Ramnagar Ram Lila

The biggest Ram Lila production, and perhaps the best known, internationally, is the one that occurs annually in a village on the other side of the Ganges from one of Hinduism’s most important cities.

Varanasi sits on the west bank of the Ganges river, at an unusual point at which the river flows northward.  Regarded traditionally as Shiva’s own city, Varanasi has a peculiar character.  Many Hindus aspire to die in Varanasi, or, at least, to be cremated there.  Barring that, many Hindus hope their ashes will be carried to Varanasi to be scattered in the Ganges.  Several cremation grounds operate twenty-four hours a day on the Varanasi side of the river, along a four-mile stretch of remarkably crowded urban riverfront.

On the other side of the river, the eighteenth century Ramnagar Fort marks the riverside of Ramnagar village.  Every year, a colossal, thirty-day Ram Lila is performed at Ramnagar.  As opposed to most other Ram Lilas, the stage of the Ramnagar play is not a central platform in an open park or cricket pitch, but the entire village, incorporating several square miles.  Over its month-long run, the episodic performance moves from site to site within Ramnagar.  In some cases, each day finds the action set in a new part of town.  In other cases, the action moves—and the thousands of audience members with it—from one location to another while the story is playing out, which emulates incidents of the story and incorporates its audiences as participants in the epic’s movement.

This version of the Ram Lila seems to have begun in the very early nineteenth century.  The production was appropriated almost immediately by Maharaja Udit Narayan Singh.  Colonial accounts indicate that the production had become much like it is now by 1830.  One of the reasons for the Ramnagar production’s size and longevity is its continued patronage by the Maharaja’s descendants.  Still regarded, if unofficially, as maharajas, Udit Narayan Singh’s progeny continue to present themselves to the public as wealthy and powerful by presiding over the Ramnagar lila in conspicuous pomp.  Many episodes do not begin until the current maharaja has arrived (by cadillac or, even more grandly, by elephant), and many episodes do not officially conclude until the maharaja has departed.

The distinct exception is the dramatization of Ravana’s death.  According to tradition, it is inappropriate for an Indian king to see the death of another king.  The maharaja leaves the production early, in this case.  Only after the maharaja has left the field does this episode conclude, with Ravana’s defeat and the burning of his effigy.