‘ Savdhan,’ shouts Vyasji, ‘Chup Raho’ in the Ramnagar Ramlila of Varanasi. He is a 70-year old Brahmin and his task is to ensure that all the characters of this more than 200- year old dance drama remember their lines. Right now, he is asking the young boys of the Lila, to keep quiet and concentrate on their jobs.
Right now, he is asking the young boys of the Lila, to keep quiet and concentrate on their jobs.
At the Ramleela
There are several other elderly gentlemen like him at one of the several venues of the Ramnagar Ramlila. These wizened people, also called as Vyas Jis, work as prompters, directors, and trainers of this dance drama.
On the stage, you also see 12 wise men seated in concentric circles, reciting verses from the Ramacharitmanas.As the voices of these men (Ramayanis) fade away, a wooden chariot appears near the stage.
Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita are back to Ayodhya after their 14 year-exile in the jungles.
The crowd bursts into an uproar,’ Raja Ramchandra ki Jai’.
It has been 2 hours that the crowd has been waiting for the trio of Ram, Lakshman, and Sita to arrive at the stage. Today is the last day of Ramnagar Ramleela and everybody is waiting for the coronation of Rama as the King of Ayodhya.
The main sponsor of the Ramleela, Kashi Naresh is already on the stage to welcome the trio.
Ramnagar Ramlila and how it began
For travelers who are coming to India for the first time, Ramlila is an intensely personal experience. If you get an opportunity to see this ancient dance-drama, grab it with open hands. You not only get an insight into the soul of India, you also get to rub shoulders with Indians of all classes.
But what is Ramlila?
In one sentence, Ramlila is a docu-drama about the life of Rama, his family, the monkey god Hanuman and the Lord of Rakshasas, Ravana.
Every year, this drama is organized by several theater groups across the country and is watched by millions of Indians. The language of this drama is Hindi.
While there are Ramlilas and Ramlilas, in Varanasi, there is a special kind of Ramlila which goes by the name, Ramnagar Ramlila.
Ramnagar is the name of a small fort or castle in Varanasi. This Ramlila is patronized by the King of Ramnagar and hence the name, Ramnagar Ramlila.
It is said that this Ramlila was started by another King of Benares more than 200 years back. His name was Udit Narayan Singh.
Ask Jai Prakash Pathak, the personal secretary of the present Maharaja, and he will gladly share the history of this Ramlila. According to him, one day Udit Singh had gone to Mirzapur for some work. After he completed his work, he stayed back in the town to watch the local Ramlila. Unfortunately, he couldn’t as he arrived at the venue late.
Feeling bad about the experience, the King decided to create a Ramlila in Varanasi on his own and since then, the Ramnagar Ramlila has been in existence.
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Tell me more about Ramlila
The storyline about Ramlila is taken from the great Indian epic, Ramayana composed by Saint Valmiki.
Some experts think that Valmiki lived during the time of Rama, which is several thousand years ago. Others, however, are not sure, they say that Rama lived several million years back.
However, the present day Ramlilas are inspired by Goswami Tulsidas who lived approximately 500 years back. He thought that Valmiki’s Ramayana was difficult to understand by the masses as it was written in Sanskrit. Tulsidas also thought that it was high time that Ramayana is re-interpreted keeping in mind the changes in morality and social values.
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Keeping all these factors in mind, Tulsidas wrote the Ramcharitmanas ( the story of Rama) in a local Hindi dialect, Avadhi. A few years later, he decided to lend an audio-visual character to the Ramcharitmanas by starting Ramlilas.
You will agree with me that listening and watching a story is more effective than reading it.
And this is how the concept of Ramlila came into being.
Today, millions of Indians start their day by reciting verses of Ramcharitmanas- this literature has indeed impacted our lives very deeply.
I know what your next question is going to be.
Where is Ramnagar, Mr. Swayam Tiwari?
The answer is -right across Varanasi. To reach Ramnagar, you will have to cross Ganga.
This small place is known for the Ramnagar Fort which is the official residence of Kashi Naresh or the Raja of Benares. The word, Kashi means Varanasi or Benares and Naresh stands for King.
Unlike the other Indian Kings, the Kashi Naresh is not a Rajput. According to some people, he is a Brahmin while others say that he is a Bhumihar ( an amalgam of Kshatriyas and Brahmins).
Ramnagar Ramleela- what is so unique?
Unlike the traditional Ramlilas, the one at Ramnagar is very special.
Firstly, this Ramlila is staged for 30 days or one lunar month. The first episode starts from Ganesh Chaturthi or Anant Chaturdashi (sometime in September) and concludes 30 days later. The traditional Ramlilas are held for only 10 days.
Secondly, the Ramnagar Ramlila does not take place in one central place. The venue keeps changing daily and this means that the audience keeps following the cast from one episode to another.
For a month, parts of the Ramnagar Fort and Varanasi are named after the places mentioned in the ancient epic, Ramayana.
A dusty plot of land represents Ayodhya while a small garden is chosen as the venue for the Sita-Rama meeting. The Sita Swayamvar is held on a small raised platform where Rama pulls the might bow and wins the hand of Sita.
Sometimes, when the action shifts from one venue to another the same day, the audience follows the cast.
Just young boys
All the characters are played by boys and men only. There are no ladies in the cast.
Girls are not allowed to play in the Ramleela at Ramnagar. Since young children have pure hearts, only they can play the roles of Rama, Sita, Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrughna. For the next one month, these children are considered divine by the spectators.
The main cast of Rama, Lakshman, Sita, Bharat, and Lakshman are played by boys under the age of 16. These boys are Brahmins and must know Sanskrit. The Kashi Naresh is personally involved in the selection of all the artists and he indeed makes sure that the best make the cut.
Har Har Mahadev, the crowd chants as the Kashi Naresh finally crowns Rama as the King of Ayodhya. It is midnight and it seems the whole of Varanasi has come to Ramnagar to witness the final event of Ramnagar Ramleela- Coronation
How to reach Varanasi?
Benares or Varanasi is a pretty accessible city.
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