Lesson 2: Coconuts & the Rainy Season
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As the wind rolls dark clouds across the night sky, suddenly the full moon emerges, stunning and radiant. This is often the way we see the full moon of shrāvaṇa श्रावण or rākhī pūrṇimā राखी पूणिमा. I like to imagine this moon as a luminous coconut tossing among ocean waves. It’s an image that creates a connection with two themes we find threaded through this celebration day: the rainy season and coconuts.
These themes are not only part of the atmosphere and rituals of the day. They are reflected in the choice of प्रसाद (prasāda) the offerings of food made to the divine and then shared as sweet conveyors of blessings. And interwoven with these choices and traditions is the wisdom of Ayurveda.
In this lesson, we will begin with brief look at the activities for celebrating Nāriyālī Pūrṇimā, often referred to as the coconut full moon. Then we will look closely at वर्षऋतु, varṣa-ṛtu, the rain season and how it affects both people living in areas drenched in monsoon rains, and people who live in other parts of the northern hemisphere where summer continues unabated at this time of year.
In Lesson 3, you will learn step by step at how to make Nāralī Bhāt, sweetened coconut rice in Marāṭhi, the traditional प्रसाद (prasāda) for all the festivals celebrated on this day. You will also learn in detail how the wisdom of Ayurveda is reflected in this tradition in general, and in the selection of each ingredient and their combination. There is a real science to it. This prasāda is not only delicious but a recipe for good health in this season.
नारियली पूर्णिमा Nāriyalī Pūrṇimā
In the communities who live along the western coast of India, from Maharashtra all the way to the southern tip of Kerala, the Śrāvaṇa or Rākhī full moon is also called Nāriyalī Pūrṇimā, the coconut full moon. On this day, while sisters and brothers are celebrating their bond of love, these coastal communities celebrate their deep bond with the ocean.
They head to the seashore or a river bank. Standing in the shallow waves, and often amidst light rain, the coastal people offer coconuts in worship of Lord Varuṇa, the deity of the ocean waters, rivers, rain – and even the moisture that hangs heavy in the monsoon air. Through Varuṇa, they also connect with ऋत (ṛta), the rhythm of cosmic order. The theme of their prayers is that the ocean should become calm now that the peak of the monsoon is passing, allowing the fisher people to resume their work safely.
Coconuts are the chosen offering and the vessel for their prayers because coconuts are considered highly auspicious, and they are filled with nourishing sweetness. Coconuts are often called श्रीफल (śrīphala), the fruit of abundance, since every part of a coconut tree is useful, and because coconuts are associated with Lakṣmī, the goddess of abundance. They are also connected with Lord Śiva, since they have three eyes.
On the altars in their homes, they offer a simple sweet dish called Nāralī Bhāt, sweet coconut rice, which is shared with everyone after the rituals at the seashore. This is the same prasāda that sisters in this same region make for their brothers in celebration of Rakṣa Bandhana. It’s a recipe that’s rich with stories of auspiciousness and nourishment, offered for generation after generation as an expression of love and the wisdom of seasonal health. We will go into the why and how of this further below.
In these coastal areas, lots of people also plant coconut palms on this day, as a gesture of gratitude to these auspicious and generous trees.
Meanwhile, as the first boats are getting ready to follow the coconuts out to sea, brahmins gather along riverbanks and other auspicious places to celebrate श्रावणि उपाकर्म, shravaṇi upākarma. This is best known as the day that brahmins – and others who have been formally initiated into Vedic spiritual life – change the sacred white thread they always wear over one shoulder, for a fresh one.
As they do this, they offer prayers of gratitude to their ancestors for giving them birth and to the ancient sages for giving them sacred knowledge. Amongst them sit young students who want t make a commitment to studying the Vedas, as this is the auspicious day to begin Vedic studies. Collectively, they celebrate the blessing of their connection with sacred knowledge. Soft rain often washes their faces as they chant.
On this day, they observe a special kind of fast where they eat nothing but pieces of fresh coconut.
वर्ष ऋतु, Varṣa-Ṛtu, the Rainy Late Summer Season
This full moon and its celebrations occur in the two month period from mid July to mid September, in the northern hemisphere, which is called Varṣa-Ṛtu, the rainy season, in the Ayurveda tradition. This affects not only the weather for these festivals, but also the kind of prasāda that is offered, since it is chosen to reflect the wisdom of healthy eating for this season.
Since we are part of the same ecology as the plants and environment in which we live, the rhythm of the seasons is reflected within us. It silently invites us to adjust our diet with care and wisdom in response to each season, so we avoid being susceptible to seasonal disorders, and aggravating existing imbalances.
Across the Indian subcontinent in varṣa-ṛtu, rain clouds burst day after day, reviving the parched environment with torrents of sweet water. In places like California though, not a drop of rain falls at this time, and the long summer continues. In yet other places, like the east coast of the United States, the continuing summer is interspersed with frequent thunderstorms and the air is heavy with humidity.
From the perspective of Ayurveda, there are common threads that run through the way we experience this season internally, and the measures we are encouraged to take to maintain the exquisite balance of good health.
Whether it is hot and dry, raining constantly or intermittently, this is the time of year when our digestive fire is at its weakest, and वात देाष, vāta doṣa is the predominant force to balance internally. vāta doṣa is characteristically dry and cool, constantly moving and destabilizing. This is primarily thanks to the continued proximity of the sun directly over the northern hemisphere, and is compounded by the seasonal weather conditions. Let’s look more closely at how varṣa-ṛtu effects these three environments.
In places that experience a summer monsoon, almost overnight, the surroundings turn green. The trees look washed and refreshed, moss grows on walls, shoots appear everywhere in carpets. The rivers fill flow with fresh vigor and cool breezes revive us.
But after the thrill of the first rains, you notice what else the wet days bring. Not only is your skin always moist, but even fresh clothes feel damp. Mold appears anywhere that dampness hides, the smallest cuts easily get infected, and stagnant water accumulates threatening to become breeding grounds.
Day after day, thick clouds cover the sun whose rays would otherwise help boost digestion. One day it’s hot and humid, the next it’s cool and windy. It’s so easy to fall sick in this damp, changeable weather.
In places where the summer is continues without any hope of rain, the relentless dryness tends to sap you of strength. Your skin gets super dry, and so do your digestion and joints. This relentless dryness is what weakens your digestion and aggravates vāta dośa. You become thirsty not just for water but for light, lubricating oil.
In environments where the weather fluctuates between hot, humid days and thunderstorms blown in by cool winds, this changeability is what aggravates vāta doṣa.
What to Eat to Stay Healthy in the Rainy Season
In summer, the traditional wisdom of Ayurveda invites us to focus on sweet, lightly nourishing and moist foods. In वर्ष ऋतु (varṣa-ṛtu), the rainy or late summer season, there are two important tastes to add that will help balance the dry, destabilizing effects of vāta doṣa: sour and salty.
Of course, incorporate these two tastes in moderation. especially if you live in a place where the hot, dry summer continues in this season, since salty and sour tastes are somewhat heating. This makes them digestive aids but you don’t want to accumulate extra heat in your body if you’re in a hot, dry environment.
One easy way to incorporate these tastes and their benefits is to begin each day by drinking a glass of warm to hot water with lemon juice and a pinch of rock salt.
It’s also helpful to eat a teaspoon of raw honey about ten minutes later. This is a good way to help keep your digestion functioning smoothly in this season. (Please don’t add it to the hot water and lemon! Heating honey seriously disrupts its beneficial qualities. It turns sweet medicine into something toxic.)
To stay healthy in this season, Ayurveda encourages us to focus on eating light, moist foods. For example, raisins are the best dried fruit to eat in this season. And the ideal way to eat them in this season is to soak them overnight in water so they become soft and juicy. Eat them for breakfast to help keep your digestion and elimination from becoming stagnant.
Be sure to add a little ghee to your food. It really helps to boost the digestive fire, as well as keeping your internal environment soft and supple. Adding turmeric daily to the food you cook will give your immunity a boost.
Kitchadi – mung dal cooked with rice and digestive spices – is an excellent go to food for this season. Fresh fruits are also wonderful. The more you can avoid dry, raw and heavy foods the better it is for your health, strength, complexion and immunity. That means cut way back on chips and crackers, salads, nuts and deep fried foods, for example.
So the tastes we focus on in varṣa-ṛtu are sweet, sour and salty. The qualities we seek out in food are: light to digest, moist and lubricating. Also keep in mind that ghee and spices like cumin and turmeric boost the weakened digestive fire that so many people experience in this season.
Teacher: Hema Patankar