This story is an ancient continuum – like an Act of a play that’s been unfolding itself since times beyond recorded or remembered history. The protagonist of this Act is a mythical woman – a Sorceress, an Ecologist and an Oracle, who might or might not have been real. Some say there were many Khawna-s the ages – many ‘Wise Women’ drawing their epithets from the Tibetan term for the same – mKhana. Overlapping layers of mythology and history mumble indistinct tales. Some say she was from the Gupta age, some say she was from the latter Buddhist times. But farmers of Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Axhom and Nepal still utter rhymes, broken-verses, proverbs, adages and sayings attributed to Khawna.
Legends have it that the patriarchal orders could not tolerate her wisdom, and her tongue was chopped off so as to prevent her from making further Prophesies. What must have peeved the male-dominated societal order was the perceived accuracy of her Prophesies – because those did not base themselves on spiritual or mythic mumbo-jumbos, but were simple agricultural, ecological and habitat-wisdoms – stuff like –
‘Plough not on this full and new moon
If the oxen get rheumatic
You won’t get to plough all year long’.
Like the lunar and stellar cycles, many other factors had also to be accounted for to ensure good hustle. Thus, adages attributed to Khawna have been providing rural agrarian communities across the geographies abovementioned with the wisdom of observing the seasons, planets and stars together to ensure good crop and good life. It was all connected. It’s like, you see ants scaling up-wall and know that rains shall lash harsh soon, you know when the tides will be come if you observe the moon and thus you know when to catch the best fishes. This had been reified, commodified and put into different boxes and taxonomies by the Hindu-centric elite as Jyotish, Vastu etc and by the Eurocentric ones as astronomy, ecology etc. It’s a common flow, one originating from far ancient times. Even the Vedic Aryans admit that this ecological wisdom, which they called Vastu, originated from pre-Vedic indigenous times, attributing its origins to a mythic indigenous ‘Asura’-demon named ‘Maya’. Come, let us immerse in Khawna’s sound poetic advices – which survive in folklore as ‘Vachana’s or Sayings, till date.
There was extensive agrarian wisdom based on lunar and seasonal movements –
In the second month of the rains
If breezes blow eastward
Farmers, drop your ploughs, go trading
for harvest shall be terrible
If the wind blows towards north-eastern climes
Farmers, hoist your spades and rejoice!
When the year begins,
Breezes blowing north-east
Harbinger good rain
And, if, one day,
Soon after autumn arrives,
you see clouds floating east-bound
Know this, that, it shall rain all day.
Nature has often been harsh. Like floods, there were famines –
If fogs linger on till the end of spring
And if it rains heavy when autumn is to begin
Know this, that heads shall tumble
There were earthquakes -
‘Often, at autumn’s break
Mother earth shakes inside waters
Kingdoms and cattle get wrecked, torrid floods take over!
Householders roam, in vain,
To buy rice
Wooden pots in their hands stay empty’
The coastlines often saw hailstorms –
‘When hails fall by the ocean’s shores
Good things can be foretold
The earth gets laden with so many crops!
Khawna croons at Mihira - don’t you worry!’
To, to cope, detailed ecological and stellar knowhow led to such advices attributed to Khawna:
In the first month of the rains,
on the ninth day of the moon-month
If it rains a lot
Behold the drought! Behold cows grazing mid-ocean!
If it rains a bit
Behold the flood! Behold fishes swimming on mountain-tops!
If it drizzles fair
Behold the good earth laden with crops!
On the same day,
If the sun smiles and takes his seat
(So bad shall harvest be,
farmers might as well
sell their cattle off in the weekly markets
It was crucial to predict the floods & the draughts to survive. Thus,
If rainbows rise to the West
There is drought
If rainbows rise to the East
It rains heavy
But if they keep rising there
There is flood.
It was equally important to build good strong houses:
To the east, there should be a pond for the ducks
Plant bamboos to the west
And bananas to the north
Keep the south open
For the carnival must happen there
Cover the north, let not
harsh mountain-winds ensnare
Thus, build your house where you choose to settle
It was crucial to know when to harvest the best crops. The knowhow provided on this in Khawna’s adages is:
If rice-grain grows inside the husk
It takes 30 days to ripen
When it swells up, it takes 20
But when it tapers down
like a horse’s face
Cut it on the 13th day.
The full moon,
Halfway through its journey to the new
When half of it is dark and half is bright
If the paddy-field is raised to the north
and slopes down southbound
Cheapest rice and paddy grows
People speak sweet words
It was not just rice there are such folk-verses attributed to Khawna that provide practical wisdom specifically on Rabi-or winter crops:
On the second month of fall
If, on the full moon night
The sky is clear
And fair breezes blow
Rabi-crops fill up the earth
But if there’s cloud and rain
Working the fields prove futile.
And a host of other crops – there were paddy, betel-nuts, betel-leaves, tubers, pumpkin, gourd, cucumber, chilly, parval (pointed gourd), aubergine, mooli-roots, sugarcane, ginger, spinach, tamarind, arum, taro, mango, jackfruit, palm-toddy, date-palm, banana, coconuts and bamboos.
As for mangoes and jackfruit
Plant them twenty hands afar
Big trees fruit not
if planted too dense
Listen, gardener, graft
with the first rains
Having chopped and trimmed other trees
Make the earth good for jackfruit
After the first month of spring
Make throats itch
Taros planted by river
Turn three hands tall
And the best fertilizer
Plant turmeric on summer
Through the rains,
make the earth good
When autumn comes
Make it better, make it perfect
If you don’t, the earth shall ask
Oh what do I fruit?
Throughout the rains
But do not eat them
Do not go below them
Or else, insects might catch on
Insects would harm crops, trees and plants would get diseases. This led to wisdom on bio-pesticides –
Might kill humans
But heal plants
Like pesticides, cattle were equally crucial for the agrarian communities. Thus,
Cows with six or nine pairs of teeth
But avoid buying
those with seven
Whether you know cows or not,
while buying, ensure,
That the horns are in line,
and are of the same size
Of course everything could not be planted close to the house. Khawna had specifically warned:
Never ever plant
Neem, Chinese chastetree, tamarind and toddy-palm
close to your house
Yet another adage attributed to her utter the same forbiddance on champak, bullet-wood and hummingbird-tree.
There are debates about Khawna’s times. Many sayings refer to her as the wife of Varahamihira, renowned astrologer and one of the ‘Nine Jewels’ in the court of Chandragupta II (6th CE), whereas Tibetan etymology of the word Khawna (mKhana - Wise Woman or Sorceress) has made many affix her timeline between the 8th and the 12th CE, when, during the imperial sway of the Pala kings, Vajrayana Buddhism, before being pushed into Tibet by the re-risen Hindu political might at the turn of the last millennium and the one before that, had thrived in the eastern subcontinent. This last assertion also bears linguistic support from the etymological roots of the corresponding term for Wise Men or Wizards – Daak, from the Tibetan gDag. Many Vachana-sayings glimmering in similar ecological and agrarian wisdom – also exist, as does a Vajrayana Tantric Text named Dakarnava – meaning, Ocean of Wisdom – which had originated in the eastern subcontinent but survived the medieval and early-modern times through preservation and translations in the Tibetan repertories of Bstan ‘Gyur.
Once again, adding yet another layer to the mist of uncertainty vis a vis timelines that surround these wise people whose real names have been wiped off the slates of history wiped off by Brahmanyavadin orders of power and domination, there are verses attributed to her that refer to tobacco cultivation.
On tobacco forests
Crush the earth to dust
And plant the seeds
But plant them not too close
Sow not more than what to reap
Tobacco, as historical narratives go, came to use beyond the New World (the Americas) only after AD 1559, when the Spanish king Philip II got the first assignment shipped from the New World to the Old. That there is a saying attributed to Khawna on tobacco cultivation means, either
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