Ramlila a non-starter in the land of Ravana worshippers
Like last year, this year too Ramlilas are either being cancelled or are likely to be low-key events due to the continuing restrictions on large gatherings. It may have disappointed millions across the country, but for residents of Bisrakh it would not mean so much since no Ramlilas means no burning of the effigy of the Ravana, who they believe is the son of the soil.
“ Ravana was born here in our village. Nothing has been more painful for us than see effigies of Ravana burn every year. We do not hold any Ramlila in our village, ” says Manchand Bhati, 71, sitting at his shop in Bisrakh village.
Indeed, Bisrakh—a village in Gautam Budh Nagar, about 30 km from Connaught Place, does not organise Ramlila or celebrate Dussehra, which is in fact the day of mourning for villagers.
Local legend has it that Bisrakh is the birthplace of Ravana, the demon king and the ruler of Lanka. The village derives its name from sage Vishrava, Ravana’s father, who is believed to have built a temple here to house a Shiva Lingam that he came across in a forest grove. It was this temple where, the villagers will tell you, as a child, Ravana used to offer prayers to Lord Shiva along with his father.
Mange Ram Bhati, another villager, says the village has never celebrated Ramlila, except once about 50 years ago when a group of few young men broke the age-old village tradition by organising it.
The consequences, Mange Ram says, turned out to be frightful.
A few days after Ramlila was held, Bhati says, two of the youngsters who participated in it as actors passed away. “ We believe that Ravana unleashed his wrath on the village. The was the last time anyone ever tried to hold a Ramlila here,” says Mange Ram. “Everyone believes that if we ever tried to celebrate Ramlila again, a bigger calamity may befall the village,” he says. “We are determined to not repeat that mistake of 50 years ago and so far we have done fine.”
In the past decade, Bisrakh, which today has a population of about 10,000, has been transformed into an urban village with palatial houses boasting gleaming SUVs. In the late 2000s, most of the village land was acquired by Greater Noida Authority to develop what is today known as Greater Noida West.
What has not changed is the villagers’ reverence for Ravana. Many elderly refer to him as ‘Maha Brahman’ and every Dussehra gather at the local Shiva temple to observe a day of mourning. “ Many houses do not cook on the day and gather here to mourn his demise,” says Mahant Ramdas, the priest of the Shiva temple that is believed to have been built by Vishrava, Ravan’s father. “This is the Shiva Lingam that they both worshipped”.
The mahant, who came to the village 40 years ago, says that people from all over the country and, at times even foreigners, visit the temple. “In the four decades, I have not seen the villagers celebrating Ramlia, and their regard for the Ravana has only increased,” says the mahant, giving us a guided tour of the temple, which has the idols of Vishrava, the Ravan’s father and Kubera, his brother. The temple gate, built about a decade back, has the carved image of the Ravana.
Villagers say that a few people in the village wanted to build a Ravana temple, but faced opposition from people outside of their village. In August 2016, Ashokanand, a self-styled yoga guru, installed an idol of Ravana inside his yoga ashram in the village, which he seeks to promote as Bisrakh Dham. There are a few large billboards around the village announcing it as Bisrakh Dham, the birthplace of the Ravana to visitors. But the idol was vandalised, which Ashoknand blames on the supporters of the priest of a temple in Ghaziabad.
“Another idol is ready, which I am determined to install soon, no matter what. I want to promote a better understanding of Ravana. He was the biggest devotee of Lord Shiva and the greatest scholar. Perhaps his life needs to be seen in totality. He had many more positive than negative qualities, ” says Ashokanand.
He says that he is now working to set up a museum celebrating the life and times of Ravana in the village. “I have done a lot of research on Ravana and even travelled to Sri Lanka. A few people from the island country who worship Ravana also visited our village after I told them that our village is the birthplace of Ravana”.
Mange Ram Bhati says some young parents, under pressure from their children, would sneak into other places to enjoy Ramlila, but last year they were saved this trouble as Ramilias were cancelled everywhere. “Perhaps this year too, thankfully there would be no Ramlila and they would not have to take the risk of visiting a Ramlila elsewhere, ” says Bhati. A risk? “Though some of them concede to the wishes of their children to see Ramlila, they fear that Ravana might become angry again and punish them for their secret trip to a Ramlila.”
Shyam Lal, 73, is a rare voice who is sceptical about his village’s relationship with Ravana. “It is a myth more than anything else, but I do not mind people propagating it as long as it is keeping our village in the limelight, and attracting visitors, ” he says cryptically, not wanting to field any more questions on the subject.