The Realm of the Chaumasa
Literally a period of four months, the Chaumasa is often synonymous with the Indian monsoon, and yet there are nuanced differences between the two. The period includes the last few days of the Indian lunar month of Asadh (a cusp of summer and monsoon), all of the primary monsoon months of Shravan and Bhadrapad; the autumnal Ashvin and most of the month of the first winter month of Kartik. But transcending the organic sum of these four parts, the Chaumasa emerges as a unique monsoon idea in itself. It becomes a philosophical-aesthetic-reflective idea commanding its own lexicon of experience.
The Chaumasa encompasses the density of experience that the season impregnates; as we see the gradual unfurling of the monsoon drama: not just the meteorological journey of the season, but also the cultural universe it has created around itself since time immemorial.
The hot days of Asadh and the longing for rain; the climactic pinnacle of rain and all monsoon experience in Rituraj Sawan; the dark brooding viraha energy of Bhadrapad, when Krishna descends; the cusp of monsoon-autumn in Ashvin, heralded by more festivities; and the light filled month of Kartik follows as an epilogue, leading us towards high-winter.
The idea of the Chaumasa reminds us that the Indian Monsoon is not just “rain-time” but a deep cultural construct. The Monsoon period in lay understanding today is regarded as the two month period in which there is significant rainfall, but elevated souls more rooted in Indian aesthetics turn to the leitmotif of the Chaturmas to achieve a much more refined and richer understanding of what the Monsoon actually entails and its immense emotive, aesthetic and spiritual potentialities. The Chaumasa takes us a gradual and subtle journey of the circle of seasons: from the end of Summer (Grishma) to the lush rainy Monsoon (Varsha), and on towards Sharad and Hemant (winter). It refines and elongates our understanding of the Monsoon; and shows us how to enjoy the Monsoon experience in its most extended and expansive way. During the month of Ashvin, the monsoon begins its retreat and dark clouds give way to lighter, white clouds; and in Kartik, when the monsoons have completely withdrawn; the Chaumasa still moves forth almost till the end of the month, enabling a hang-over of our beloved Monsoon Raj, before winter peaks!
Ways of Being in the Chaumasa
The gods go into a deep slumber during the Chaumasa; and this idea is centrally definitive to the significance of the Chaumasa and the attendant rituals, practices and modes of existence during this time. The Chaumasa begins with Dev-Shayani-Ekadashi in Asadh, when the gods retreat; and closes dramatically with Dev-Uthani-Ekadashi in Kartik, when the gods wake up and spread joy again. The Chaumasa period also corresponds with Dakshinayan, signalling the southward movement of the Sun, considered to be the ‘night’ of the gods.
Since the gods are at rest, auspicious ceremonies like weddings, and certain other religious rituals are forbidden during this time. Instead, this is rather a time for austerity, hermetic practices, asceticism, penance, meditation, spiritual growth, solitary confinement, isolation, looking inward and reflection. Since ancient times, once the holy time of Chaumasa sets in, travel is prohibited (especially for Sannyasis, and especially during the months of Sawan and Bhadrapad). Hence this became a time to stay in one place, stay still.
Even though the Monsoon brings the abundance of plenty; ironically, the Chaumasa also teaches us to live with less and practice restraint and self-control. The season brings many fasting practices (notably Shravan in the Hindu tradition, Paryushan in the Jain tradition, to name a few); and monks observe a deep Mauna (vow of silence).
The reclusive aspects and practices attendant to the Chaumasa are central to many religions, not just Hinduism. Jainism and Buddhism also venerate this sacred time, with each religious stream codifying similar monastic practices as outlined above or more specific protocols to be followed.
The Chaumasa code prescribes ideas for Dharma and Dhyana across the social spectrum. Householders practice various Dharma rituals (listening to discourses, bathing in holy rivers, recitation of mantras, sacrifices, and charity). While the gods are asleep, the humans do not entirely give up on worldly pleasures, and they rejoice and celebrate as the Monsoon brings in a string of festivals after a harsh and dry summer. Sanyasis, ascetics and monks also encounter a reversal of the normal course of life during this time: they are normally mandated to wander and not spend too much time at a particular place, but they are now ordained to spend the Chaumasa retreat at one place, giving sermons, or practicing silence; as their inner calling may be.
Romantic Awakenings in the Four Months
Clearly, the Chaumasa is a time for solitude. However, this does not mean that the Ras-Raj Shringaar will be ignored during the monsoonal Ritu-Raj. Hence, the Chaumasa is also a time of heightened romantic awakenings of all hues.
Most poignantly, it heralds the onset of Viraha. If your lover was stuck in some distant land as the rain descended, he was literally locked down there for the entire four month jaunt, rendered immobile by the marching armies of the clouds; and you were encountered with four months of attendant separation. So many a Khayal bandish and regional folk songs pen this experience of heightened Viyog in the Chaumasa. The Barah-mãsã is a literary-song form that describes the twelve lunar months of the year, and in many a Barah-mãsã, the four main monsoon months are collectively referred to as Chau-mãsã (this is special because there is no such grouping for other months of the year, which are normally referred to individually).
The Chaumasa can equally be the site of Sanyog and the unalloyed joys of union in the festive monsoon; but more vitally, it is the battle of Viyog and the pain of separation that makes the four month period richer and enables this artistic construct to wield much greater emotional power in Indian art. The pain of separation becomes a catalyst for artistic creation, as is evident in many art mediums like music, literature, and painting.