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

‘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 have 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:

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