The usual evening hustle bustle is missing from Chandni Chowk’s narrow Dariba Kalan, a silver market set up in the 17th century by Mughal kings, famous for jewellery, semi-precious stones and trophies.
There are few vehicles. People, mostly housewives and children, have lined up along the lane dotted with decades-old shops to catch a glimpse of ‘Ramlila Savaari’ (procession). The 12 day-long feature begins with first day of the Navratras and continues till Bharat Milap, the day after Dussehra.
The procession has been an integral part of Dussehra celebration for 170 years in the Walled City. Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar started it when he became the king. Ever since, the Shri Ramlila Committee (SRC), Ramlila Maidan, has been organizing it.
On all 12 evenings, a set of floats ferry artistes dressed as Ram, Lakshman, Sita, and Raavan from Esplanade Road. The three-hour-long journey starts at 6pm, and traverses the lanes of the Walled city—Dariba, Chandni Chowk Main Road, Nai Sadak, Chawri Bazaar, Chowk Hauz Qazi and Ajmeri Gate. It ends at the Ramlila Maidan, where the actors enact crucial scenes from the epic Ramayana. Large groups of music bands belting out bhajans and Hindi film songs also accompany them.
On Friday, when the procession reached Dariba, an actor dressed as Lord Shiva riding a plastic ‘Nandi’ bull led the troupe. In tow were Ram and Lakshman, seated atop a colourful chariot. Raavan, with Sita, followed in a separate float.
At their sight, a group of children broke into applause. They teased and mocked Raavan, who was holding a struggling Sita who tried to escape. An angry Raavan stared at them, only to be booed by the crowd.
However, the procession, a much revered event until 30 years ago, has lost much of its sheen.
Back then, residents from other parts of the city would throng the procession route to seek blessings, said Dariba resident Subhash Chandra Agrawal. “Three priests would travel in a chariot along with Ram and Lakshman and perform ‘Aartis’ too. People waited till the floats returned from the Ramlila Ground. On the last few days, the festivities would continue till seven the next morning,” he said.
It is believed that Ramlilas began in Delhi 350 years ago, when Mughal king Shahjahan built Shahjahanabad — today known as Old Delhi. Historiographer and famous Delhi chronicler, RV Smith, said Mehrauli and Purana Quila might have been the earliest venues. However, there are no proofs, he said.
During the reign of Bahadur Shah Zafar, another Mughal king, he added two distinctive rituals to the celebration, said Smith. On the request of his Hindu army men, he allowed ‘Ramlila Savaari’ in the city and the burning of effigies of Ravaan.
“Badshah (Zafar) decided to fund the celebration too. Later, the Ramlila venue was shifted from the Yamuna banks (behind Lal Quila) to its current location. The decision came after he noticed that the people, particularly women and the elderly, faced lot of difficulties to reach the Yamuna bank,” said Smith.
Ramlila Maidan, in the heart of the city, became a perfect setting. The pond ‘Shahji Ka Talaab’ on the ground served as the backdrop for the ‘Kevat’ scene, where a boatman ferries Ram, Lakshman, and Sita across the Saryu river at the beginning of their 14-year exile, said Smith.
Ever since, the Ramlila has been put up at the ground, except on two occasions —in 1965 because of the war with China, and for three days in the mid 80s when the Delhi Police tried to change the procession route.
Even in 1965, Vijaya Dashmi (the burning of Raavan’s effigy) was celebrated with much fanfare on the insistence of then prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, said SRC general secretary, Rajesh Khanna. “Funds collected by the committee was donated to the National Defense Fund when the Ramlila could not be celebrated in 1965,” he said.
In the mid 80s, when a Delhi Police official changed the route, the committee did not agree, he said. “The Ramlila celebrations were stopped for three days and there was palpable tension in the city. The then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, intervened and the plan to alter the route was rejected,” said Khanna.