My eighty-year-old aunt Rabab Zamin describes the famous, centuries old Ram Leela in Ramnagar, Varanasi of the 1940s in her book, From the Depths of Memory: A Family Saga.
“ Going down memory lane, I see a decorated elephant standing before me. I hear the mahaut saying, “Bibi ko salam karo,” The elephant lifts its trunk, touches it forehead and kneels down. A ladder is lowered. I climb up and am comfortably seated in the howdah. The elephant ambles towards the Ram Leela grounds. I am going instead of Baba and I get all the preferential treatment Baba would have got. I get all this treatment at age six or seven.
The Maharaj is in Ajmer studying at Mayo College, the Eton of India. Baba’s rank is the highest amongst all officials of the state. Baba may not have come and in his absence his daughter has to be given the same respect…. Protocol has to be followed; my elephant pushes ahead of every other elephant. It has to be in the lead. No one can go ahead of the Dewan Saheb’s elephant. No one can leave the Ram Leela grounds until I have left…. I go there every day of the festival.”
These are the memories of a young Muslim girl dressed in her festival best, attending Ram Leela in around 75 years ago in the holiest city of India – Banares. When I called her recently to talk to her about it, she became tearful and said though she was too young to recall much, she still remembers being on the first elephant and the respect given to her by everyone there despite her tender years.
So when I read that actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui was stopped by Hindutva activists from acting as Mareech in the Ram Leela in his village because he was a Muslim, I can only bemoan the lack of understanding of a long tradition of Muslim participation in this joyous festival.
Years later in 1960s my father was posted in Varanasi and my youngest sister recalls that she went with my parents to watch the Ram Leela on the Maharaj’s invitation and their elephant was right next to his elephant. She was 7 years old and says it was great fun. This was what has been described as Ganga Jamuni Tehzeeb at its best.
I have my own beautiful memories of participating in every festival of our country and enjoying them with our friends in Lucknow, Aligarh and Jamshedpur, Pune and now Delhi.
Ram Leela is the enactment of the story of Shri Ram and his triumph over Ravana. It is the age-old story of good over evil and culminates on Dussehra with the burning of Ravana’s effigy. Though some versions of a dramatic enactment of Ram Leela did exist this folk tradition became popular after Goswami Tulsidas translated the Sanskrit Ramayana into the Awadhi Ramcharitramanas in 1625.
Prof Ali Nadeem Rezavi who teaches medieval history in Centre of Advanced Studies, Dept. of History, Aligarh Muslim University tells me that , “At Fathepur Sikri in one building we have the sculpture of Ram Laxman and Hanuman carved on a bracket.”
Under the nearly 300 odd years Mughal rule, pluralistic traditions were fostered and encouraged by all except in during Aurangzeb’s time. Once the capital shifted to Shahjahanabad (now called Old Delhi) these festivals all got popularized further with the ruler of the time holding a special darbar on Dussehra where he would be weighed in gold and silver, which was distributed amongst the poor. I am sure Shah Jahan with his love for the spectacular would have approved of the grand scale on which it is celebrated outside his Qila today.
Delhi’s first ever Shri Ramleela Committee – which was registered under the Socieities Registration Act in 1860 — was established under his descendant Bahadur Shah Zafar; it still continues to this day. Even today Delhi’s Dussehra and Ramleela is very famous and is still held in the same Ramleela grounds opposite Turkman and Ajmeri Darwaza. The patrons may have changed but the venue of this ancient story remains the same.
Bahadur Shah Zafar (1837-1857) also gave permission for taking out the Ram Leela Savari. The famous Ram Leela Savari, which too continues to date, was a huge procession of caparisoned elephants, horses, camels and brightly dresses men, women and children went through the streets of Shahjahanabad or Purani Dilli. People dressed as Lord Rama, Sita, Lakshman and Ravana were taken around on chariots. Every day there would be new tableaus in the procession.
In his book Dilli jo ek Shahr hai Maheshwar Dayal writes that as per Hindu and Mughal tradition, the Mughal Emperor would hold court on Dussehra and first a neelkanth (Indian roller) would be set free in front of the Emperor to symbolise victory and then a falcon would be brought and perched on his hand. The falcon is a symbol of power and victory in Timurid traditions.
There would be a parade of beautifully decorated horses and elephants on the river side under the Qila-e-Mubarak and the Emperor would watch it from the jharoka. Ladies and princes would watch from different palaces which overlooked the river Yamuna. The best decorated animal’s groom would be rewarded.
Mirza Mhammed Hasan Qateel, In his book 1875 book Haft Tamasha, gives a vivid description of the celebration of Dussehra and Ram Leela In Delhi by both Hindus and Muslims. “In the shahr Hindus and Muslims would celebrate the festival of Dussehra. There would be cardboard and wood effiiges taller than men in the bazaars, chowk, and squares of Delhi. A earthern vessel with sherbet would be kept in Ravan’s stomach. Young children dressed up as Ram would aim their arrows at ravan’s stomach. Huge crowds of people would come from far and wide to see the spectacle of Ramchandra ji’s victory over Ravan.”
Dayal describes the festivities in Delhi of yore. During the nine days preceding Dussehra called “Navrate” or nine nights, barley would be sown in small boats. On the day of Dussehra old and young alike would decorate their caps, turbans and ears with barley sprigs, as it was considered auspicious. Since Persian was the court language and widely understood, the quatrains of Tulsi Das’ Ramayana would be recited in Persian for all to enjoy and understand. Verses would be composed in Urdu and Persian for the occasion.
Children would also be dressed as Hanuman with masks on their face and run around the streets with bows and arrows in their hands. Crowds of people would crush into the Ramleela grounds to watch the plays. During the day children would dress up as Rama and Sita and enact the Ramayana. In the evenings enormous crowds of Hindus and Muslims, men and women, young and old, rich and poor would gather at the Ramleela grounds to watch the plays there.
Many of these traditions continue even today, not only in Delhi but in the whole of India. Muslim craftsmen participate with creating Ram Leela stage and costumes.
The most important modern syncretic traditon comes from a hamlet near Lucknow, named Bakshi ka Talab where all the main protaganists of the Ram Leela are Muslims. This was started in 1972 by Dr Muzaffar Hussain and the village pradhan Maiku Lal Yadav as an exercise of spreading communal amity. It starts on Dussehra day and is performed over the next 3-4 days. This year too it is going to be staged as per schedule. This Ramlila was adapted for the radio as ‘Uss Gaon ki Ramlila’ and even won Lucknow All India Radio, the Lahsa Kaul memorial Communal Harmony Award in 2000.
There is an interesting story related by Sangita Bakaya of an occasion when Ramzan fell during Dussehra. “Last year, when the climax of the Ravana dahan was stopped midway as it was time for Roza Iftar and namaj for the Muslims taking part in the play, the 50,000-strong audience sat in silence till they finished offering the prayers right on the stage and took snacks to end their Roza before continuing their act.” Those who forbade Nawazuddin from acting in the Ram Leela would do well to read up on the glorious syncretic history and traditions of our land.