For everybody who thinks that change is the only constant, a trip to Ramnagar in the month leading to Dusshera would be an eye-opener. Led by the local Maharaja of Banaras, revered as Kashi Naresh, the town plays host to Rama, Sita, Lakshman and the other characters of the Ramayana, in the form of amateur actors, who perform the epic in minute detail across localities with names such as Lanka, Ashok Vatika and Janakpur every evening for 30 days. This is different from more familiar Ramlilas that are performed across North India, mostly on a single stage, during Navratra.
Ramnagar, a boat ride from the ghats of Varanasi, has evolved as a re-imagination of the Ramayana and even boasts a pond called Ganga. Its Ramlila, organised by the royal family, is the grandest in the country and practically unchanged from the time the first performance was held in 1830. This means there are no electric lights, people mostly sit on the rough ground to watch and trying to get a cellphone photograph could result in one being loudly reprimanded by the public or palace guards. The largest moving theatre performance in India, with a Unesco Intangible Heritage tag, the Ramlila attracts lakhs of audiences from villages as well as scholars and stage professionals from across the country.
This year, the pandemic has forced Ramnagar ki Ramlila to do what it has always resisted — change.
It is an old art form: Ramnagar ki Ramlila is dated to 1830 from a lithograph by a colonial administrator called James Princep, which is present in the British Library in London. But, even a casual look at the work, of crowds on foot, horseback and on elephants watching the Ravana Dahan, demonstrates that the Ramlila was already popular when Princep witnessed it. According to folklore and local belief, the Ramlila was not started by Maharaj Udit Narayan Singh, who was the ruler in 1830, but by his great grandfather, Maharaj Balwant Singh, in the mid-18th century. The scale of the performance may have expanded and the world may have become tech-savvy but the old ways of Ramnagar ki Ramlila can still draw a housefull crowd after a few centuries. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram
It has overcome rebellion and wars: Maharaj Udit Narayan was constantly at loggerheads with the colonial administration, who saw him as a thorn on the side. According to Kunwar Ishaan, a member of the royal family of Banaras, the British frowned upon the Ramlila as it brought large crowds of Indians together. The story of the war between Ram and Ravana and the victory of good over evil had a sub-text in the people’s consciousness at a time when the freedom movement was gathering steam. The Ramlila, however, continued. It didn’t stop even in 1962, when the Indo-China war was on, and pilots on night sorties noticed lights coming from Banaras. It was the lanterns by which Ramlila was being held. The PMO got in touch with the royal family, who arranged for the lights to be covered with leaves so that it could be seen only from the ground and not the sky.
A stamp of the past: The Ramlila is performed by men only, with the “pure” young boys playing the “swaroops”— the roles of Ram, his brothers and Sita — being selected from Brahmin families after an extensive audition attended by the king and palace officials. For two months, they live with scholars of the epics, spend several hours studying the Ramayana and are trained in the various gestures and vocal skills needed for their roles. The boys are carried on the shoulders of the Ramlila workers and their feet do not touch the floor. People crowd around for their “darshan” every evening of the performance and touch their feet for blessings. After the Ramlila, they are returned to their families and a life much less divine.
The audience, too, is driven by a habit of generations. Some of the people who come, carrying the things that their grandfathers used to bring to watch the performances, such as a walking stick, the attar holder, the lota or an ancestral copy of the Ram Charit Manas. It is an annual ritual to be a part of the Ramlila every evening. They come walking, in crowded vehicles or by boat. The river banks and wells are packed with groups of devotees who wash themselves and wear clean dhoti-kurta, apply chandan on their foreheads and attar in a two-century-old ritual to attend the Ramlila. A code of behaviour also extended to the royal family which attends the performances on elephant back, as in the bygone eras.
The challenge of the present: The coronavirus has reduced this grand ritualistic performance to a reading of the Tulsidas’s Ram Charit Manas in a temple in Janakpuri, the paternal home of Sita in the Ramlila. The present Maharaja of Banaras Anant Narayan Singh tested positive for Covid-19 on September 18, and was admitted to a hospital in Gurgaon. Though recovered, he prefers to observe strict social distancing. When the Ramayanis or scholars recite from the Ram Charit Manas in the evenings, the king drives down wearing a simple dhoti-kurta. There is an emptiness in the palace and on the roads such as the town has not known for several generations.
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