The mango is as popular in India now as it was in the days of Kālidāsa, but for different reasons. Mango season today falls in late May, high summer, when the fruit ripens and the streets are suddenly filled with a huge variety of mangoes from all over the country: daśhari and langada from Uttar Pradesh, bainganphalli from Andhra Pradesh, kesar from Gujarat. The leaves of the mango are auspicious for Hindus, and are hung across doorways for any special occasion and in temples. Sanskrit poetry tends to celebrate the fragrant mango flower more than the fruit or the leaves and as a result it is vasanta not grīṣma that is the season of the mango. Vasanta starts as the mango tree puts forth buds and sprouts which gradually turn into a golden blossom as the season reaches its height.
The mango tree is the ‘essence’ (sāra) of spring days, says Māgha. Bhāravī pictures a female vasanta poised at the edge of the wood with mango bough in hand and anklets formed of bees. And the mango at times goes by the name ‘madhu-dūta’ – messenger of Madhu (another name for vasanta).
An integral element of vasanta, it provides colour and scent to accompany the song of the cuckoo and the hum of the bees. As one of the five flower-tipped arrows of Kāma it plays an active role in the havoc he wreaks on women, the lovesick and travellers away from their wives. Playing on the tree’s name, one poet calls the sahakāra mango the one helper – sahakārī – of the flower-bannered god of Love.
Two of the mango’s names – ‘kāma-aṅga’, which means something akin to ‘Kāma’s deputy’, and ‘kāma-vallabha’ ‘Kāma’s lover or favourite’ – suggest just how intertwined the two are. And as the mango buds and flowers it seems to mirror the śṛṅgāra rasa (feeling of passionate love) that the season arouses:
अङ्कुरिते पल्लविते कोरकिते विकसिते च सहकारे।
अङ्कुरितः पल्लवितः कोरकितो विकसितश्च मदनो ऽसौ॥
aṅkurite pallavite korakite vikasite ca sahakāre |
aṅkuritaḥ pallavitaḥ korakito vikasitaś ca madano ‘sau ||
As the mango flowers begin to swell, to put forth sprouts, to bud and finally to blossom, Love too swelled, sprouted, budded and blossomed.
Verse 2 in the vasanta section of the Sadūktikarṇāmṛtam, anonymous
The mango boasts a strong and sweet fragrance that is said to seep from its buds as they break open from the pressure of the bees that swarm around them or as they are pierced by the sickle-like beak of the cuckoo. Showering a yellow pollen from its tiny flowers and – later in the year – proffering a delicious fruit, it is often the pride of the wood. But its glories cut both ways. Although it provides refreshment and shade in the heat, it can also inflame and torment the heart. As it sways in the southern wind from the Malaya mountain, travellers are forced to close their eyes and block up their noses to save themselves from swooning.
The bees are said to favour the mango over all other trees, lured by the nectar of its flowers.
उन्मीलद्रसबिन्दुगन्धकुसुमावल्लयो वसन्तोदये कान्ताः कोमलपल्लवाः कति कति क्रीडावने सन्ति न।
सौभाग्यैकनिधे रसाल तदपि श्रीमञ्जरीशालिनस्त्वत्तो ऽन्यत्र च कुत्रचिन्मधुकरश्रेणी न विश्राम्यति॥
Unmīlad-rasa-bindu-gandha-kusumā-vallayo vasant’-odaye kāntāḥ komala-pallavāḥ kati kati krīḍā-vane santi na |
Saubhāgy’-aika-nidhe rasāla tadapi śrī-manjarī-śālinas tvatto ‘nyatra ca kutracin madhukara-śreṇī na viśrāmyati ||
As vasanta begins hundreds of lovely tender-budded creeping plants, their flowers exuding a scent from the drops of rasa as they open, dot the pleasure garden. And yet the swathe of bees does not head for any tree other than you, rasāla, resplendent in bloom – for in you resides all beauty.
Verse 128 in the section on various trees in the Subhāṣitaratnābhaṇḍāgaram
But it is the cuckoo that, true to life, is most associated with the mango; the cuckoo is perched upon a mango branch in most of its poetic appearances.
The cuckoo becomes intoxicated – and the tenor of its voice is altered according to one poet – by feasting on the mango’s sweet buds. The relationship between bird and tree is like everything else in this season informed by passion – and the mango is also known as ‘pika-vallabha’, ‘lover of the cuckoo’. This idea persists in today’s kāvya equivalent, the old school Hindi film songs, such as this:
अमवा की डाली बोले ‘काली कोयलिया आजा बलमवा हमार आजा बलमवा हमार’
Amvā kī ḍālī bole, ‘kālī koyaliyā, ājā balamvā hamār, ājā balamvā hamār’
The mango branch calls out: ‘Oh black cuckoo, come my lover, come my lover’.
The mango goes by several names in Sanskrit poetry, chiefly cūta and āmra but also rasāla, mākanda, sahakāra, kāmāṅga, madhudūta or vasantadūta, kāmavallabha and pikavallabha. These may be plain synonyms or some of them may denote different species of mangoes, of which there are of course a great many in India today. The Amarakośa makes a distinction between the plain mango – cūta, āmra and rasāla – and the particularly fragrant variety, sahakāra (or kāmaṅga, madhudūta, mākanda or pikavallabha). The Kumārasaṃbhava too suggests that the name ‘sahakāra’ is reserved for a particular type of mango tree. Kālidāsa compares the transformation – for the better – that wine causes in Pārvatī to the way in which a regular āmra tree is changed into a sahakāra by the creator in his unfathomable way.
But the sahakāra is also used interchangeably with cūta. The Ṛtusaṃhāra for instance has two verses which describe the cūta and the sahakāra’s very similar effects on travellers and there is no suggestion of a distinction between the two.
The mango is identified as magnifera indica. The northern Indian languages have almost uniformly adopted a variation of āmra: Hindi: āmra, āṃbh; Marathi: āṃbā; Bengali: āmra; Gujarati: aṃbo, kairinujhāḍ. In Tamil, we have māmaram and māṅkāy; and in Malayalam, māvu.
From the Pandanus database of Indian plant names:
A large evergreen tree up to 45 m high, growing all over India, in forests up to 1200 m, widely cultivated, leaves simple, flowers small, pungently odorous, reddish white or yellowish green in large pubescent panicles, fruits large fleshy drupes, green, orange, yellow or red, seed solitary.
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