“Ramlila” is a dramatic re-enactment of the events of Lord Rama’s life as per the revered Hindu epic “Ramayana”. The word “Ramlila” is formed by combining “Ram” and “Lila”, where latter means “Play” in English. Ramlila is performed in every part of India including its villages and cities, during the Navratri festival in autumn and concluding on the day of Dussehra.
Lord Rama is the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu and is revered for his truthfulness, courtesy, virtue, and for being a man of values and morals. Maharishi Valmiki in Ramayana, mentioned Lord Rama as – “Maryada Purushottam Ram”; which translates to – a man superior to other men in terms of moral and values. Therefore, the life of Rama is a story of a man’s affinity to the truth, principles and values, giving him courage and strength, enough to slain a most powerful demon king of Lanka – Ravana.
The Ramlila re-enactment at various places in India will begin on Sunday, 29th September 2019 and conclude on 8th October 2019, on the day of Dussehra festival. Though, usually the play is performed in night for ten days, at some places it is performed for shorter durations like 3 to 4 days.
“Ramayana” is the oldest Hindu epic written by Valmiki in 1st century BCE. It is written in Sanskrit and narrates the life and struggles of Hindu prince Rama. There is no evidence to suggest that Ramlila was being performed even in those days.
The Valmiki version of Ramayana was written in Sanskrit, a language only known to priests and Rishis (ascetics) at that time. The epic gained popularity among the common masses only when Goswami Tulsidas translated the complete epic in Avadhi language.
It was not earlier than Tulsidas wrote an Avadhi version of Ramayana, known as “Tulsidas Ramcharitmanas” in 16th century that the first evidence of Ramlila performance is found. It is believed that one of the students of Tulsidas named –Megha Bhagat, started enacting “Ramlila” in 1625. However, the enactment was based on Tulsidas’ version of Ramayana i.e. Ramcharitmanas. Some historians claim that Ramlila had been in trends even during 1200 to 1500 CE, in North India, but it was based on Valmiki Ramayana.
Some historians also claim that the Ramlila was in tradition even much before the composition Ramcharitmanas; possibly during early centuries of the Common Era. In a biography of saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1533) it is mentioned that once he got carried away while performing as Hanumana, thus proving that Ramlila was played even before Ramcharitmanas was composed.
They also believe that Ramlila enactment was performed at Mathura, in the Vaisnavism tradition and its evidences could be traced back in the different dance forms of that era – Kathakali, Kathak etc.
Historians claim that, during its inception, Ramlila was practiced orally by professional story tellers. Thus the tradition was carried from generation to generation through thousands of years. The Ramayana epic is vast with 20000 verses and could only be preserved till today, through oral recitations and play enactments.
Initially Ramlila was performed either in Sanskrit or in Awadhi, but today it is also being performed in various regional languages, throughout India. Modern performances have integrated the teachings of ancient epic and modern day theatre techniques. These days the play is performed with a commentary in local dialects and a pinch of humor to enthrall the audience, who nevertheless knows the story by heart.
During the older days, Ramlila performances were organized at distinct locations and people from far off villages walked for miles in groups to witness the proceedings. Today Ramlila is performed in every village, town or city and even at various locations in a particular city.
Ramlila – Audience, Actors and Performance
Ramlila is the story of Hindu God Rama, from his birth to his exile in the forest and his return to Ayodhya, after executing the demon king Ravana. Ramlila is not less than a festival which depicts all the emotions and events in the life of prince Rama – from his birth to his leaving Ayodhya to giving up his succession of the throne to younger brother Bharata, his life with Sita and Lakshmana during exile, abduction of Sita by Ravana to revenge his sister Supnakha’s insult by Lakshmana, Rama meeting Hanumana, Bali and Sugreev, Rama’s battle with Ravana and finally the victory of good over evil by Ravana’s execution at the hands of Lord Rama. Indian audience knows the story by heart and enjoys every moment of the performance with religious fervor.
Ramlila festival is performed for ten days during the months of September-October, in every village, city or even metropolis of India. Audiences include people from all age groups across the demographic divisions of caste, creed, beliefs, or sections. Men, women, children and elderly, all witness the life events of their beloved prince.
Preparations for Ramlila begin days before the actual performance. The team of actors enacting various characters is drawn from all the sections of society. The character is chosen based on the actor’s physical appearance and verbal skill. Usually the event is managed by the Ramlila Committee. Every village, town or city has a Ramlila committee, which maintains the costumes and looks after the financial and other needs of the play.
The stage is set in advance for the performances. Usually the place of performance has been fixed for centuries and is generally known as “Ramlila Maidan”. Villagers help voluntarily in the setting up of stage, cleaning the area or with other relevant issues. Singers, musicians, commentators all are arranged from among the locals or are called from other villages or towns. Performance is usually carried out in night on an open air podium and in presence of a packed audience.
The play is based on Ramcharitmanas composed by Tulsidas. Actors are dressed accordingly as the characters they have to play. Rama, Lakshmana, Sita, Hanumana, Bali, Sugreev, Kumbhkaran and Ravana are some of the most popular characters among the audience. Dialogues are delivered followed by claps and whistle by audience. People enjoy every moment of the performance, which concludes on the tenth night on Dussehra festival, with Ravana’s execution by Lord Rama and the latter’s subsequent return to his kingdom of Ayodhya.
Ramlila is celebrated like a festival and the place is surrounded by a fair of shops and temporary eateries and vendors selling various articles. It is common sight to see the shops selling masks of various Ramayana characters and swords or bow arrows made of wood or other material.
Over the centuries, many regions have developed their own, unique form of Ramlila differing in presentation styles, sets and costumes etc. At some places Ramlila is performed for a shorter period – 3 to 4 days instead of 10 days, nevertheless all the performances conclude on the 10th day coinciding with Dussehra festival.
At some places a colorful procession (jhanki) of scenes from the Ramayana is taken out on the streets. Actors dressed up in relevant costumes re enact the scene, as is mentioned in the Ramcharitmanas.
Another type of performance is that which includes acting, dancing and dialogue delivery. It is one of the most popular form of Ramlila performances and also the most interesting one. Moreover, the music for the performances is chosen based on the local instruments and there is also an influence of local dance forms on the Ramlila performance.
Some of the most notable Ramlilas are performed each year at – Ramnagar, Varanasi, Ayodhya, Vrindaban and Madhubani. The Ramlila performance at Ramnagar in Varanasi is one of the most popular, as it is performed for 31 days rather than 10 days.
The Ramlila of Ramnagar is sponsored by the successors of Kashi Naresh, and is played every night for 31 days, concluding on the night of Dussehra festival. Complete Ramcharitmanas is recited during the span of 31 days and the performance is known for its sets, dialogues and costumes.
Numbers of stages are constructed throughout the city of Ramnagar, at various places named after the sites in the Ramayana epic like – Panch Vati, Kishkinda, and Lanka etc. Each day the performance is shifted to new location as the play progresses. For a period of 31 days the whole city turns into a giant mythical playground reverberating with the chants of Ramayana and echoing the applause for Lord Rama and his companions.
Significance of Ramlila
Ramayana epic has 20000 verses and was originally composed in 1st Millennium BCE by Maharishi Valmiki. Such a historical epic as Ramayana could only be preserved for thousands of years, passing on from generation to generation, through verbal recitation and enactment in form of play. “Ramlila”, therefore plays a significant role in keeping the legacy of Rama alive.
The dramatic reenactment of the incidents of Ramayana let common people connect with their religion and have a better understanding of righteousness, principles and values they should follow. For someone who has never read Ramayana, Ramlila acts as an interesting as well as understandable option to dig into the essence of Hinduism – truth, righteousness, courage, principles, morals and values.
Ramlila performances are also an example of religious unity, as people from different caste within Hindus or sometimes also from different religions, come together to act or be a part of it in some way or the other. Nevertheless, that the play also provides many at back stage, with their livelihood. A Ramlila performance requires not only actors but also costume designers, mask artists, musicians, dialogue delivers, dancers etc who in return get paid for their performances. In a way the play also keeps the arts of painting, singing, folklore and classical dances alive for ages, passing on from generation to generation.
Ramlila has spread to other corners of the world as a very revered dance form, by the Indian Diaspora residing there. Today, within Indian subcontinent the Ramlila is performed in India, Nepal and Pakistan. The migration of Indians to the places outside of Indian subcontinent has led to the spread of Ramlila to South Africa, Great Britain, Trinidad and Tobago, Mauritius, Netherlands, Fiji and United States of America.
The Ramlila is being performed since 1881 in the republic of Trinidad and Tobago. In 2012 the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago enacted an act declaring “the National Ramlila Council of Trinidad and Tobago” as the main representative body of Ramlila.
The story of Rama has achieved a venerated status in Thailand and is called – “Ramakein” in local dialects. The rulers of Thailand consider themselves as the descendants of Lord Rama. Even the capital of Thailand was initially named Ayutthaya, after Sri Ram’s capital of Ayodhya.