Walking through the cramped lanes of Almora’s markets during the nine days of the Navratri festival, I saw grotesque, half-complete effigies. Headless torsos and giant limbs were waiting to be dressed up for Dussehra, the concluding day of the festival.
Navratri marks Lord Ram’s return from exile. One of the highlights of the festival is the Ramlila, a re-enactment of episodes from the Ramayana. For the nine nights of Navratri, the life of Lord Ram and his eventual victory over the demon king Ravan is depicted through narrations or musicals. In most parts of India, the Ramlila is based on Tulsidas’ composition, the Ramcharitmanas.
As a child in Mumbai, I had watched Ramlilas at the public ground near my home. The characters would recite their lines, interspersed with songs, and even enact vivid battle scenes. Over the years, the Ramlila has become a declining art form, and many of the performances in Mumbai have stopped. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is still alive in Uttarakhand’s Almora district, and that UNESCO has inscribed Ramlila on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Navratri and Dussehra are celebrated in the Hindu season of Sharad, which is early autumn and falls between September and early November. However, preparations for the Ramlila in Almora often begin the previous December. It is performed as a musical drama in the typical Almora or Kumaon style, developed in the late 1930s by the distinguished dancer Uday Shankar, who adapted Western theatre techniques to classical Indian dance forms.
Several clubs across Almora stage Ramlila performances. The Hukka Club, which is more than a hundred years old, is one of the most prominent.
At dusk, wrapped in several layers of warm clothing, I made my way down the market street to an open area overlooking the valley. A makeshift stage was erected at one end, with a musicians’ pit next to it. The audience had already started pouring in, sitting near the stage even though the light and sound technicians were still setting up the equipment.
I went backstage to find the green room bustling with activity. Actors were getting dressed, putting on make-up, or practising their lines, while the organisers were rushing around trying to ensure everyone was ready on time. Ram and Laxman seemed ready for their cue, but Sita was still getting made up. Ravan gave me a stern look, perhaps he was getting into character. I learnt that he had been playing the part for 20 years. It was surreal trying to make everyday conversation with mythological characters.
The community spirit of Almora comes to the fore during this time. Ramlila performances are supported by donations from locals, costumes are provided by the club, the wives of organisers help out with make-up—everyone pitches in. By the time I returned to my seat, the place was full. In fact, many viewers had snagged balcony seats—on the terraces of the houses nearby.
Classical music marked the beginning of the show. The night’s performance enacted the Ashok Vatika incident: Hanuman visits Sita while she is held captive by Ravan, and a battle ensues leading to the destruction of the garden and most of Ravan’s clan. Hanuman was endearing as he sneaked into Ashok Vatika in search of Sita, who appeared suitably sad. But it was Ravan who stole the show with his thundering voice and towering personality.
Another highlight of the performance was Hanuman’s rampage through the garden, uprooting trees, and throwing bananas into the crowd, which went berserk with excitement. Clearly, this event is much-awaited every year. The battle in which Hanuman is captured was beautifully staged, complete with swords clashing against mace, bows flexing, and background music rising to a crescendo. The performance ended with Hanuman burning down Lanka after his tail had been set on fire on Ravan’s orders.
Once Navratri had passed, on the tenth day, the day of Dussehra, Almora came alive with music and colour. All the half-completed effigies of Ravan and his family members were ready, dressed, ornamented and armed. By mid-afternoon, the various clubs started making their way down to the mela ground. The effigies were wheeled through the market street, accompanied by men blowing trumpets and beating drums. One unique aspect about the Ramlila in Almora is that it is not just Ravan’s effigy that is burned on Dussehra evening. Effigies of many of his family members are burned alongside as well.
This practice emerged because Almora has nine major Ramlilas. Instead of each burning its own Ravan, now each club contributes an effigy of a member of Ravan’s family and all of them are burned together. Processions bearing effigies of Kumbhakaran and AhiRavan (Ravan’s brothers), Surpanakha (Ravan’s sister), Indrajit and Meghnad (Ravan’s sons) and others also wound their way to the grounds. The proceedings began after sundown with a cultural programme, followed by the final Ramlila performance. As the evening progressed, the crowd swelled and people impatiently waited for Ravan to be burned. All the effigies were lined up at one end of the ground. There was a big roar from the crowd as the first one went up in flames, accompanied by fireworks. One by one, Ravan’s family was consigned to the fire. The air was thick with smoke and embers were flying. Finally, Ravan met his fiery end, symbolising the victory of good over evil. To me, however, it was the triumph of tradition and of a community’s effort to keep a vibrant legacy alive.
Ramlila will be celebrated from Thur 15 Sept to Sat 16 Oct 2016.
Appeared in the February 2013 issue as “The Flame of Tradition”.
is a Mumbai-based travel and food writer who is obsessed with coffee and all things Italian. She tweets and instagrams as @delishdirection.
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