This crowd has been gathering for almost two hours. At the heart of the chowk is a makeshift stage, which is empty right now. A little after 10pm, there’s some commotion. Five elephants, decorated with paint and silver, emerge from the Ramnagar fort, and move majestically towards the chowk. Riding atop the elephants are the Kashi Naresh (the Maharaja of Banaras), his son, and a few others from the erstwhile nobility.
The Coronation Of ram: On the penultimate day of the Ramlila, held at Ayodhya ground, Ram, Sita, Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrughan are seated on thrones, with Hanuman fanning them. On the left are the three vyas jis – the directors and prompters. The coronation ends at midnight. Many people choose to skip the lila all month but attend a special arti at dawn on this day
“Har Har Mahadev,” chants the crowd. This time of the year, the people of Varanasi view the Kashi Naresh as a descendant of Shiva. Twelve wise men, the Ramayanis, sit in two concentric circles at one end, illuminated by flaming mashaals. They clap their manjiras, singing verses from their copies of the Ramcharitmanas.
Many people are carrying their own copies of the epic poem and reading along with the aid of flashlights, some softly, but most silently. As the Ramayanis’ voices fade away, two wooden chariots slowly approach the crossing from opposite sides. Ram, Lakshman and Sita, back from exile, descend on the stage from their pushpak vimaan; Bharat and Shatrughan dismount from their carriage.
The audience cheers loudly.
“Chup raho. Saavdhaan!” shouts vyas ji, a wizened old man dressed in a dhoti kurta and turban, carrying a fraying notebook. He’s the prompter, the trainer and the director of the show. This is a cue for the dialogues to begin. There’s pin drop silence. Unless you’re in the first few rows, you can’t hear a word. But the audience knows the story well and the spectacle before them is a breathtaking sight in itself.
BHARAT MILAAP: Ram, Lakshman and Sita descend from the pushpak vimaan (on the left), Bharat and Shatrughan from a chariot (right). Up to one lakh people attend every year, cheering as the brothers embrace
Bharat and Shatrughan prostrate themselves at the feet of their two brothers and sister-in-law. The sound of a conch shell fills the air. The crowd goes wild with cries of “Ram Chandra ki jai. These tens of thousands of people aren’t merely watching a Ramlila, they have been transported back in time to the ancient text of the Ramayana, to Bharat Milaap, the grand reunion of the four sons of King Dasharath. They’re cheering not because this is the most splendid Ramlila in the country but because their faith has been reinstated: good always triumphs over evil. And because the five young actors on stage are supposed to be blessed with divinity, and in attending the Ramlila, the spectators have experienced God. Ramnagar, on the banks of the Ganga, opposite Varanasi, was the capital of the former princely state of Banaras. It is now a dilapidated town — best known for its nearly-200-year-old Ramlila, the longest in the world. This Ramlila begins in September or October on Anant Chaturdashi and ends 31 (sometimes 30, depending on the lunar cycle) days later on a full moon night. The first episode is the birth of the raakshas king of Lanka, Raavan. Subsequent episodes cover the entire story of Ram – the birth of King Dasharath’s four sons; Ram and Sita’s wedding; their exile; Sita’s abduction; Ram’s victory over Raavan; Bharat Milaap and the coronation of Ram as king of Ayodhya. The Ramlila ends with an episode of Ram’s teachings.
For a month, Ramnagar is transformed into a giant stage for the story of Ram to unfold. Permanent structures and parts of the town within a five-kilometre radius are named after places mentioned in the epic, and different episodes of the lila are enacted at different venues every day.
A dusty plot of land represents Ayodhya and most scenes based in Ayodhya are held here. A garden is the setting for the scene where Ram and Sita catch a glimpse of each other for the first time and fall in love. Opposite stands Janakpuri, the kingdom of Sita’s father, King Janak. On a raised platform here, Ram strings Shiva’s dhanush and wins the swayamvar to wed Sita. A small lake represents the Ganga – and for one episode, the characters playing Ram, Lakshman and Sita cross the river on a boat, while the audience walks along the lake to the other side.
On most days, the Ramlila moves – the cast, the Kashi Naresh, audiences and all. Sometimes, the movement is within a larger venue. Lanka, for example, is a large tract of land and the scenes shift back and forth between Raavan ka darbar on one end, Ram’s camp on the other and Ashok Vatika in a corner. On some days, the play becomes a procession as the audiences walk along with the cast from venue to venue, which are sometimes more than a kilometre apart.
Valmiki’s Ramayana is one of the oldest stories in the world. The Sanskrit epic is more than 2,000 years old. But in the 16th century – at the time when William Shakespeare was writing his plays – Indian sage poet Goswami Tulsidas wrote one of the greatest works of Hindi literature, the Ramcharitmanas, a retelling of the Ramayana in Awadhi, the language of the masses. A large portion of the Manas was composed at Varanasi.
It is believed that this is when (and where) Ramlilas first began. The oldest Ramlila in the world, the more than 450-year-old Chitrakoot Ramlila, is also Banarasi. The Ramnagar Ramlila began in the early 1800s during the reign of the then Kashi Naresh, Maharaja Udit Narayan Singh. “He had gone to Chhota Mirzapur where some traders had organised a Ramlila, but by the time he got there, it was over. He was very disgruntled... and so his wife suggested that he start one in Ramnagar,” Jai Prakash Pathak, personal secretary to the Kashi Naresh and Ramnagar Ramlila adhyaksh, told us.
AGNI PARIKSHA: Here, Sita enters the sacrificial fire to prove her chastity. This year, it had rained heavily all day and the grounds were muddy. Despite that, a large crowd had gathered at Lanka ground to watch the reunion of Ram and Sita (Photo credit: Ajay Aggarwal)
This Ramlila isn’t meant to be a theatrical masterpiece. It is a fair, a festival, a phenomenon. There are two sets of actors handled by different directors (each called vyas).
The first set, the five main characters – Ram, Sita, Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrugan – are always played by young Brahmin boys between the ages of eight and 14. Gods are best represented by children because their “hearts are pure and voices sweet,” says Shiv Dutt Sharma, the vyas who trains these five. He has taken these duties over from his father Raghunath Dutt Vyas (the latter still helps out occasionally). These five “swarups” are considered divine for the entire month and are worshipped by everyone, even their parents.
It’s improper for girls to be on stage. Thirteen-year-old Aditya Panday who plays Sita, doesn’t think it strange for a boy to play a woman’s part. He loves being in the spotlight. It’s why he’d like to be a lawyer.
Ramlila preparations begin in July. A handful of boys are shortlisted by the vyas on the basis of their intelligence and voice quality. The Kashi Naresh handpicks the five best at reciting shloks. For an entire month before the lila starts, these boys (with their mothers and a few other family members) move in with vyas ji and his family to the Balwa Ghat dharamshala sponsored by the Kashi Naresh. They spend their days learning their lines and studying the scriptures.
This year’s Ram, Nand Kishore Vyas, 14, played Sita for the last two years. “He’s the epitome of good behaviour – just like bhagwaan Ram,” everybody says. He was so in character that he thought it inappropriate to be interviewed. Purushottam Sharma, a twinkly-eyed boy of 11, plays Lakshman. “He’s naughty and has a temper, just like Lakshman ji,” we’re told. “Lakshman ji, leela ke anusaar baith jaaiye, aap swaroop mein hain,” vyas ji reprimands him, reminding him he’s still in character.
The boys start getting dressed at noon and are ready by 5pm. Their faces are first decorated with sparkling costume gems. Then, a sandalwood lep is spread on their legs and a flat piece of metal is used to trace intricate patterns – like henna – on them. They’re then made to change into costumes, bright yellow and gold for the male characters, red for Sita. They aren’t allowed to play any strenuous games for these two months. For fun, they often play antakshri – in Sanskrit, with shloks. But when they can get away with it, it’s Raja Chor Sipahi.
All other characters (usually played by grown men) come under Lakshmi Narayan Vyas, the bade vyas ji (the one who shouts “Saavdhaan, chup raho” every time the action shifts from the Ramayanis to the actors). Now in his eighties, he’s been running the show for decades, just like his father did before him, and his father before him, back many generations. But there is no real training involved, the actors practise mostly on their own, there are no rehearsals.
SRINGAAR: The faces of the principal actors are decorated with sequins, pasted with homemade glue. Nand Kishore Vyas who plays Ram (far above) is a sombre boy of 14 and Purushottam Sharma (above), 11, who plays Lakshman is the naughtiest – just like their characters (Photo credit: Ajay Aggarwal)
This works because most other roles are inherited. Swami Nath Pathak has been playing Raavan for 30 years; the role has been in his family for six generations. This year he shares the role with his son, Rajeev Kumar Pathak. “My son has been watching me perform all these years, he doesn’t need to be trained” Pathak says. Guffawing, he adds, “Seekhna kya hai? Baagh ke bachhe ko shikaar karna nahin seekhna padhta.”
There are new actors too. Hanuman (the monkey god) has been played by Brijesh Kumar Tiwari, a policeman from Bihar, for the last three years. He saves his leaves all year and takes a month off from work for the Ramlila.
This is an all-Brahmin affair. But there are exceptions. On the day before Dussehra, as the armies of Ram and Raavan collide, a series of scenes depicting the war are performed by Muslims. A dozen Muslim boys, dressed casually in pants and shirts, no costume, circle each other, fight with swords and then begin fire-eating to depict the magical illusions that Raavan created. “The Ramlila isn’t about Hindus or Muslims,” says Ajay, the fire-eater of the group. “It’s our parampara, our families have been doing this for generations. It’s also practice for Muharram, which is 20-22 days later,” he says.
The contract for making the elaborate sets, papier mache effigies and firecrackers (which flare during the arti every night) also goes to Muslim craftsmen every year – this year it went to Raju Khan and his team of 25-30 men. “We start 15 days before the Ramlila begins,” says Sheru, Khan’s nephew, “we first work on Sheshnag [for the episode where Vishnu decides to take an avatar of Ram]. Then we make giant rats, cows, bullocks, horses for carts. And then the effigies of the demon gods to be burnt,” he says.
The RAMAYANIS: Some of the 12 Ramayanis at a tea shop with the secretary to the Kashi Naresh, Jai Prakash Pathak (third from right). The Ramayanis sing the entire Ramcharitmanas during the course of the Ramlila (Photo credit: Ajay Aggarwal)
The crowd ranges from a few thousand for some episodes, up to a lakh for episodes like Ram and Sita’s wedding, Dussehra (when a 60-feet high effigy of the Raavan is burnt), Bharat Milaap, and the coronation of Ram (the most auspicious episode). They are mostly devout Hindus from in and around Varanasi. There are a handful of foreigners and very few city folk. Sadhus roll joints (it’s called “bhang-booti chhaatna”) and groups of men passionately debate the “vyaakran” (grammar) of Tulsidas.
The lila usually begins at 5pm with the arrival of the Kashi Naresh (sometimes on an elephant, or in a car). There is a break at six when he goes for his sandhya puja, and the lila resumes when he’s back (sometimes in half an hour, sometimes two). Nobody seems to mind waiting though. The lila is a giant mela, the streets are lined with chaat wallahs, people drink hot sweet tea or chew zingy Banarasi paan. There’s also heavenly Ramnagar lassi, with crunchy sugar topped with a thick layer of rabri. Sometime between 10pm and midnight, the lila ends with an arti.
It is 12 men in turbans, the Ramayanis, who recite the entire Ramcharitmanas. The first 175 stanzas are sung in the 10 days before the Ramlila begins. Some parts such as King Dasharath’s death aren’t dramatised – it’s considered inauspicious to portray a good king’s death – and are just recited by one Ramayani. They sing to the sounds of a mridang and manjiras in a distinctive style called Lilabani. First, six men sing the first two lines of a chaupai prefixed with a “ha”, and then, the other six sing the second part prefixed with an “ahaa”.
They’re not all pandits. There’s a teacher, a lawyer, some own large farms. But says Ramayani, Sulochan Misra, 89, “If you do anything else for those 40 days, you can’t be a Ramayani. Your voice won’t work, your body will tire or you’ll fall ill.” After the 31 days are over, one Ramayani reads the entire Manas over nine days in the Hanuman mandir of the fort, just in case there have been some mistakes during the performance.
THE DEVOTEES: Ramlila is a devotional celebration. As the Ramayanis recite verses from the Ramcharitmanas, many in the crowd read along, softly or silently, from their copies lit by LED flashlights (Photo credit: Ajay Aggarwal)
No microphones or loudspeakers are used in the Ramlila. You have to choose between listening to the Ramayanis or hearing the dialogues, because the actors and the singers sit quite far apart. Or you may be stuck in the middle of the two, unable to hear either clearly. And you may not understand the local cadence of the Ramayanis, or the pure Hindi of the actors. But it’s still a beautiful experience. The Ramlila is lit only by kerosene lanterns or mashaals. The costumes shimmer, the Ramayanis’ turbans glow in different shades of pink, the sets are detailed and the energy is infectious.
Sometime between 1820-30, English Orientalist scholar James Prinsep illustrated the city of Banaras in a series of drawings, including an illustration of the Dussehra episode of this Ramlila. The scene looks exactly the same today! But minor changes are slowly seeping in. The bade vyas ji tells us, “It’s difficult to find people to take a month out.” And this is how, two decades ago, the rule of the all-male cast was broken.
The role of Surpanakha, Raavan’s sister, is played by Munni, a 45-year-old Dalit woman. “Earlier a man used to do it. But he died, and we couldn’t find anybody else. Besides, we thought a woman is also suited for roles like the dancer at Ram janam, the vivaah and gauna,” says vyas ji. Munni performs all these roles. “I got the role because I could read, and pronounce words properly; other women who auditioned couldn’t,” says Munni. She says that though she does these roles, it’s not a job for women because “men are naturally better actors.” But it makes her feel closer to God. “Aur bohot izzat milta hai.”
About 10 years ago, says politician AP Singh (his family was part of the local nobility), “the actors didn’t need to be prompted as much”. But prompting seems to be an integral part of the performance; it adds a great deal of flavour to the performance. One of the three vyas jis stand behind the actor delivering a dialogue. Often, they whisper entire monologues in the actor’s ear, word by word.
THE WAR: The battle scenes between Ram and Raavan’s armies are performed by Muslim boys, a tradition handed down from generations. Fire-eating represents the magic illusions that Raavan created (Photo credit: Ajay Aggarwal)
There are several reasons why people visit Varanasi. Some to wash away their sins in the Ganga, some to die and be cremated at the burning ghats, some for inner peace, others for the “bhang-booti.” Whatever your reason may be, it’s a good idea to plan it around the Ramnagar Ramlila, at least once in your lifetime.
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From HT Brunch, October 27
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