And Now For The Monsoons

by Gautam Pemmaraju

The migratory Pied-Crested Cuckoo is believed by some to ride the seasonal winds of the South West Monsoon to arrive in the sub-continent in late May to early June. It makes the journey from sub-Saharan Africa, traversing the Arabian Peninsula, across the ocean, visiting the Seychelles and Lakshadweep, only to arrive in Kerala at first, as the overheated land solicitously lures the ardent monsoon winds in. They breed during the rainy season, and leave the subcontinent in September. Clamator Jacobinus, the Rain Bird, or the chatak of Indian antiquity, is believed to be the ‘harbinger of monsoons’, proclaiming, as ornithologist Hugh Whistler has said, the imminent rains “with its unmistakably loud metallic calls”. There are several who keep a keen eye out for its mantic presence, but its parasitic proclivities cause much distress to the resident avian populace. I am yet to read of any sightings, far less encounter one, and its typical song is not one of the several songbird tunes that I hear everyday. However, it is raining as I write. Although a steady drizzle now, it was far more animated early this Sunday morning. Lest I am fooled into thinking that the monsoon has arrived, the first “impressions of a chaotic sky”, the teasing, ‘towering cumulus clouds’, are merely bold heralders of the much anticipated annual visitation, at once cooling down the region and giving the city a thorough wash.

As Alexander Frater writes in Chasing The Monsoon, he too gets caught up in the collective febrile anxiety leading up to the first rain, and then:

At 1 p.m. the serious cloud build-up started … 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… At Fort Cochin they were ringing the bells in St Francis Church. In the dark harbour small boats ran for home. Waves bursting over the scalloped sea were suffused, curiously, with pink light. The jetty, set under a small wooden gazebo, vanished beneath heavy surf.

The monsoons, “a creature of grandeur and complexity that defies comparison with anything”, in the words of MS Rajagopalan of the Trivandrum Meteorological Department who Frater meets early on, are meant to officially arrive in Bombay on the 10th of June. This year they have been announced in Kerala on the 5th of June, which is five days late, according to a press release (and weekly update) by the local Meteorological Department of Mumbai, and the cumulative seasonal rainfall in the first week for the entire country is 32% below the LPA (Long Period Average). The department however predicts that the monsoon will be a normal one this year. (See here).

The ‘big bang’ theory, of the rains arriving in one dramatic burst is disputed, and some researchers claim that there will be “less rainfall if it sets in suddenly”.

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The word Monsoon, as is widely accepted, derives from the Arabic mausim from whence arrives the Portuguese corruption mançâo. It signifies season and is also linked to the Malay word mooseem. Hobson-Jobson further informs us, that according to the Turkish Admiral Sidi Ali, “Mausim is used of anything that comes around but once a year. Like the festivals. In Lebanon the mausim is the season of working with silk – which is the important season there, as the season of navigation in in Yemen”.

It was indeed Arab traders, who expertly recognized (and thereafter charted) that “the monsoons are more valuable as auxiliaries to commerce than the trade winds, owing to a change in their direction, for a ship may proceed to a distant port with one monsoon and be aided on its return by its successor” (see Thomas Millner’s The Gallery Of Nature: A Pictorial & Descriptive Tour Through Creation, 1849).

Writing on these intrepid traders, Patricia Risso, in the introduction to Merchants of Faith: Muslim Commerce & Culture In The Indian Ocean (1995), points out that the vast ocean is a ‘less cohesive maritime space’ than the Mediterranean but the “monsoons provide a degree of geographic unity”:

The optimal sailing periods during the monsoons were relatively short and storms were often a problem, so mariners learnt to catch the winds at certain times, depending on their points of embarkation and destination. Some historians argue that the monsoons determined certain historical patterns, and there is a general consensus that the monsoons made cross-cultural experiences highly likely… Maritime history, is of course, largely shaped by the monsoons…

Critically, she points out that the monsoon winds provided ‘heightened opportunities’ for quicker long distance journeys and as a direct consequence, made the region ‘smaller’ and more accessible. The spread of Islam is linked in no uncertain terms to maritime trade, and as Risso says further, there is a very large body of scholarship that is premised on the notion that “the expansion of Islam influenced maritime and land-based history”. Also, the Muslim community’s rapid and successful expansion in the Indian Ocean “greatly increased the cultural variety of Islamic expression”.

Nautical knowledge linked to the monsoons, of the timing and direction, achieved great sophistication by mariners in pre-Islamic Arabia, Rose Dunn points out, in The Adventures Of Ibn Battuta (1986), so much so that “almanacs were being published with which port officials and wholesale bazaar merchants could predict the approximate time trading ships would arrive from points hundreds or even thousands of miles away”. This seasonality of the winds gave trade a ‘symmetry’ and ‘calculability’ – a feature not seen in the Mediterranean. Interestingly, she also points to the lateen, the curved sail of Indian Ocean trade ships, and argues that this consistent feature over centuries of ship-building was less about ‘stolid mariner conservatism’ but more about ‘experimentation and refinement’ in attempting to arrive at solutions to fully exploit the monsoon winds. She speculates that the lateen was developed in the Western Indian Ocean in antiquity, but would probably have spread to the Mediterranean with 7th century Islamic expansion.

The intrepid traveller that he was, Ibn Battuta also had good reason to believe that the ‘king of India’, Mohammed Bin Tuglaq would receive such an accomplished ‘gentleman, jurist, raconteur, and guest of amirs and khans’ as himself, with honour, and surely offer suitable employment, as he was apt to do. His plan, as Dunn points out, was towards that goal, and it was around 1322 CE that he “boarded a Genoese merchant ship at the Syrian port of Latakia (Ladiqiya) and sailed westward into the Mediterranean, bound for the south coast of Anatolia”. Having left Arabia but a few months ago, he had intended to reach Jidda, hitch a ride to Aden from whence he would ride the winter monsoon. He abandoned that plan for a more ‘circuitous route’ via Aydhab, Cairo, Sinai, on to Palestine, across the Levantine coast onward to Beirut, and thereafter to Latakia. He was to eventually stay in Anatolia for two years having sidetracked his ‘Indian career plans’ for ‘more casual adventures’, and thereafter entered India by way of Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush.

Jairus Banaji explores the dominance of Sasanian pre-Islamic traders (and fascinatingly, port names appearing in different accounts) in the Western Indian Ocean in an illuminating paper titled Changing Fortunes, which will appear later this year in a volume edited by Federico de Romanis. Pointing at the outset to the Byzantine scholar Procopius who wrote that it was ‘impossible’ for Ethiopian merchants to purchase goods from the Indians because the Persians had monopolized the trade, Banaji further argues that the ‘least that this implies’ is that by the 6th Century, Sassanian dominance prevailed, and this “is a major part of the explanation of why Islam expanded in the Indian Ocean in the way it did by extending and consolidating links established in the Sasanian centuries”.

Critically though, he points to a passage that has ‘largely gone unnoticed’, for “Procopius tells us that it was Indian ships that imported the cargoes bought by Iranian merchants, and he implies that the harbours where these transactions took place were South Asian”.

Banaji goes on to cite Cosmas Indicopluestes, the 6th Century Byzantine geographer and traveller, an ‘Alexandrian merchant and later hermit’ (and Periplus) with regard to names of prominent trading ports:

In other words, Cosmas’ description of the west coast of India divided it into four major segments: Saurashtra or Kathiawar in Gujarat, Kalyan just north of Bombay, Sindabur or Goa, and the Malabar ports ending with Poudapatana. This last location can be identified with ‘Budfattan’ in Ibn Baṭṭūṭa or modern Puthupatanam /Puthupanam at Vadakara Beach south of Thalassery. In late medieval times Puthupatanam was a satellite port of Calicut, like Pantalāyini, described by Tomé Pires as one of several ‘small ports’ that the Zamorin or ruler of Calicut depended on because, as he said, ‘The port of Calicut is not good because the land slopes up from the sea’

Describing further the convivial trading ties, Banaji writes of the Rasthrakuta reign of much of Gujarat (c. 780 – 850) and of how, Ma’sudi was “especially struck by the Rashtrakuta reception of Arab traders, the respect and tolerance shown to ‘Arabs and Muslims’ in a kingdom that often seemed to those writers the only one worth mentioning!” (The contemporary ironies are obvious).

(Banaji also points me to the famed navigation manual Kitab al Fawaid fi Usul ‘Ilm al Bahr wa’l Qawa’id, by the 15th century Arab cartographer Ahmad ibn Majid who is said to have helped Vasco da Gama).

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The origins of the monsoons continue to be a matter of debate. It is however generally believed, as Alexander Frater also writes, that the phenomenon dates back to the Miocene epoch, and is linked to the ‘uplift’ of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau (see here & here) caused by the northern moving subcontinent colliding with the Asian Plate. The ‘uplift’ process is believed to have occurred millions of years prior. Several sources point to the research of Tom Pederson who has asserted that diatoms, or tiny opaline skeletons and single celled marine plants known as ‘radiolarian’ recovered from the ocean floors are in fact ‘the signature of the monsoon’. The earliest winds, according to the dating of these specimens, blew during the Miocene Epoch.

Discussing the antiquity of Indian monsoons in Paleoclimate Studies In India: Last Ice Age To The Present (2009), Singhvi & Kale, also indicate that ‘numerous marine proxy records’ date the Indian Monsoon System to 8 million years ago, and the main cause, they too state, is believed to be the rise of the Himalaya mountains and the Tibetan Plateau. Recent studies have provided other views, they write and: “the present monsoon system is the consequence of global cooling and the increase in volume of Antartic ice sheets and the associated strengthening of wind regimes about 8 – 10 ma (Gupta, et al)”.

Monsoons, others argue, are linked to changes in ‘solar output’. Although there has been empirical data available for over a hundred years now, there is yet to be any conclusive agreement on when and how one of the most prominent weather systems of the world originated. But land and sea temperature and atmospheric pressure differentials, variations in wind directions, are considered to be the main causes of the seasonal monsoons. The earliest explanations, Gadgil points out in The Indian Monsoon And Its Variability (2003), was over 300 years ago when Halley (1686), “suggested that primary cause of the monsoon was the differential heating between ocean and land”. An alternative hypothesis, the writer points out (see Chao & Chen, 2000) is where “the monsoon is considered as a manifestation of the seasonal migration of the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) or the equatorial trough”. ITCZ is commonly referred to as the ‘doldrums’.

Other interesting contributing factors include ENSO, El Niño-Southern Oscillation, wherein Sir Gilbert Walker established a link between the variations of atmospheric pressures between Darwin and Tahiti and the quantities of Indian monsoon rainfall. Recent evidence shows a decline in this association and it was in 1999 that IOD or Indian Ocean Diopole was discovered.

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The ubiquity of subcontinental artistic and literary references to the monsoons (from Kalidasa’s Meghaduta, classical ragas, to ‘wet sari’ songs in Hindi cinema) and the rains is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice to say, there exists an uninterrupted line, from antiquity to contemporary times, of cultural consciousness linked to the great monsoons – the time of cleansing and rejuvenation, of subtle (and not so subtle) erotic charge, of joyous abandon and religious fervour alike. It is also the season of suffering for many. Loss of makeshift homes, flooding, displacement and disease – as much as the hallowed rains give, they wreak havoc too in equal measure. The inimitable Behram Contractor, aka Busybee, once wrote that Bombay is divided down the line between those who love the rains and those who hate it, and that the sentiment is dictated by where one lives.

I recall the great deluge of July 2005 when over 900 mm of rain pounded Bombay over 24 hours overwhelming the colonial era hierarchical network of storm water drains, killing hundreds and bringing the city to a standstill. Amongst the lucky that did not venture out, I sat out in my balcony and watched the downpour in utter bewilderment, for I had never seen anything like it before. It seemed much like the tempest described in Bram Stoker’s Dracula that set the Russian schooner The Demeter aground at Whitby (see my piece To Run Aground),

Then without warming the tempest broke. With a rapidity which, at the time, seemed incredible, and even afterwards is impossible to realize, the whole aspect of nature at once became convulsed…

The often implacable, unyielding monsoons, laden with antediluvian mysteries and opaque conundrums, are much like our own impenetrable psychological selves. At times soothing and giving, and at others, profoundly and inexplicably malevolent. As the Trivandrum Met monsoon officer Julius Joseph says to Frater, “it's like the human brain. We know it, but we don’t know it”.

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