Every year, during the festive season, Ramnagar in Varanasi breaks from the present and steps back 200 years. Led by the erstwhile ‘maharaja’ of Banaras, the town hosts a 31-day Ramnagar ki Ramlila, in which the entire epic plays out almost in real time in localities with names such as Lanka, Ashok Vatika and Ayodhya, and around a pond called Ganga.
The Ramlila was started by Maharaja Udit Narayan Singh in 1830, and its organisers pride themselves on the fact that it has never been disrupted — through battles and wars, famines and droughts, and change in regimes. Not even in 1962, when India and China were at war, was the Ramlila stopped, says Kunwar Ishaan, nephew of the present ‘maharaja’, Anant Narayan Singh. “It had continued with the lantern lights covered with leaves so that planes could not spot them from above,” he says.
Until, this year, a virus came along.
Today, the roads and the palace are silent in a way that’s new to everyone. The pandemic has shrunk the grand spectacle — the largest moving dramatic performance in India — to a reading of Tulsidas’s Ram Charit Manas in a temple in Janakpuri, the paternal home of Sita in the Ramayana.
“In our minds, there was a concern that the tradition should not break. We were thinking of different ideas on how to save the Ramlila from the coronavirus pandemic. The third Rajkumari, Krishnapriya, even wrote a letter to the Chief Minister and the Prime Minister’s Office to allow the broadcast of a film on the Ramnagar Ramlila as well as a streaming on Doordarshan of the 15-minute evening aarti, but she got no reply,” says Kunwar Ishaan, nephew of the present ‘maharaja’, Anant Narayan Singh.
The earliest reference to Ramnagar ki Ramila is found in a lithograph of James Princep from 1834. A colonial administrator, who was with the Benaras Mint between 1820 and 30, Princep wrote, “Five or six spots in the town become annually this season, the scene of a Ram Leela…The Rajah of Benares, or his estate at Ramnugur, conducts the performance in a very complete manner: really the whole of the Ramayana is read through in the course of twenty or thirty days, and whatever incidents are capable of being acted, or displayed, are simultaneously exhibited.”
“It is not the Maharaja of Banaras’s Ramlila, but the people’s Ramlila because it is local memory that is passed from one era to the next,” adds Ishaan.
Lakhs of people attend the Ramlila every year, many of them carrying family heirlooms — a walking stick, an attar holder, a lota or a fraying copy of the Ram Charit Manas.
The Ramnagar Ramlila has proudly resisted change and preserved much of its old form. Performances are held in the growing darkness of the autumn evening, without electric lights or mikes, and photography is not allowed — simply because it wasn’t there in 1830. Cellphones are switched off and anyone who breaks the rule is pulled up.
The palace guards keep watch over the crowds. The ‘maharaja’ and his sisters, the three ‘maharaj kumaris’, attend the Ramlila on elephants and watch the performance with people who come from villages around Varanasi.
But this year, the regalia is missing.
When the ‘Ramayanis’ or scholars recite from the Ram Charit Manas in the evenings, the erstwhile ‘king’ drives down in a simple dhoti-kurta.
“Nobody else is present. The district administration had said that only 100 people will be allowed due to Covid protocol, but how does one decide who the 100 should be? There are nemis or holy men, who have always been a part of the Ramlila from the time the first chaupai is recited and until the last aarti is performed. Then, there are people who come only in the evening for the Ramlila. There are others who only come for the aarti. There was no way you can allow only 100 people,” says Ishaan.
Every year, the ‘Kashi maharaja’ also crosses the Ganga to Chitrakoot, for another Ramlila — one which has been performed for more than 470 years and is considered the oldest in India.
In Chitrakoot, the Bharat Milap — the scene that celebrates the reunion of Rama and Lakshman with Bharat and Shatrughan — used to be held in a large field with the Maharaja of Banaras in attendance. It will now be performed on the 50×50 sq ft terrace of Ayodhya Bhavan, a hall in a marketplace called Bada Ganesh, with a few sanitised and masked devotees watching.
“The Ramlila will happen as always but there won’t be as many spectators as there used to be. This is the first time that the king will not be coming. This Ramlila is not the same,” says Pandit Mukund Upadhyay, organiser of the Shri Chitrakoot Ramleela Samiti in Varanasi.
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