When he is not studying the Vedas, Ram can beat bigger boys at kabaddi. But he can do nothing about his own brother. Other children complain that Lakshman chases them with the bow and arrow and gets into fights. Ram feels helpless. “The other day, Lakshman’s crown almost fell off when he bowed his head for aarti,” says Sita. “You do know that if our crowns touch the ground, the gods will be angry,” says Ram, thoughtfully.
They are sitting in an old hall lined with pillars and arches. Lakshman is peering at a pond through a tangle of bushes and creepers. Five crumbling temples surround them and the ground is overgrown with the remaining trees of a bygone forest. It is cool and humid in the shade. Despite the dish antennae peeping out of neighbourhood houses, this space could be what it is impersonating — the forest of Chitrakoot, where, the Ramayana tells us, Ram lived in exile with Lakshman and Sita. The Chitrakoot ground in Varanasi, far from the Ganga and the ghats where the believers seek salvation, is also where the earliest known Ramleela is believed to have started 475 years ago.
Ram is played by 14-year-old Abhishek Mishra and Sita is Pawan Giri (11) but it has been a while since anybody called them by their names. They are known by their mythological titles. Even in private, they do not call each other anything else. “We follow the tradition that has been passed down to us to the last detail. The boys do not become god, they are god. That is what we believe,” says Pandit Mukund Upadhyay, organiser of the Shri Chitrakoot Ramleela Samiti, Kashi.
Ram, his brothers and Sita, known as the swaroop, leave their homes at the start of the Ramleela and live in Chitrakoot. From the priests to the cook, everyone touches their feet and seeks their blessings. “By the last few days of the Ramleela, they, and Ram especially, assume the composure and glow of divinity,” says Vyomesh Shukla, a Varanasi-based poet.
The Chitrakoot Ramleela is a living archive of a performing art, with the original form preserved with stubborn attention. “In the last two-three years, we have begun to allow people to use cellphone cameras to take pictures of the Lord. I cannot remember any other change,” says Upadhyay. The Ramleela is held over 22 days and begins with Shri Mukut Pujan, in which the crowns — each over a century old — that Ram, his brothers and Sita wear, are at the centre of an elaborate ritual. “Once they wear the crowns, they become gods,” says Upadhyay.
Chitrakoot Ramleela has not stopped for historic upheavals, be it the fraught year after the demolition of Babri Masjid or when the Mandal Commission cleaved the Hindu heartland. “The Ganga has overflown and flooded the grounds. But the Ramayanis, the Brahmin experts of the epic who read the Ramacharitmanas during a performance, have stood in knee-deep slush and continued as usual,” says Shukla.
Shri Mukut Pujan is held at Ayodhya Bhavan, which is a modern, freshly-painted hall in a marketplace called Bada Ganesh. Opposite the boys sit the Ramayani who spell out the epic purpose of the Ramleela. “Aado Ram tapovanadi gaman…” they chant loud enough to be heard over the traffic.
“Ram will leave for the forest/ will find a deer/ Sita will be kidnapped/ Jatayu will die/ Ram will befriend Sugreev/ he will cross the ocean/ Lanka will be destroyed/ Ravan and Kumbhakaran will be defeated.” Over the next three weeks, the Ramleela will enact these chapters as episodes.
Amid loud drum beats and clanging cymbals, the Shri Mukut Pujan bestows divinity on the chosen boys. It also marks the time that entire communities associated with the Chitrakoot Ramleela turns into its supporting cast and crew, based on an unchallenged script of caste.
But first, the play: The Ramleela was, in all probability, started by Megha Bhagat, a friend and disciple of Tulsidas, and follows the jhanki style of performance in which each episode lasts a few minutes. “It is not a Ramleela that entertains, but enlightens,” says Upadhyay. The Ramayanis are essential to the performance. They read out the Ramcharitmanas to the beat of drums and cymbals, as the swaroop, largely silent, enact the text. When they have to speak, a vyas or teacher accompanies them to a dais and tells them what to say. In episodes like Ravan Vadh, Ram is taught to fight the demons and acts that out at Lanka Maidan.
The Ramleela is promenade theatre, where the swaroop move from one place to another by foot or chariot. Once performed in a forested area, the woods have now made way for mohallas and roads. On Bharat Manawan, when Bharat and Shatrughan come to Chitrakoot to plead Ram to return, for instance, the action stretches across a kilometre between Nandigram (a neighbourhood park, where children play and cars rest), and Chitrakoot. A small knot of people weaves their way through. Lightbearers walk ahead and drummers beat relentlessly. Cars and bikes stop to let them pass but a group of water buffaloes don’t. The royal procession waits and, when the animals have ambled past, continue their journey.
The days are named after the chapter to be played — Van Gaman (leaving for the forest), Hanuman Milan (meeting with Hanuman) and Ravan Vadh (slaying of Ravan), among others. The twelfth is dedicated to Surpanakha, the princess of Lanka and Ravan’s sister, who was so bold as to propose to Ram and Lakshman. A procession, called Nakkataiyya, is taken out through the lanes of the neighbourhood, with Surpanakha leading the way wearing a mask smeared with “blood” as her nose and ears have been cut off by Lakshman. A jostling crowd gathers at Pishach Mochan Road, keen to get to the front. A priest blesses them by sprinkling blood in the form of red alta.
“Nakkataiyya may be against the modern wave of feminism but we don’t disturb tradition,” says Upadhyay.
On Vijaya Dashami, held at the Lanka Maidan, thousands gather to watch and play as the pushpak viman, once a flying vehicle owned by Ravan and now carrying the victorious Ram, races around and mock-charges at the crowd. The greatest show is Bharat Milap, so famous that it inspired paintings during the colonial era and continues to draw enough crowds to shut down that corner of the city.
It is a processional scene in which Ram, Sita and Lakshman, with their vanar sena, are shown to arrive in Ayodhya by the pushpak viman, represented by a brightly painted wooden platform carried on the shoulders of the Yadav community. The main action is over in a few minutes as the brothers run towards each other and embrace. But many customs have grown around it: married daughters come home from their husband’s place for Bharat Milap. Shops are shuttered and barricades are placed. One of the guests is Kashi Naresh, the erstwhile king of Varanasi, who rides in on an elephant and blesses the swaroop with coins.
The Chitrakoot Ramleela follows the Ramcharitmanas but, when one looks carefully at the seams, where one story joins another, it shows shreds of disparate influences. Why does the boatman, who rows Ram, Lakshman and Sita across the river to Chitrakoot, sing a doha by another poet-saint of Varanasi, Kabir, who preceded Tulsidas by a century? “Several elements indicate that Chitrakoot Ramleela was being performed even before Tulsidas wrote the Ramcharitmanas. Like old people, history loses its memory over time and four centuries is a long time. Recorded history starts from Megha Bhagat but it is possible that there was already a tradition of Ramkatha and Hanumanleela before,” says Upadhyay.
The Chitrakoot Ramleela is also a play outside a play, with fixed roles assigned to different communities. The swaroop are always Brahmin, vegetarian and students of the Vedas. “Families have been participating in the Ramleela for five or six generations. When one member passes away, it is the right of the successor to take his place,” says Upadhyay.
A tea stall on Kabir Chauraha has a wall with photographs and newspaper clippings of a family of wrestlers. “My brother and I are the Lord’s chariot bearers, just like our father and grandfather were,” says Om Prakash Yadav, also known as Omu Pahalwan. He has been a champion wrestler for years but what makes him proud is that “the Lord eats his first morsel after returning from the war from my hands. And then, he will not eat any more,” says Om.
To the Chauhans go the task of filling in as secondary characters, taking care of props, collecting funds and ensuring that the logistics are in place. “For 22 days of the Ramleela, I take leave from home and work, and engross myself in the work of the Lord,” says Bachchey Lal Chauhan, a businessman who deals in wood through the year.
In the evenings, a Gujarati family, businessmen of Banarasi saris and other fabrics, are present on the terrace of Chitrakoot temple, getting the swaroop dressed. “We have been doing this for six or seven generations. That boy fanning the Lord is from my family. I was younger than him when I would come here with my father and grandfather. This area was a forest at the time,” says Sanjay Gujarati, more popularly known as Shringariyaji. In the evenings, the Agarwals and the Gujarati community take charge of the evening meal or bhog. On banana leaves, the swaroop are served apples, oranges, water chestnuts, pomegranates, a variety of sweets and chips made at home from ghee and a special kind of salt. “No grains are allowed,” says Arun Kumar Agarwal, before instructing a child: “Sit and watch the Lord. Not many people get this chance.”
The Chitrakoot Ramleela also symbolically accommodates the other great religion of the land. A Muslim man is in charge of the fireworks that are lit every evening around the swaroop. Mohammad Arif plays the drums at the head of the procession to announce the arrival of a swaroop. “My grandfather and great-grandfather played at the Ramleela. So do I,” he says.
A challenge to this rigid structure has come from other performances. Poet and theatre director Shukla’s previous play, staged at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), Ram ki Shakti Puja, cast girls as the swaroop. Ram was played by an OBC girl from the Lohar caste. He is working on a play called Chitrakoot, which is based on the Ramleela and where he is “casting by talent rather than caste.”
Tulsidas was more than 80 years old when he composed the Ramcharitmanas in the local language of Awadhi in the 16th century. He wanted to bring the people closer to the epic and ended up upsetting many Sanskrit pandits and priests. A great masterpiece of literature is meaningless, he eventually concluded, if people could not read.
“Ramcharitmanas was a text. People could not read Awadhi but they understood Awadhi. It was the sung word, the recited word and the performed word that reached the masses. Due to the Ramleela, the illiterate masses knew the text better than those who could read Sanskrit or Awadhi,” says Dr Molly Kaushal, professor of performance studies, IGNCA, Delhi.
According to one legend, Tulsidas was lost in thought on the steps of the Assi Ghat in Varanasi when he had a vision of Ram, Sita and Lakshman pass by in a tableaux. With Megha Bhagat, as great a devotee of Ram as he, Tulsidas started, or reworked, the tradition of Ramleela.
Varanasi became the birthplace of the initiatives that evolved into the modern Ramleela. The Shri Goswami Tulsidas Ramleela Samiti on Tulsi Ghat, where the poet lived and died and where he started an akhaara, holds a Ramleela. The Mauni Baba Ramleela is the other old performance in the ancient city. The Ramnagar Ki Ramleela, the grandest in the world, is, at 186 years, the youngest. From Varanasi, the Ramleela travelled across north India till the Terai. It has largely moved on from being promenade theatre to being staged on a single stage, often over one evening.
“When people went to work as indentured labour in the Caribbean, South Africa, Mauritius, they took with them a few seeds of a plant and the Tulsi Ramayana. Why not the Mahabharata? It was the hardest of journeys. The Ramayana was seen as a text which will do justice, which will liberate. They identified with the character and the sufferings of Ram and Sita and held on to the hope that, one day, they would overcome their suffering,” says Kaushal.
As it travelled away from its birthplace in Varanasi, the Ramleela acquired traits of its space and time. In Delhi, a city that does not think small or silent, Ramleela is a celebration that is held at historic sites, such as the Red Fort. The performance, started by the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, continues uninterrupted almost 180 years later at Ramleela Maidan. The Prime Minister comes to watch it. In Daspalla in Odisha, the Ramleela is presented as a dance drama while the Kumaoni Ramleela is said to be the longest opera in the world, with songs in Hindi, Urdu and Hindustani supplementing the verses of the Ramcharitmanas.
In most places, such as Mathura, boys play all the roles, including those of Sita. Organisers of Chitrakoot Ramleela look for suitable candidates among the Brahmin, vegetarian, pious, well-behaved and “pure” children in gurukuls of Varanasi and among old families. That’s how they found Abhishek, who was working on his grammar in school when he was told that he would be Ram.
While he does not talk about the life he has left behind as just another boy, Abhishek knows he has to return to his parents and a life less extraordinary. His worry is that, having missed a month of school, he will be lagging behind. Perhaps, he might say a prayer to Ram and get to work.