Wednesday, June 23, 2010

In Search of the Sun...and the Rain

Surya, The Sun God, 8th Century AD, Rajasthan, Black Stone

‘Sister moon will be my guide

In your blue blue shadows I would hide……
I'm a stranger to the sun

My eyes are too weak

How cold is a heart

When it's warmth that he seeks?…
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun

My hunger for her explains everything I've done…’
Gordon Sumner alias Sting, Sister Moon 1

‘My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips' red…’
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 130 2

The words of a musical superstar and a celebrated poet take on a different meaning in the clear yellow sunlight of a winter morning in Noida, barely a few kilometers from what remains of the Yamuna River in the plains of Northern India. It is many miles away and many degrees warmer than the England of Shakespeare’s and Sting’s rearing, where the sun is a very rare and therefore a precious sight, to be celebrated in song and sonnet.
The elusiveness of the sun in the Northern Hemisphere is the reason, one is led to speculate, for colonization―the hunt for spices, for warmer climes, for an abundance of foods, for salt, for richly worked precious materials. And, by a similar reasoning, for industrialization. The British like their other North European counterparts, were led to invent a variety of devices because before such inventions life was cold, bleak and dismal for a greater part of the year. Much of medieval and ancient Europe was thus, bereft of the proverbial and abundant riches of the warmer and mysterious East. One might say that industrial glass had to be invented in Europe if nothing else than to let in the golden sun to warm European homes on the occasions that it did appear.

In fact, perhaps the East was mysterious to the European precisely because everyone seemed to live a good life, with leisure and sunshine. Most of the ancient cultures were centred in the regions of the world endowed with the gifts of the sun―India, Egypt, Persia, Greece, Byzantine. The Roman civilization, the most widespread of the European civilizations, became richer and more prosperous only after her fleets and troops reached warmer lands. The western world’s continuing colonization of these lands―now under the guise of ‘development aid’ and transmission of ‘modern’ technology―are perhaps the inevitable result of an ancient envy. The remnant of the memory of being left behind to eke out an existence in the cold.

Memory however, works in different ways. And so many parts of the world colonized by Europe and America in the last few centuries neither remember their indigenous customs, nor the reasons that underlay such customs. They consider themselves ‘undeveloped’, ‘under-developed’, or ‘developing’, having been made to forget that their cultures led the world’s material, spiritual and technological development through most of history, not that of the industrialized West whose ways they now embrace so eagerly. The sun, for instance, was not just sung about but was revered, even deified, in most ancient cultures of the East. In India, his powers were associated with enlightenment; his role enshrined in myth, history and ritual. It is from the sun that Lord Rama is believed to have descended. Each day was traditionally supposed to begin with Surya-namskar, salutations to the sun. Locations of towns and cities, the form and orientation of buildings, clothing, were devised keeping in mind the power of the sun.

Neither was the Sun worshipped in isolation. The Vedas emphatically link Surya with Varuna, the Lord of the Sea and the Ocean; the Sun with the Rain. An important myth in the Rg Veda tells of the winning of the Light and the Waters by the Gods. One interpretation links this myth to the unique yearly climatic condition in India wherein the monsoon rains occur at or around the summer solstice, the time of the year when the days are longest and maximum sunlight is received. 3

As inhabitants of such a land, it should not be unnatural for us to associate sunlight with rain. But despite our past cultural understanding of the role of the sun, despite its overwhelming presence in our skies for the greater part of the year, and despite our supposedly greater levels of education today, it appears that we no longer know how to integrate it in our lives. Perhaps it is poetic justice that drought is imminent in many parts of the country, as the monsoon―one of the most unique climatic features of the sub-continent―recedes every year.

Is it fanciful to link the threat of drought with the loss of our collective and cultural memory? Not really. We are so embarrassed at the thought that our ancestors worshipped nature, that we now design our homes, cities, clothes in opposition to nature following the unshakeable Western belief that technology will solve everything. Consider that even a few hundred years ago our social and cultural practices were such that we could maximize the benefits of both the sun and the rain. These practices cut across religion or wealth. Till even two generations ago, most people prayed every dawn to the sun, in recognition of the healing benefits of the early morning rays. They recognized the foolishness of venturing out during the day without covering their heads with pagrees, odhnis, pallus or angvastrams. They took care to protect their homes, their villages and their town and cities by ensuring that trees were planted and maintained.

Just as it was deemed praiseworthy to worship trees, it was considered auspicious to celebrate rivers; to dig ponds and tanks and harness rain-water. Elevating the digging of wells and planting of trees into acts of piety ensured that all over India, not just kings and queens, but farmers, householders, widows, holy men protected forests and endowed or built step-wells, dams and ponds. This ensured that every drop was utilized when it rained, either to regenerate plant cover or to be saved for a time when there was excessive sun. When the British came to India they discovered five million ponds in 500,000 villages from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Jaisalmer to Konkan.4

Less than five hundred years ago, Sher Shah Sur, the Afghan King, got trees planted all along the great Grand Trunk Road that he established. In the mid-17th century, Emperor Shah Jahan’s new city in Delhi was planned on the banks of the Yamuna such that more than half of Shahjahanabad was covered by orchards. The huge gardens of his imperial Red Fort were extensively planted with fruit trees; water used in the fountains and canals was recycled for irrigation. Older ponds and step-wells dating from earlier cities in the Delhi region were not summarily covered over, but were integrated within the design of the new city. So it was that Delhi, not so far back, was recorded to have had about 340 small and big wells and ponds.

Contrast this with our capital city today, whose image sets the benchmark for the rest of the country. Its inhabitants display no sense or sensibilty in dealing with the sun or the rain either in their attire on in their decisions for the city. Its landscape is of interminable roads and transport networks to construct which it is perfectly acceptable to cut thousands of trees. Crores of rupees are spent to replace natural forests with stony ‘parks’ where exotic trees and shrubs which consume precious water and give no shade or fruit are planted. Most urban architecture neither maximizes insulation nor takes advantage of cool evening or morning breezes. It imitates facile western glass-box buildings that soak up the sun or let in the rain without a thought for correct orientation.

And so the rain that we pray for as respite from the heat brings us no joy. We squander it on our kilometers of paved roads, leave it to clog our drains, bring traffic to a halt, and breed mosquitoes. We profess to be alarmed at the frightening reduction in the ground-water levels, yet we continue to build on our nahrs and rivers or convert them into dirty nalas. We claim to prepare for the Commonwealth Games by ushering in ‘new standards for the urban environment of Delhi’5 even as we ruin the Yamuna for all time, by building parking lots, flyovers and housing on its drainage channels, river bed and flood-plain.

As another 15th August comes and goes, it is time that we proclaim our Independence from current conventional industrialized notions and try to rediscover appropriate ways in our own culture of dealing with the sun and the rain. We may not be able to influence the form of the city unless we are bureaucrats, town-planners or politicians. We may find it unreasonable to pray to the sun. But we can surely find nothing to quibble at all in planting indigenous trees or shrubs that act as natural pesticides or bear fruits to sustain human, animal and bird life. Change, like charity, begins at home. We can transform our immediate environment by starting with our own back-yards, terraces or colonies. Then at least, somewhere, the rain will not have been in vain and we will be able to appreciate the sunshine.

1. The title of Nothing Like the Sun, a 1987 double album comes from Shakespeare’s Sonnet no. 130 ("My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun"), which Sting used in the song "Sister Moon". The album was apparently influenced by two events in Sting's life: first, the death in late 1986 of his mother; and second, his participation in a Tour on behalf of Amnesty International, which brought Sting to parts of Latin America that had been ravaged by civil wars, and introduced him to victims of government oppression.
2. The entire Sonnet reads:
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare

3. David Frawley, Gods, Sages and Kings, p. 32, Motilal BanarasiDas Publishers Pvt. Ltd., Delhi

4. Anupam Mishra, ‘Past Perfect, Future Perfect’, p. 20,
Civil Society, Vol.3 No. 1, September/October 2005

5. ‘Games are a Chance to Redefine Delhi, p. 6, Civil Society, Vol.5 No. 9, July 2008

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