I was awakened by the sound of loud tapping of hail on the window panes and the howling of wind in the chimneys. When I opened my eyes again, the storm had gone and the sun was peeping through the clouds. Drawing back the curtains I was greeted by one of nature’s greatest wonders – a beautiful double rainbow. The ‘arching’ bands of colours stretching across the sky from horizon to horizon have inspired painters and poets alike since times immemorial. George William Whittaker’s oil on canvas masterpiece ‘Rainbow after the Storm’ painted in 1898 and now part of a private collection is proof that rainbows are special. The wonderful piece of poetry by Christina Rossetti echoes this notion:

Boats sail on the rivers and ships sail on the seas;

But clouds that sail across the sky, are prettier than these.

There are bridges on the rivers, as pretty as you please;

But the bow that bridges heaven and overtops the trees,

And builds a road from earth to sky, is prettier far than these.

Rainbows have been part of legends dating back to ancient times. Nordic sagas spoke of a burning rainbow bridge, called the Bifrost, connecting Midgard (earth) with Asgard (a heavenly abode), which could only be used by those killed in battle. The notion that this bridge was only attainable by only the good or virtuous, such as warriors and royalty, was a theme repeated often in world myths. In ancient Japanese belief, rainbows were bridges that human ancestors took to descend to the planet, whereas in Navajo tradition frequently depicted in sacred sand paintings, a rainbow was the path of the holy spirits. The Maori tell a tale of Hina, the moon, who caused a rainbow to span the heavens for her mortal husband to return to earth to end his days. In Greek mythology, Iris is the personification of the rainbow and is frequently mentioned in the Iliad, as an immortal messenger.

The Epic of Gilgamesh (an ancient Sumerian king of 3000 BC), furnishes the first detailed written account of human civilization. In a Victorian translation of the Gilgamesh variant, King Izdubar sees “a mass of colors like the rainbow’s hues” that are “linked to divine sanction for war”. In a Chinese folktale, Hsienpo and Yingt’ai are star-crossed lovers, who must wait until the rainbow appears to be alone. Hsienpo is the red in the rainbow and Yingt’ai is the blue. The Sumu of Honduras and Nicaragua “may simply refer to the rainbow as Walasa Aniwe or ‘the devil is vexed’”. These people hide their children to keep them from looking or pointing at the rainbow. For Buddhists, the rainbow is “the highest state achievable before attaining Nirvana, where individual desire and consciousness are extinguished, while for the Karens of Burma, it is considered as a painted and dangerous demon that eats children.

An Irish, a common legend asserts that a “pot of gold” is to be found at the end of a rainbow, for the person lucky enough to find it. This treasure is, however, guarded by a Leprechaun and in pre-Islamic Arabian mythology, the rainbow was believed to be the bow of a weather deity Quza, hence the Arabic word (adopted by Urdu vocabulary) Qaus e Quzah.

In reality, the rainbow is a meteorological phenomenon caused by reflection, refraction and dispersion of light in water droplets resulting in a spectrum of light appearing in the sky. It takes the form of a multicolored arc (like a bow) and when caused by sunlight always appears in the section of sky directly opposite the sun. However, this ‘cold synthetic’ explanation does not, take away the charisma, mystery and romance out of nature’s colorful display in the sky, which reminds me of a long ago song “Counting colors in the Rainbow”, rendered by Nina and Frederik. Its lyrics were almost magical in the sense that they gave one hope in times of trial:

“Counting colours in the rainbow. When the sun has made the rain go”

“In all its colours, I see above me. I count the blessings of someone, who loves me”…

“When our world is dark with stormy weather. Should we fear and tremble? Never, never”

“Someone, who takes care of us forever. Paints a lovely miracle on high”…

Western legends say that the end of a rainbow leads to a pot of gold, while others speak of the phenomenon as a bridge that enables the fairy folk to cross