'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Picturing Ice And Snow

Except for the Himalayas and Kashmir, the Indian landmass rarely experiences sub-zero temperatures. Even when the northern plains touch the freezing point in severe winters, there is no snowfall anywhere. Frost does occasionally happen in many places, including the upper reaches of the Western Ghats, down south.

So, it is not surprising that in ancient times, our understanding of the solid state of water and its atmospheric manifestations was somewhat inadequate. Even when Kalidasa describes the Himalayas in (fantastic) detail, he has precious little to say about glaciers and stuff but plenty about the sacred lakes at the very top - from where the 'seven celestial sages' gather lotuses!

Sanskrit has a few words which allegedly stand for snow -'himam', 'tusharam', 'praleyam',... but I am not sure if the latter two really mean snow. 'Tusharam' is most probably dew; I am not sure about 'praleyam' (it appears curiously close to 'pralaya', which means 'deluge'). I do not know the precise word for 'frost' (if it exists) - 'tushar' is itself used in Hindi, apparently. And the Malayalam word 'manju', which (probably) originally meant 'fog' can now mean anything from snow to fog.

I am also reminded of yet another (fantastic) description of snow-fall in a very early (13th century?) Malayalam poem: "like a shower of milk, *praleyam* fell from the skies". That was how 'Krishnagatha', one of the earliest poems in Malayalam, describes a severe winter in Vrindavan. While Vrindavan wouldn't have received even a dusting of snow this side of the last ice-age, a medieval poet who probably lived out his life in steamy Kerala showing even a vague awareness of a white-colored phase of water really is something!

Yes, although snow must have been pretty much unknown, much of northern and central India must have known about ice right from ancient times - from hailstorms. But, down south, especially in Kerala, hail is an absolute rarity ( I never saw a hailstone in over 20 years of living there). Malayalam does have a word for 'hailstone'; and the exotic nature of the phenomenon has bred some weird poetic imagery. Here is a sample in near-literal translation: "Oh, my Beloved, hailstones fall, every so gently, from your delicate lips!"


  • At 3:50 AM, Blogger Random Vandamme said…

    'praleyam' I didn't hear of. Tusharam is dew. Himam is snow. Do you know if there is a term for ice? Even if the poets didn't know of snow-toofans, they may have experienced hail-storms? In Telugu, I don't know of any term for ice. There are a couple of related terms which may have been much more modern in origin:
    Manchu (snow) Gadda (Berg): Iceberg
    In the above word Manchu is used as ice.
    Manchu Manishi (Snow-man)
    Here Manchu is used to mean snow.

    Apparently, in Iceland they have 50 + words to describe various grades and thickness of snow/ice !

  • At 4:47 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…


    the manchu of telugu is the same as manju in malayalam; and manchu-gadda becomes manju-katta.

    it must be basically the same scene in most indian languages, all of which grew up with near zero exposure to snow.

    and still people did write about the himalayas and snow...


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