Ramnagar ki Ramleela: How Ramcharitmanas is bought to life at one of the oldest 'melas' in Varanasi

Ram, Lakshman and Shatrughan are not well. They have suffered from diarrhoea and are admitted to a hospital – the newspaper reported. The lines referred to the actors playing the trio in Ramleela and were part of a daily column being run for the entire duration of the event.  Yes, we are talking about the Ramleela at Ramnagar, Varanasi which goes on for about a month and one which even today takes help of neither the tube lights and bulbs nor audio systems. This was only the fourth occasion in its 183-year history that the event took a break. Ram falling sick on account of polluted water might as well be a statement on our times and place, but for now, let us have a look at the past.

Legend has it that the Kashi Naresh (the ruler) used to regularly attend a Ramleela organised at Baraipur in Mirzapur. One evening he got delayed as his son was unwell. The Ramleela went on without him. Missing out on the event, especially the parts he enjoyed, left him sad. The queen then reminded him that he was a ruler and could very well have a Ramleela of his own! This conversation, sometime during 1835, led to the birth of what is today one the better known Ramleelas.

The only reason this is the fifth oldest Ramleela in the town, is because the town is Kashi! Even the Ramcharitmanas used at the Ramleela is about 200 years old. More than 12 inches in length and approximately six inches in breadth, the rice paper book is also approximately 12 inches thick.

Ramleela at Ramnagar, Varanasi. Image courtesy of the author

Ramleela at Ramnagar, Varanasi. Image courtesy of the author

Like Kashi the town, and its people, this Ramleela too prides in tradition. Some rules have been adhered to since it began. The principal actors, for example, stay at a dharamshala for the entire duration of the event with at least one of their family members. The arrangements are taken care of by the royal family. Crafting effigies, preparing the grounds and maintenance of the petromax lamps (which light up the stage) constitute some of the preparatory actions. The number of effigies itself goes up to about 150.

The Ramleela has about 28 to 30 major characters in action each day. People from different walks of life take a break from what they do to play the roles. For some, it is a way of serving Ram, bhakti, and they have been associated for long. Pandey, for example, has played Hanuman’s character from 1970 to 2010; 41 times. Another Pandey has been associated with the Ramleela since the past 30 years. His role has been to ask people to be silent. His ‘savdhan, shant raho’ has made him well-known.

Coming back to this year, the Ramleela went on for 32 days. The usual length is 31 days. To give an idea of the timeline:

7th day: Balakanda ends,
10th day: Vanvas begins,
18th day: Hanuman announces that he will go to Lanka,
24th day: Kumbhkaran and Meghnad are killed,
30th day: Ram is coronated at Ayodhya.

Ramleela is a mela – which is also how it is also referred to at Ramnagar. In other words, it's food and fun along with Ramcharitmanas. How lively our events were before we began aping the West! Food is too good to resist. Alongside the favourite jabeli, some stalls also had heaps of chow – bachhon ka khana [food for children], I was told. I caught up with Chaurasiya while having paan at his stall. His family has been putting up a stall at the mela for four generations. During the Ramleela month, he is at his regular shop during the first half of the day and post 3 pm at the stall. The entire month he, and other stalls, move with the Ramleela performance to different locations within Ramnagar, wherever they are held. One of the grounds has been named Lanka, another Kishkindha and so on. While having gulab-jamuns on another day I asked Rajubhai, the stall-owner, of the numbers. People, he responded, have surely not been decreasing, if anything, their numbers have increased. It was about 8.30 pm then and he was beginning to wind his stall for the aarati which is usually held around 9.00 pm - 9.15 pm.

The Kashi Naresh is present during the entire Ramleela. He views it from an elephant's back. Each of the days that I attended the event, I saw three different elephants. The one with a covered howdah carried him. During the break each day, he rested. The performers (and the audience) wait for his car to return to the venue and then for him to get back on to the elephant. The sagging elephants, the old clothes covering their backs along with the body language of the people – those atop the elephants and also those guarding them – conveyed that Ramnagar family has seen better days.

The break allows the audience to enjoy the stalls. People playing the characters also get to rest, especially rest their vocal cords. The person playing Ram, of course, has no break. I saw few people fanning him and many more lining up to touch his feet during the break. During the performance, people responded with Ramchandra ki jai, to his lines.

The three elephants stood not far from the group that sang. After each scene, a man on stage raised his hand signalling to the group. They then sang accompanied by manjiras. Since there was no electricity, two lanterns burnt to give light to the eight singers sitting in a circle. These lanterns, emitting a beautiful orange light, were supplied with oil at short intervals. Many in the audience joined them. Some recited from the books they were carrying. The lights, from small torches and phones, appeared like white dots amidst a river of darkness and humanity. That change is inevitable, even in Kashi, I realised when – a day later – I saw people reading from apps in their phones. Some people also carried wooden stools to help them sit comfortably. A friend, familiar with Kashi, had quipped that never elsewhere in town has she seen such a large crowd so quiet and disciplined!

On one of the days I went to the mela, Kumbhkaran was killed. The 60-foot tall effigy was slowly brought down. People had climbed it from inside to ensure that the process was safe. First, the nose bled and then the ears. Arms followed. It was the head after that and finally the chest. All this while, in excess of 20 minutes, Ram paced the stage shooting arrows. That day Narad muni too had appeared on the stage. He was carried in a palki by eight people. Two actors whom I had noticed stationary most time, even during previous days, all of sudden became active and showered flowers. They were the devtas I was told. They reminded me of On Doing Nothing, where JB Priestly writes ‘We were gods, solidly occupied in doing nothing’.

Clicking images is not allowed. I was told in a decidedly rude tone by one of the people guarding the elephants and those on them. With the fragrance of ganja all around the ground, I wondered if that was allowed! Somewhere I heard a person selling Gangajal, as well as plastic toys. The mela, like melas do, had something for everyone.

One evening as we slowly walked back from the mela, a friend, after we shared happy silences soaking in the experience, had remarked – ‘it was like going to a different time-zone’.


Updated Date: Nov 15, 2018 09:20 AM

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