāṣṭakā hymn is closely associated with the beginning of the monsoonal phenomena.

This is why Ekāṣṭakā is described as the wife of Saṃvatsara, who remains inactive during the gloomy days of two months of the rainy season.  Thus, it becomes evident that the monsoonal Ekāṣṭakā on which newly born calves were collected is the same as Krishna’s birthday, celebrated eight days after the full-moon day of Śrāvaṇa.

This is the reason that on the day of the cow procession of the Kathmandu Valley, which is observed seven days before Kṛṣṇāṣṭamī, baby Krishna participates in the festival together with real calves and children representing the calves. Baby Krishna was indeed an auspicious rain-child representing all newly born offspring of the year.

Gautama Vajra Vajracharya was born into a Newar family in Kathmandu in 1940. He is a Nepali Sanskritist and scholar specialising in the art and iconography of the Indian Subcontinent.