Today, the Ramlila Maidan in Delhi will see mega Dussehra celebrations – a culmination of festivities during Navratri – but over the years, the ground has become more than just a festival venue, having played host to momentous changes in Indian politics, and welcomed foreign leaders from around the world.
According to historian Narayani Gupta, the grounds near Ajmeri Gate, where the Maidan is currently located, played host to Ramlila celebrations as far back as the 19th Century, with Bahadur Shah Zafar himself ordering a change in the path of the procession so he could view it. By 1876, it was the custom to celebrate Ramlila outside the Gate, which is today about a kilometre from Ramlila Maidan, after a procession through Chandni Chowk.
Says historian Sohail Hashmi: “The celebrations at Ramlila Maidan were originally patronised by members of the Khatri community… Those celebrations have continued until today.”
In recent years, other venues have eclipsed Ramlila Maidan as festival venues. Arjun Kumar, president of the Lavkush Ramlila Committee, says that the Ramlila they conduct in front of the Red Fort is the biggest in the city, drawing anywhere from 50,000-100,000 visitors.
But in a newly Independent India, Ramlila Maidan was central not only to the Ramlila celebrations of the time, but also world-famous visitors.
Gupta recalls: “In the 1950s… it became the ‘official’ one, with VIPs attending. In the 1960s, it was partially built up as a tourist camp.” This had come in the wake of Delhi’s southern wall being demolished in the 1930s, with Aruna Asaf Ali Marg and office plots facing south coming up later, according to Gupta.
The year 1955 saw Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin as part of a Soviet visit, while former General and then President Dwight Eisenhower delivered a speech at the Maidan in 1959, all hosted by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Two years later, Queen Elizabeth II would make her first visit to India, speaking to a massive gathering at the Maidan, nine years after she had been crowned.
Contemporary politics has also been shaped here. It was at the Maidan that J P Narayan held a rally in the wake of the Emergency. In more recent times, Anna Hazare’s protest in Delhi was centred there, eventually giving rise to the Aam Aadmi Party.
The Ramlila organised by the Shri Dharmik Leela Committee here, and the Luv Kush Ramlila opposite Red Fort, are among the biggest in the country, with Presidents, Prime Ministers, union ministers and chief ministers routinely in attendance on Dussehra.
At the Luv Kush Ramlila this year, Union minister Ashwini Kumar Choubey played the role of Vishwamitra and Minister of State for Steel Faggan Singh Kulaste played the role of Nishad Raj.
Politicians in Delhi have a long history of performing at Ramlila events. While former minister for science and technology Harsh Vardhan played the role of King Janak, Sita’s father, former minister of social justice and empowerment Vijay Sampla played the role of Himavat, Parvati’s father.