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Words Made Flesh: The Text Enacted

O Garuda, even one who knows Ram's reality
yet remains devoted to these acts.
For the fruit of that knowledge is this lila—
so say great sages adept in self-restraint.

The Ramlila Tradition

The annual reenactment of the Ramayan story as a series of folk plays—the Ramlila —is among the world's most popular dramatic traditions: a form of live theater that reckons its audience not in hundreds or thousands, but in millions. Norvin Hein's assertion that "there must have been few North Indian villagers in the first half of the twentieth century who did not live within an evening's walking distance of a Ramlila during the Dashahra season" probably still applies in the century's latter half.[1] But even though the Ramlila is a widespread tradition, it is far from a homogeneous one. Its productions range from modest three-to-five-day affairs staged by a handful of village enthusiasts who double and triple up on major parts to month-long spectacles involving dozens of actors, musicians, and extras and attracting live audiences that may exceed a hundred thousand persons. The texts used for such diverse productions must obviously vary too; what they have in common—and it is this, in part, that makes possible an assertion of the fundamental


unity of the tradition—is that the vast majority are based, directly or indirectly, on the Ramcaritmanas ; both historically and performatively, Tulsi's epic lies at the heart of the Ramlila tradition.

As the most celebrated and visible form of Manas performance, the Ramlila has long attracted the attention of foreign travelers and both Western and Indian scholars, and a small literature has accumulated on the subject.[2] Scholars have analyzed the Ramlila as a form of folk theater and festival and have compared it to the medieval Christian miracle play. Such comparisons, while not wholly inappropriate, have often been made on the basis of a relatively superficial observation of Ramlila performances, and some of the published accounts of the tradition have contained inaccuracies and overgeneralizations.[3] Even Hein's two chapters on Ramlila were based, as he himself noted, on attendance at only ten performances, supplemented by the observations of several Indian friends regarding their own local stagings. Yet daily attendance at a Ramlila can significantly alter one's perception of the event—a fact affirmed by traditional audiences—and the recent writings of Richard Schechner and Linda Hess, who as a research team attended the Ramnagar production regularly for two years, have added a new dimension to our understanding of these performances.[4] I shall have many occasions to refer to their ongoing research as well as to the earlier work of Hein and other scholars. My own approach in the present chapter is to examine several Ramlila cycles in the Banaras area from a variety of perspectives—historical, descriptive, and religious—with a focus on the role of the Manas text in the productions and on their relationship to the other forms of epic performance already introduced.

The centrality of lila in Vaishnava theology has been noted by many scholars.[5] According to a popular formula I heard more than once in


Katha performances, "the Lord has four fundamental aspects [vigrah ]: name, form, acts, and abode [nam , rup , lila , and dham ]—catch hold of any one of these and you'll be saved!" Each of the four elements in the formula points to an aspect of Vaishnava devotional practice: the repetition of the Lord's name (jap ); the ceremonial worship of his image (puja , seva ); and pilgrimage (yatra ) to the holy places associated with his earthly activities. But what does it mean to "catch hold of" his lila —his legendary adventures? One method is to hear them artfully recounted in recitation and Katha programs. But another method, and the one especially suggested by the term lila , is to witness them through some form of dramatic "representation." This understanding needs to be qualified, because Vaishnavas consider the Lord's acts to partake of his inherent nature and hence to be boundless and eternal. They do not have to be "re-presented" because they always exist, and the devotional activities through which they can be glimpsed are themselves aspects of the lila , in which devotees are privileged to share. In the broadest sense, lila may be said to be a way of life for worshipers of Ram and Krishna.

Vaishnava theologians distinguish between two kinds of lila: nitya (continuous or eternal) and naimittik (occasional).[6] The former refers to the Lord's cosmic activity (of which the universe is a by-product and reflection) and also to the daily ritual cycle of eight time periods (astakalin[*]lila ), which follows the scenario of a divine courtly routine. "Occasional" lila refers to the specific adventures of one of the Lord's incarnations and also their celebration and recreation by devotees. In such observances, the calendar unit shifts from the day to the year, with its larger cycle of festivals commemorating specific events in the cultic myth. Since most of these events are associated with places dear to the Lord, the cycle of the year becomes, for sadhus and other mobile devotees, a series of pilgrimages that reenact the Lord's own movements and bring worshipers to sites at which they reexperience his salvific deeds. Thus, for Ram Navami the goal of pilgrimage is Ayodhya, where devotees gather for nine days before the divine birth to sing songs of congratulation (badhai ) and where, at noon on the ninth day, a cacophony of bells, conches, and drums announces the blessed event. For Vivah Panchami (Ram and Sita's wedding anniversary), the preferred site is Mithila (Janakpur) in Nepal, where arriving pilgrims identify themselves as members of Ram's barat , or wedding party, and trade humorous insults with the people of the bride's hometown.[7] For really ambitious devo-


tees, the annual lila cycle may be demanding indeed. Snehlata, a famous sadhu of Ayodhya, is said to have recommended participation in the following site-specific festivals:


Vivah Panchami (November/December)


Parikrama (February/March)


Holi (February/March)


Ram Navami (March/April)


Jhulan (July/August)


Akshay Navami (November/December)


Ramlila (September/October)


Divali (October/November)[8]

All such Ramlilas involve elements of role playing and enactment, in some cases of a fairly abbreviated or symbolic sort and in others of a more elaborate variety. On the marriage day in Ayodhya, for example, wedding processions mounted by major temples wind through the city for hours. They consist of lampbearers, drummers and shehnai players, "English-style" marching bands (all requisites of a modern North Indian wedding), and of course the bridegrooms—Ram and his three brothers—astride horses or riding in ornate carriages. The grooms are usually svarups —young Brahman boys impersonating deities—but a few processions feature temple images borne on palanquins. After receiving the homage of devotees before whose homes and shops they briefly halt, the processions return to their sponsoring establishments, where a marriage ceremony is performed. The crowds of devotees attending these rites are not merely spectators; they are encouraged to take the roles of members of the wedding party. "Aren't there any Mithila ladies here?" a portly sadhu asked at one of the ceremonies I attended, casting a twinkling eye over the crowd. "How can we have a wedding without galiyam[*] ?" (scurrilous songs directed by the women of the bride's family against the groom and his relations). "We're here, to be sure!" a jovial-looking matron replied and launched into a song that evoked broad smiles all around. Such participation reflects a characteristic Vaishnava concern with entering into the fabric of mythic narrative.

Although lilas celebrating the deeds of Ram occur throughout the year, the term Ramlila commonly refers to a period within the yearly


cycle during which Ram's story is retold sequentially and in detail. To the majority of North Indians, it means a span of from nine to thirty days, culminating in the bright half of the month of Ashvin (October/ November), with the death of Ravan nearly everywhere staged on Vijaydashami—the "victorious tenth" of that fortnight. Alternatively but less commonly, the term refers to similar dramas staged during the nine nights of the bright half of Chaitra (March/April) leading up to Ram's birthday.

There still has not been, to my knowledge, a detailed study of the geographical extent of the Ramlila tradition, but it is clear that it extends beyond Uttar Pradesh and even beyond the Hindi-speaking region, although it is less predictably to be found, or more narrowly patronized, in fringe areas.[9] In the Garhwal hills, for example, Ramlila appears to have been introduced only in recent decades, largely by merchant groups that brought it from the plains, but the tradition has begun to be taken up by upper-caste Pahari Hindus.[10]Ramlila is likewise staged by many Hindus in Haryana, in some towns and villages in Rajasthan,[11] and by transplanted communities of Hindi-speakers in the cities of Bombay and Calcutta. In all these areas, however, it lacks the status of an almost universally patronized, communitywide event such as it has throughout much of the Hindi-speaking belt. In short, the popularity and patronage of the Ramlila appears to be roughly coextensive with that of the Manas .

In its heartland, the popularity of Ramlila and the scale on which its productions are undertaken seem hardly to have been diminished by the competition of newer forms of entertainment. Modern urban culture, far from turning its back on the pageant, has added its own embellishments, as is clear from this excerpt from a 1980 article in a New Delhi magazine.

Come October and big business groups host cocktail parties for press reporters and other close friends to announce their friendly competition—they are going to have a higher, gaudier Ravan, with mechanical movement in his


jaws, arms, and ears, yet. The effigies of the demons cross the hundred foot barrier and keep on soaring. . . . One Ramlila is sponsored by a cloth mill, and obviously cash is no problem. Much of it is spent on mechanical stage properties for the 10-day play, the highlight being a "flying" Hanuman. Ensconced in a canvas, steel and leather harness, the monkey glides down a steel rope-way as he brings an entire mountain so that Ram can find the herb which is needed to revive Lakshman. . . . Another Ramlila, the costliest of them all, is financed by the same tradesmen who are giving money to the crusade to pressure the government to do away with sales tax and other bindings cutting into their profits and sales. Costumes of Sita are gold-braided, and the crowns of the kings are gilded. Top political leaders vie with each other for the honour of garlanding the human gods, as the organisers scramble for keepsake photographs with the VIPs.[12]

Apart from these examples, India's capital city has a famous old Ramlila , said to have been started two centuries ago by Hindu soldiers in the Mughal army, who staged it on the banks of the Yamuna; about fifty years ago its major scenes shifted to the huge field that separates the old and new cities and is known throughout the year as Ramlila Maidan. Its climactic Ravan[*]vadh (slaying of Ravan) incorporates giant puppet effigies, and like the comparable scene in other large urban productions, attracts a crowd of several hundred thousand persons.

Yet despite the impressive attendance at such pageants, the real significance of Ramlila for the average Delhi citizen is better suggested by the numerous neighborhood productions staged concurrently, though with far less publicity and fewer elaborate props. The same magazine article speaks (doubtless with some exaggeration), of

the thousand-odd streetside versions that flower during the ten days along lanes and bylanes of the Capital and its suburbs, converting open plots, pavements, blocked roads and fallow fields into small islands of colour, gaiety, and a touching piety not seen in the commercial fervour of rich religionists. Organised by small ethnic groups—the Paharis at one corner, the Jats in another, Biharis, Punjabis, and a host of others in their own localities—each little Ramlila is obviously a labour of love.[13]

That the annual Ramlila festivals provide color and gaiety is readily apparent to even the most casual observer. But to understand the religious dimension of these performances—the "touching piety" that motivates them—we must delve deeper into their history and structure. To this end, we turn our attention to the Banaras region, the present heartland and presumed birthplace of the tradition.


The "Sport" of Kings: Evolution of the Banaras Ramlila

Solid evidence concerning the early origins of Ramlila is meager and there is little to add to the researches of Hein on the subject.[14] While noting that similar performances based on other Ramayan texts appear to have existed in Orissa at the beginning of the sixteenth century, Hein concludes that the dramas in their present form originated in the Banaras area either during or shortly after Tulsidas's lifetime and that their performance was from the beginning linked with the Manas text. He postulates an ancestor for both Ram and Krishna lila performances in an ancient, royally patronized tradition of Vaishnava dance-drama, which may have flourished in the Mathura region in the early centuries of the Christian era. Hein suggests that this Ur-tradition used trained adult musicians, mimes, and singers to enact Vaishnava legends and that its techniques are still reflected in the gestural and staging conventions of such diverse performance traditions as the kathakali of Kerala, the yaksagana[*] of Karnataka, and the nearly extinct kathak performances of the Hindi-speaking regions. He concedes, however, that this hypothetical ancestral tradition bore little resemblance to the modern form of lila dramas, apart from the fact that both served to mediate scripture. Moreover, the textual record shows a gap of roughly a millennium between the last mention of the "classical" ancestor and the earliest citation of its presumed "folk" descendant.

Although Hein offers appreciative accounts of contemporary Ram and Krishna lilas , his historical chapters risk conveying the impression that these are but derivative and corrupted vestiges of a vanished "great tradition" of Vaishnava dance-drama. Because centuries of Muslim rule had destroyed the bases of patronage and training, Hein speculates, simplified pantomime by child actors replaced an elaborate code of gestures that could only have been mastered by adults; because audiences and patrons no longer understood Sanskrit, vernacular mediations had to be provided for the ancient stories. Hein recognizes a certain genius in the folk dramas, but it is a genius of adaptation to admittedly adverse conditions; "simplification," he observes, "was the price of survival."[15] Yet the "revival" of Vaishnava performance genres beginning in the sixteenth century occurred in a milieu that, despite intervening centuries of Muslim rule, was perhaps not so unlike that of Hein's postulated


ancient tradition. With the gradual. decline of centralized Muslim authority, Hindu performance traditions again came to enjoy royal and aristocratic patronage, and they developed new forms and conventions of their own. Child actors were chosen to portray the central characters not because trained adults were unavailable but because they were unacceptable to producers; the vision of the enactment had changed—a change discussed in greater detail later. The shift from a temple or palace setting was consonant with the implicit philosophy of the bhakti movement, which sought to make religious teachings accessible to the masses; it also served the organizers' political and social aims. The forms of religious expression characteristic of bhaktikirtan , bhajan, Katha , and lila —may reflect the Muslim political presence and the decline of large-scale temple cults, but they also display positive strengths of their own. The Ramlila is outdoor and peripatetic not because latter-day patrons could not afford to construct theaters but because the pageant came to express notions of cosmography and pilgrimage that aim at reclaiming and transforming the mundane world.

The legends that credit Tulsidas with the founding of the Ramlila in Banaras are associated with the claims of specific productions to being the city's original or adilila . Three productions presently claim this status: Tulsi Ghat, Chitrakut, and Lat Bhairav Ramlilas . Although the organizing committee of the Tulsi Ghat production, which today is sponsored by the Sankat Mochan Temple, dates back only to 1933, it claims to continue a tradition begun by the poet himself. An authority cited for this claim is the Gautamcandrika , the biography of Tulsidas attributed to Krishnadatt Mishra. A passage in this text describes Tulsi's activities during a certain bright fortnight of Ashvin:

Worshiping the nine Durgas on the ninth,
bowing his head to the sami tree on Vijaydashami,[16] he listened to the six lovely books
of the holy Ramayana[*] of Valmiki.
He fasted on the eleventh,
broke fast on the twelfth,
and accepted Hari's prasad on the thirteenth.
On the fourteenth, while gazing at the Ganga,
he heard the account of Ram's consecration. . . .
Having worshiped Valmiki, Hanuman, and the priest,
he produced the lila of Ram's consecration.
The full moon of Sharad adorned the umbrella.


Ram was resplendent on a throne of earth.
On his left side, Queen Sita,
on his right, Lakshman, whisk in hand.
The noble Bharat became crown prince,
Shatrughna attended to all duties.
The commander in chief was Hanuman,
bestower of auspiciousness.
The queens performed arti . . . .
Ram was king and Sita, queen.
Shouts of "Victory!" resounded through the world.
On Assi Ghat, beside the river of the gods.[17]

Aside from the question of its authenticity, the Gautamcandrika poses many textual problems. Its scholarly discoverer, Vishvanath Prasad Mishra, claimed to have copied it hastily from another man's rough notes, and it has been suggested that passages may have gotten out of sequence; moreover, many lines are simply obscure. At least one author has understood the whole coronation lila as a vision seen by Tulsi in his mind's eye as he sat contemplating the Ganga and listening to the recitation of Valmiki's epic.[18] However, the conventional interpretation, reflected in the above translation, regards the passage as an account of Tulsi's initiating a custom of enacting Ram's consecration at Assi Ghat on the full moon following Vijaydashami. Later, it is claimed, this simple drama was reorganized into a multiday affair using the text of the newly completed Manas . It is also claimed that the poet selected various sites in the area to stage specific scenes and gave them the lila names by which they continue to be known—for example, the neighborhoods of Panchvati and Lanka.

The Gautamcandrika's description suggests less a drama than a tableau: a living icon of Ram enthroned with Sita at his side, Lakshman and the other brothers in attendance, and Hanuman standing in adoration while the queens wave the arti tray and sing a hymn of praise. Such tableaux vivants still form an important element in Ramlila productions, as well as the major element in jhanki (glimpse or tableau), a related performance tradition.[19] Hein found no textual evidence earlier than the late nineteenth century for the form of jhanki he witnessed in Mathura, but the relationship of this genre to lila dramas needs further study. Awasthi is of the opinion that tableaux accompanied by text recitation and ceremonial worship represented the original form of


Figure 21.
A living tableau (jhanki) of Ram and Sita, at Mani Parvat,
Ayodhya, during the Jhula Festival, August 1987

Ramlila , which is still reflected in primarily pantomime-based (abhinay parak ) productions—as distinguished from the dialogue-based (samvadparak ) productions she assumes represent a later stage of development.[20] Another scholar of Banarsi Ramlila , Bhanushankar Mehta, suggests that the jhanki tradition itself is an outgrowth of Vaishnava Temple worship, wherein the divine images are displayed with ever-changing adornments of costumes and settings.[21]

The founding of both the Chitrakut and Lat Bhairav Ramlilas is attributed to a Ram devotee known as Megha Bhagat or Narayandas. Some legends claim he was an older contemporary of Tulsi and had been staging a Ramayan play for some time using the text of Valmiki, when Tulsi approached him and suggested using the Manas instead.[22] Together they reorganized the drama into its present twenty-one-day form, staged at various sites in the northern part of the city. But the more usual version has it that Megha was a disciple of Tulsi and began the produc-


tion shortly after his master's death in 1623.[23] The Chitrakut organizers claim that Ram appeared to Megha in the form of a small boy and presented him with a tiny bow and arrow; these are still preserved in a temple known as Atmavireshvar and are publicly displayed once a year. Another important element in the legend is that Megha was promised physical sight (darsan ) of the Lord at the climax of the lila and collapsed and died during the scene of the reunion of the brothers—the Bharat Milap—which is still regarded as the most powerful performance in this cycle.

Although popular tradition offers no conclusive proof for the antiquity of a given lila , there are several reasons to assume that the Chitrakut production is indeed of greater age than most others in the city. In Awasthi's terms, it is pantomime-based and lacks the dialogues now standard in most other productions, which appear to represent a nineteenth-century innovation. The Chitrakut version's failure to incorporate them may indicate that it follows an older tradition in which the actors did not speak or even, for the most part, act but simply made themselves available for darsan to assembled devotees who listened to recitation of the Manas . It is noteworthy that the titles of several episodes in this production's printed schedule include the word jhanki .[24] The Ramayanis (in this context, "Manas -reciters") chant the entire epic, occasionally supplementing it with verses and songs from other works by Tulsidas; while they recite, the actors perform an abbreviated and sporadic pantomime, acting out some scenes but omitting others.

Costuming and makeup in this production also follow a distinctive set of conventions. The faces of the boy actors are not adorned, as they are in most productions, with sequins or other elaborate makeup, but are merely colored with a yellowish clay known as "Ram's dust" (Ramraj ), said to come from the pilgrimage site of Chitrakut and used to make the forehead mark of many Ramanandi sadhus. The boys' headgear is also of a peculiar design; for scenes of forest exile, Ram and Lakshman wear crowns decorated with parrot feathers and other natural ornaments, and their garlands are of tulsi leaves. A devotee explained these conventions to me as follows: "Megha Bhagat was a poor man; he could not afford costly adornment. He just took small boys into


the forest and used whatever he found there: clay, feathers, leaves. That's why we still use this kind of makeup."[25]

Another notable point about the Chitrakut Ramlila is its great status in the city, even though, with the exception of the Bharat Milap, most of its performances attract little public participation. It is especially significant that the maharaja of Banaras, who is preoccupied with his own concurrently running dramatic cycle at Ramnagar, absents himself on one evening each year in order to attend the Chitrakut Bharat Milap: his presence suggests that this event predates the beginning of the royally patronized pageant and that, already in the early nineteenth century, its status was such that the maharaja's presence was necessary.

The development of a royally sponsored Ramlila in the Banaras area was the result of many factors, not least of which was the city's association with Tulsidas and his epic and the presence of already-established productions that could serve as models. In discussing the development of Katha , I outlined some of the sociopolitical factors that encouraged eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Hindu rulers to patronize the Manas exegetical tradition. The Banaras kings' special cultivation of the Ramlila must likewise be viewed against the background of their dynasty's bid for power in the region. In 1740 when Balvant Singh, the son of an ambitious local tax farmer, assumed the title "raja of Banaras," he did so as a client of the nawab of Avadh (Oudh), the paramount political power in the region, who in turn still displayed a nominal allegiance to the weak Mughal regime at Delhi. As Bernard Cohn has pointed out, the Banaras "ruler" was more correctly a middleman in a complex system in which authority was parceled out at many levels and the distribution of power was constantly being renegotiated:

The Raja's obligations to the Nawabs were the regular payment of revenue and provision of troops when requested. The Raja of Banaras at every opportunity tried to avoid fulfillment of these obligations; and on several occasions the Nawab sent troops to try to bring his subordinate to terms, if not to capture and kill him. On these occasions, Balvant Singh would retreat with his treasure and army to the jungles of Mirzapur. After a time the Nawab, distracted by similar behavior in other parts of his state or by his intervention in imperial politics, would compromise with Balvant Singh and withdraw, at which time Balvant Singh would resume his control. . . . A balancing of relative weakness appears to have been central to the functioning of the system. The Nawab could not afford the complete chaos which would result from the crushing of the Raja.[26]


The nawab depended on the raja because no one else was able to guarantee collection of revenue in the region (even if relatively little of it actually reached the nawab's treasury), and the raja was in a similar relationship of dependency on and intermittent conflict with his subordinates, numerous petty rajas and landlords who likewise controlled revenue and troops and were the primary intermediaries between the raja and the peasants.

That the nawab of Avadh was Muslim and the raja of Banaras Hindu may at times have given an ideological edge to Balvant Singh's ambitions, although it should be noted that some of the raja's most intractable enemies were local Hindu chieftains who disputed his authority, and that the Shi'a nawabs were highly catholic in religious matters.[27] The issue was a matter less of communal identity than of royal legitimation, for this was what the nawab provided to the Banaras rulers—a legitimation that ultimately derived from the premise of Mughal dominion. The Monas Rajputs of Bhadohi, for example, who were staunch rivals of Balvant Singh, held their land under an imperial decree from Shahjahan. Even after defeating them the raja could not finally annex their territory until he had received permission from the nawab, the nominal Mughal representative in the region. The raja's dependency was revealed again on Balvant Singh's death, when the nawab initially refused to recognize his successor, Chet Singh (ruled 1770-81); only on the intervention of Warren Hastings and the provision of lavish gifts from the aspiring prince did the Avadh ruler consent to "tie the turban" on Chet Singh, symbolizing his recognition of the latter's claim. As Cohn has noted, "Power the Raja had; but he needed authority as well. Even though the Rajas' goal in relation to the Nawabs was a consistent one of independence, they could not afford to ignore the ground rules and had to continue to seek the sanction, even if it was ex post facto, of their super-ordinates, the Nawabs."[28]

The splendor of Indo-Muslim culture had powerfully influenced the values and tastes of the Hindu elite of North India, but by the middle of the eighteenth century the Mughal imperial mystique must have been increasingly bankrupt. In 1739, the year before Balvant Singh assumed his title, Delhi was devastatingly looted by a Persian adventurer who carried off the emerald-encrusted throne of Shahjahan. Urdu poets like


Mir, who fled east to Avadh, lamented the downfall of the capital, its deserted streets and ruined bazaars.[29] Within the century the reigning motif of Indo-Islamic culture would become one of decline and lamentation over lost glory—a theme of little appeal to ambitious kings in search of positive and victorious symbols.[30] I suggest that the Banaras rulers saw a symbolic alternative to the Mughal ethos in the theme of Ramraj as articulated by Tulsidas. This vision of an ancient, universal Hindu empire supplied the aura of legitimacy and authority that the rulers had initially been obliged to seek from the nawabs; moreover, the epic's emphasis on social and political hierarchy and on the properly deferential behavior of subjects and subordinates could serve as a chastening example to the raja's rebellious underlings.

A further motive for the Banaras kings' patronage of the Ram tradition may have been their desire to maintain amicable relations with the powerful Ramanandi order of sadhus. Several recent studies have pointed to the economic and military strength of mendicant orders during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and to the fact that, ironically, Ramanandi "detached ones" (vairagis ) not only controlled considerable wealth but also served as mercenaries in royal armies. A mobile population that was difficult to control, sadhus often traveled in armed bands and seem to have virtually controlled the trade in certain commodities.[31] The Banaras kingdom was roughly equidistant from three important Ramanandi centers: Chitrakut in the southwest, Ja-nakpur in the northeast, and Ayodhya in the northwest—the latter began to flourish again as a pilgrimage center after it ceased to be the capital of Avadh in 1765. The Banaras rulers used the conspicuous patronage of Ramanandis—especially at the time of Ramlila , when thousands of sadhus were invited to set up camp in the royal city and were fed at the raja's expense—not only to guarantee the sadhus' loyalty but also to turn their own upstart capital, on the "impure" eastern bank of the Ganga, into a major center of pilgrimage.

These developments crystallized during the reign of Balvant Singh's


grandson, Udit Narayan Singh (1796-1835). At least four legends have been offered to explain this king's decision to become a Ramlila patron.

1. The maharaja, saddened because he had no offspring, was advised by a sadhu to sponsor a Ramlila and prepare a great feast for the holy men who would attend it. By serving them and drinking their caranamrt[*] (water in which their feet had been washed), his wishes would be fulfilled.[32] 2. The maharaja used to attend the Bharat Milap of the Chitrakut Ramlila , but one year he was delayed by bad weather. When he reached the site, he was disappointed to find that the Milap had already taken place. He returned home resolved to create his own lila by expanding the production in neighboring Chota Mirzapur.[33] 3. The maharaja always used to attend the Ramlila established by Tulsidas at Assi Ghat. One year the crown prince fell ill and doctors gave up hope of his recovery. His father continued to cross the Ganga to attend lila as usual. One day he prayed to Ram for the prince's recovery; at once the svarup removed his garland and told the king to put it on the prince. The latter's miraculous recovery so impressed the king with the power of lila that he resolved to commence his own production by restructuring that of Chota Mirzapur.[34] 4. Every year on Vijaydashami, Udit Narayan used to carry out the Kshatriya custom of worshiping the royal weapons, mounts, and emblems. Then he would ride out to the border of Ramnagar to have the darsan of Ram at the Chota Mirzapur lila . One year he was delayed and found the lila finished. When he returned home disappointed, the maharani proposed that the court stage its own production the following year and offered her personal funds to cover its expense. Three years later, she instituted the custom of inviting the boy actors to the fort for a feast on the final day.[35]

Two of the above legends have a common feature: the king's arriving late at an existing production, finding that it has been held without him, and resolving to avoid such disappointment in the future. In fact, the


present-day organizers of the Chitrakut Bharat Milap make a great point of the punctiliousness with which this lila is scheduled: the embrace of the brothers must occur at an astrologically determined moment; even though the maharaja is an honored guest, it is possible that, were he unduly delayed, the pageant would proceed without him. At Ramnagar, however, the presence of the maharaja is essential and no performance can begin until he has taken his place on the scene. The great majority of Ramlilas are likewise pancayati , or publicly produced and supported by a general collection. The stories seek to explain (and perhaps also to justify) the striking fact that at Ramnagar a king chose to make a lila distinctively his own—to associate it in a special way with his family and status.

A second point of interest is that nearly all the accounts mention the Chota Mirzapur lila as the production taken over by the king, and one adds the detail of the Vijaydashami excursion. The elaborate puja of royal weapons, horses, and elephants performed on that day, usually in connection with the worship of the goddess Durga, is an ancient and widespread Kshatriya observance, which is not everywhere explicitly linked with the Ramayan narrative. This ceremony is crowned by a martial excursion—a sallying forth to cross the borders of the kingdom that, like the movements of the sacrificial horse in the ancient asvamedha ritual, amounts to an assertion of overlordship and a challenge to neighboring kings. In the traditional Hindu conception of monarchy, the king's authority radiates out from his person and when he enters a new region, its people come under his protection. Some commentators offer a Vaishnava gloss: the king rides out with his army to offer assistance to Ram in his final battle against Ravan. But in the political climate of the early nineteenth century, Udit Narayan's gesture may have represented less an act of assistance to Ram than an effort to be like him—a local restatement of world conquest. It was also consonant with the ideological and strategic concerns of a dynasty that chose to build its fortress-palace on the eastern bank of the Ganga, which sacred geography regarded as impure, and which, according to Awasthi, had a predominantly Muslim population—a "wilderness" beyond the City of Light. This vision reappeared in the naming of the royal capital: Ramnagar—a "City of Ram" to advertise to the whole region the prestige and piety of a parvenu dynasty of Bhumihar tax farmers.

One of the most striking features of Ramlila plays is their outdoor and peripatetic method of staging: as the story shifts from one location to another, actors and audience physically move. This pattern may have


first developed in connection with the Krishna plays of the Mathura area, especially the annual van yatra , a multiday pilgrimage through the forests and fields of Braj to sites associated with Krishna's exploits, where enactments of the appropriate legends were presented. The development of this tradition was an outgrowth of the work of the Chaitanyaite goswamis of the sixteenth century, who "rediscovered" in their meditative wanderings countless "lost" sites associated with Krishna.[36] Such a reclamation of a religious landscape had political implications. The goswamis were sent forth from eastern India, from a sect based in the still-independent Hindu kingdom of Orissa, to Mathura, a mere thirty miles from the Mughal imperial capital at Agra. The holy places of the region needed rediscovery, it is said, because they had become hidden during centuries of mlecch (barbarian) rule. Somewhat later, the holy city of Ram was resurrected in much the same way; indeed, the imaginative recovery of Ayodhya—by pious devotees and hucksters alike—continues today, with each newly built temple claiming to mark the site of some special place or event in Ram's life.

Udit Narayan's reclamation efforts were closer to home. Utilizing the existing tradition of peripatetic Ramlila plays and assisted by his spiritual advisers, he began a physical overhaul of his capital city: "After taking charge of the Ramlila held on the border of Ramnagar, he established a place very close to the royal fort as Ram's birthplace, Ayodhya, and started the lila from the center of town. Accordingly, after very careful consideration Ayodhya, Janakpur, Girija Temple, Chitrakut, Panchvati, Pampasar, Lanka and so forth were constructed at appropriate sites, and the Ramlila was in all ways made permanent."[37] The environments built by the king were spread over an area of some fifteen square miles and included a number of impressive permanent structures. Each location was given a name derived from the epic's geography, by which it became known throughout the year. "Ayodhya," built in the shadow of the fort, was a walled enclosure of red sandstone with a high facade at one end to represent King Dashrath's palace, and space for about seven thousand spectators. "Janakpur," two kilometers away, was an equally large compound with several lofty sandstone plinths; the vast field of "Lanka," with its earthen ziggurat representing Ravan's fortress, was set far to the southeast on the border of the raja's territory.[38] The template of the Ramayan was laid over the whole country-


side in between, radiating out from the king's seat of authority and transforming every field, forest, and tank into a permanent setting for mythic theater. Two processional avenues were constructed, flanked by a uniformly built bazaar; they resemble nothing else in the helter-skelter urban layout of Banaras and may show the influence of Jai Singh's Jaipur, but they lend themselves well to the grand processions of the lila and its climactic Bharat Milap, which occurs at their intersection in the city's main square. Ramnagar tradition holds that the whole project was overseen by venerable Ramayanis, who were guided by inner vision and their profound knowledge of the Manas to sensitively choose the most appropriate sites for each lila —sites that resonated in some mysterious way with the original Ramayan locations so that, as in Braj, their very soil was felt to participate in the myth.

As the pageant expanded and new environments were created, existing sites were also incorporated into the emerging design. In the northeast, near the intersection of the Chunar and the Grand Trunk roads, a complex consisting of a large Devi temple flanked by a vast tank and an expansive walled garden, begun during the troubled reign of Chet Singh, was brought to completion by Udit Narayan and his successor and put to use in the plays.[39] The huge temple, with its hundred-foot spire, became known as Sumeru, after the mythical world mountain atop which Brahmalok, the world of Brahma, is situated. It was used for one of the opening scenes, in which the gods go to Brahma to plead for relief from Ravan's depredations. The vast tank became the "Milky Ocean" (ksir[*]sagar ) on which Vishnu rests, recumbent on the serpent of infinity. The walled enclosure became Rambag, "Ram's garden," the site of the final events in the narrative, when the hero repairs there to give instruction to his subjects.

The scale and design of these sites testify to the ideological concerns of the fledgling dynasty: the temple is one of the largest in the region and its iconography shows a conscious blend of Vaishnava and Shaiva/ Shakta elements, displaying the dual loyalty of the Banaras kings. The mammoth tank with its four sandstone ghats rising in endless symmetrical tiers may have been intended to represent Manas Lake itself, nestled at the foot of the world mountain, Sumeru/Kailash. Here the lila begins: the Lord who is to take birth later in Ayodhya appears floating on the waters, as the world itself emerges at the beginning of a cosmic cycle. The Ramlila , like the Manas epic, emerges from the waters and spreads forth into our world.


As the lila expanded in space to fill the whole of the maharaja's little kingdom, so it also extended in time. According to Awasthi's sources, the old lila of Chota Mirzapur lasted for ten to twelve days (as most Ramlilas still do), but under royal patronage it grew to fill an entire calendar month, a complete unit of time by Hindu reckoning. Another, related expansion was in what might be termed textual fidelity; this was to be not merely a staging of the Ram story as recounted in the Manas but a ritual recitation (parayan[*] ) of the complete epic. Thus, even portions of the text that did not lend themselves to dramatic enactment—such as the long "introduction" and "epilogue"—were to be recited, extending the performance by a further ten days. Moreover, since ritual recitation has an implicit objective (in this case, the welfare of the kingdom) and involves an element of risk, the performance had to be bracketed with protective rituals: an elaborate preliminary puja of Ganesh, the Goddess, the text and its reciters, and the crowns, masks, and costumes of the actors; and a final ceremony performed within a week of the conclusion of the play, in which a Brahman completes an additional twenty-four-hour recital in a small Hanuman temple at the southern window of the fort "to make up for any omission or other error."[40]

Another notable innovation was the final feast of the kot[*]vidai (farewell to the fort), a ceremony interestingly analyzed by Schechner, who notes that it highlights the deities' symbiotic relationship with the royal family: "the Maharaja exists in the field of energy created by Ram, and Ram exists as arranged for by the Maharaja."[41] Significantly, modern Ramnagar promoters stress that their lila is a mahayajna , or "great sacrifice," the term used for Vedic royal rituals and present-day public recitations of the Manas —all ceremonies that promote intimacy and exhange between patrons and deities.

Udit Narayan and Ishvariprasad were the patrons and producers of this lila , but they were not its sole directors; the evolving drama represented a collaboration with some of the leading Manas scholars of the period. The "wooden-tongued" Kashthajihva Swami took a special interest in the lila and composed songs used in the nonrecitation portions of the text.[42] Another lila enthusiast was Raghuraj Singh (1833-79),


crown prince and later maharaja of Rewa, who was a devotee of the youthful Ram and took special delight in the scenes of Ram and Sita's "romance." At Ishvariprasad's request, he composed an epic poem in twenty-three cantos, entitled Ramsvayamvar[*] , from which several songs likewise found their way into the script.[43]

The most significant collaborator in lila development, however, was allegedly Harishchandra of Banaras, the poet and author who came to be known as the "father of modern Hindi literature." An enthusiastic lila goer,[44] Harishchandra was entrusted by Ishvariprasad with the task of modernizing the dialogues and is said to have recast their original Bhojpuri into a modified Khari Boli, the dialect of Delhi that he had adopted for prose writing. His revisions also reveal the inspiration of other texts; thus, in the "Bow Sacrifice" scene, he drew on Keshavdas's Ramcandrika to create a droll dialogue between two courtiers describing the arrival of the kings who will contend for Sita's hand—a comic and theatrically effective episode that has no counterpart in the Manas . According to Awasthi, the overall effect of Harishchandra's revisions was not merely to modernize the lila , setting its prose script in a dialect that was becoming popular in his time, but also to make it more theatrical.[45] Ishvariprasad was pleased with the poet's revisions and the Ramnagar lila became fixed in this form. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, the combination of royal patronage, Ramanandi participation, Banaras location, and innovative staging contributed to the growing reputation of this production and made it both a goal of annual pilgrimage and a model for many smaller-scale lila cycles.

Three Contemporary Productions

The importance of Ramlila in Banarsi life has not been adequately conveyed in scholarly writings on the city. Hein mistakenly reported that the tradition was in decline, that the entire Manas was no longer performed at Ramnagar, and that the city as a whole mounted only three productions.[46] More recently, Eck, in her description of the city's festival cycle, mentioned only two productions and gave the impression that


participation in Ramlila was restricted to the Kshatriya community.[47] In fact, Ramlila is a flourishing and all-but-ubiquitous tradition in Banaras, enjoys the broadest patronage, and is represented by productions that are looked on as exemplary throughout North India. For although. other cities also boast old and famous productions, it is widely felt that the inhabitants of Banaras stage Ramlila with special flair and enthusiasm (dhum-dham ), and Banarsi productions are often highlighted in popular magazines at Ramlila time. The narrator of Premchand's short story "Ramlila," which concerns a small town production, observes, "The Banaras lila is world famous; they say people come from far and wide to see it."[48]

Although the Ramlila is particularly associated with the first ten days of the bright fortnight of Ashvin, not all Banaras productions fall within this period, and some do not occur during the month of Ashvin at all. The Ramnagar production begins its epic recitation on the third or fourth night of the bright half of Bhadon and has its final ceremony in the dark fortnight of Karttik, more than forty days later. Most other productions, which typically range from ten to thirty days, fall within this period, but a few do not. The lila on Panchganga Ghat, for example, does not even begin until after the Divali festival, a full fortnight after the conclusion of the Ramnagar pageant, and runs for another few weeks. Thus a dedicated lila -goer not only has a choice of numerous productions during the height of the season but can, in theory, attend a nightly performance of one or another cycle for close to three months. In 1982, on the night after the conclusion of the Ramnagar cycle, I chanced on a decorated stage in the middle of an intersection near my house. Surrounding streets were festooned with lights and lined with snack and souvenir vendors, and loudspeakers were blaring cinema music and advertisements. I soon learned that the Bharat Milap of the Khojwan Ramlila cycle, which runs on a different schedule from that of Ramnagar, was to occur later that night. When I returned to witness it I was promptly accosted by a betel seller who had been a regular at the Ramnagar plays; exclaiming delightedly, "Good! You've come too!" he added, "See brother, here in Kashi the Lord's lila goes on and on!"

Thus, it is more correct to speak of a Ramlila "season" than of a mere festival—a season that begins during the rainy month of Bhadon, runs through the transition month of Ashvin, and continues well into the


cool, autumnal month of Karttik. During this season, wooden platforms sprout like mushrooms at major crossroads and on many ghats. To a daytime visitor, these dilapidated structures hardly seem to warrant notice, but the same visitor returning at the proper hour of the night would see them transformed by rich draperies and backdrops into palaces and battlefields to be trodden by the feet of tiny gods in gilded and spangled costumes. In all, according to a recent tally, the city mounts some fifty-six annual productions, the majority of which are staged by the citizens of various neighborhoods, each of which has a local Ramlila committee. The financial arrangements are essentially as described by Hein for the Braj productions: a month or two before performances begin, the committee conducts a general collection (canda ) throughout the neighborhood, recording the amount given by each donor. Prosperous merchants may contribute substantial sums each year but, as Hein noted, a good portion of the typical pageant's budget comes from countless small donations, which make even some of the poorest citizens Ramlila patrons.[49]

The Ramlila is a small industry and supports a variety of peripheral enterprises: artisans who build effigies and create fireworks; tent houses that lend platforms, awnings, and lights; and shops that provide costumes, masks, and props. Several such establishments are located in the old brass bazaar in Thatheri Gali, and although these stores also outfit temple images and nautanki[*] troupes (another genre of folk theater), the heavy concentration of Hanuman, Ravan, and Shurpankha masks hanging from their rafters clearly advertises one of their main lines. Then there are the hawkers of lila -related toys and treats: toy bows and arrows, clay figurines of Hanuman, and small papier-mâché masks of the same design as those worn by players.

One sign of the popularity of Ramlila , and an indication that its productions attract audiences from outside their immediate localities, is the inclusion of daily schedules throughout the season in the city's Hindi newspapers. The most comprehensive listing appears on the "Banaras and Vicinity" page of Aj , the city's largest-circulation daily. The evening's program at Ramnagar is always given first, followed by that of Chitrakut—a sign of the high prestige of these two productions. Eight days before Dashahra in 1982, for example, the listings began as follows:


Figure 22.
Ramlila masks and props at the headquarters of the Khojwan
Ramlila Committee (photo courtesy of William Donner)

Kashi's Ramlila
Tuesday, 11 October

Ramnagar: Interlude on Mount Subel
Chitrakut: Fight with Jayant
Mauniji: Severing of the Nose
Daranagar: Royal Consecration
Aurangabad: Shabari's Good Fortune
Gayghat: Slaying of Khar and Dushan
Nadesar: Burning of Lanka
Ardali Bazar: Killing of Bali
Khojwan: Meeting with Nishadh
Khajwi: Meeting with Hanuman
Lahtara: Sumant's Arrival
Ashapur: Abduction of Sita
Lallapura: Janak's Arrival[50]


and so on through another forty listings. Besides highlighting the variety of episodes that might be viewed on any given night, such notices help readers keep track of the progress of various pageants, in anticipation of particular events they don't want to miss. Kumar notes that "there is a sort of consensus in every muhalla as to which lilas are of most importance, and which of middling and of low importance, and attendance conforms to this judgment."[51] Many otherwise undistinguished productions have one episode that enjoys citywide fame, such as the "Dhanush Yajna" of Laksa, the "Nakkatayya" of Chaitganj, or the "Dashami" of Chaukaghat. These attract thousands of spectators from all over the city, but each production follows its own schedule (and may even follow a different calendar, since local pandits sometimes disagree on the timing of important lunar dates), and so the newspaper listing, based on the schedules printed by each committee, is a convenient reference.

Chitrakut and the Bharat Milap

The Chitrakut Ramlila Committee is headquartered in a walled garden adjacent to the Bare Ganesh Temple in Lohatiya, the old iron bazaar, and its production is staged there and at six other locations in the northern part of Banaras—the area sometimes referred to as Kasikhand[*] and thought to represent the more ancient part of the city. "Chitrakut" is the name of a pilgrimage place on the Madhya Pradesh border where Ram is supposed to have passed much of his forest exile; it is also the name of a locality that is the site of several performances in this cycle, although it seems probable that, here as elsewhere, the locality's name derives from the play rather than vice versa.[52] As already noted, this production is widely regarded as the city's oldest and (with Ramnagar) most distinguished Ramlila . But whereas Ramnagar is famous for the whole of its thirty-one days, the twenty-one-day Chitrakut cycle enjoys its fame primarily for a single lila : the Bharat Milap ("Reunion with Bharat," reenacting Ram's triumphant return to Ayodhya and meeting with his faithful brother), which occurs on the seventeenth day of the cycle in a locality known as Nati Imli.

Two legends about the Chitrakut pageant are often cited by Banarsis to explain its popularity. The first is the story, already referred to, of its founding by Megha Bhagat and of Ram's promise that he himself would


be physically present on certain days. Some say that he promised to be present on eight days, others claim six, and still others four. All agree, however, concerning the Lord's presence at the Bharat Milap, at which Megha Bhagat is said to have had the supreme vision and surrendered his body.

The second story concerns a nineteenth-century Hanuman player who was mocked by an Englishman—in some versions, by the district collector, who brought a party of "English ladies and gentlemen" to view the native spectacle; in others, by a "Padre MacPherson" who criticized the performance as part of his attack on Hindu customs.[53] It is said that the day's lila depicted Hanuman's mission to Lanka and was held on the bank of the Varuna, the Ganga tributary that marks the city's northern limit. The Englishman, who had some knowledge of the Ramayan, mocked the religious pretensions of the play: "You say these are gods, but really they are only actors. The real Hanuman leapt across the sea; yours couldn't even cross this small river!" Accepting this challenge, the offended actor bowed before the child portraying Ram, who presented him with his ring—just as the real Ram did before dispatching Hanuman to Lanka. Then, fastening on his heavy brass mask, he strode to the edge of the Varuna—whose stream is some eighty feet wide—and attempted the impossible leap. To the astonishment of all, he succeeded, but fell down dead on the other shore. The foreigners' mockery was silenced—some versions claim that the collector officially announced that henceforth this production alone was to be regarded as the "true" Ramlila —and the actor's mask and costume were enshrined in a samadhi at the Chitrakut lila site, where they are still worshiped each year by the current Hanuman, his descendant.[54] This popular story suggests the distinction drawn by devotees between a dramatic performance and a true lila : the former is only a representation, but the latter is a realization. It also suggests the paradoxical relationship—central to Ramlila —of the player to his role. The hero is an ordinary man who is challenged to perform a superhuman feat and does so at the cost of his


life; yet the legend implies that he is able to succeed precisely because he is not, at that moment, an ordinary man. He becomes his role and "crosses over" in more ways than one.

The Chitrakut cycle begins each year on the ninth or tenth of the dark fortnight of Ashvin, some ten days after the start of the Ramnagar plays. As noted earlier, the Brahman boys chosen to be svarups are unusually young; Ram in 1983 was only nine, Lakshman and Sita a year or two younger, and the other brothers younger still. The adult characters—Hanuman, Vibhishan, Ravan, and the rest—are played by the same men year after year, and the roles are passed down in their families.

Bharat Milap

In terms of attendance, the Nati Imli Bharat Milap is probably the single biggest event in Banaras's annual festival cycle. In 1983 the superintendent of police estimated the crowd at 500,000 persons—nearly half the population of the city.[55] This astonishing participation is not a recent phenomenon; the scale of the event in the late nineteenth century is suggested by a report in the Aj of October 30, 1893, which remarked of the Milap, "It would have to be an invalid or disabled person who does not go to see it."[56] Notices often appear in the press for reserved places on adjoining housetops; there are also "Bharat Milap clubs," which rent whole roofs. Many businesses close for the day, and from early morning all roads leading into the northern half of the city are closed to vehicular traffic to facilitate the flow of crowds into the Milap area. By midday it is all but impossible to get anywhere near the site without a special guest badge from the Ramlila committee—and these are so parsimoniously distributed that one might suppose they were tickets to paradise.

The site of the Milap is a rectangular field containing a huge tamarind tree (imli ) from which the area takes its name. At each end of the field are stone platforms, connected by a slightly raised runway perhaps a hundred yards long. Each year the platforms are freshly whitewashed, the maidan is cleaned, and a processional path of crushed red stone is laid for the maharaja of Banaras and his retinue, who will approach from one of the side streets. Crowd control arrangements are particularly impressive: a bamboo barricade some fifteen feet high is erected


wherever the field fronts on a street, and the inside of the barrier is lined. by hundreds of policemen; this is to prevent a crush from the densely packed crowd, which fills surrounding streets for blocks in every direction. A police command post on the roof of an adjacent building also serves as a reception center for dignitaries and boasts a colored awning, carpets and chairs, and a booth for All-India Radio, which broadcasts live coverage of the event. Loudspeakers on nearby houses carry announcements of lost children, although all sound is tastefully hushed as the great moment approaches. The impressive discipline and clockwork timing suggest a state ceremony or the opening of the Olympic Games, yet the remarkable thing about the Milap in comparison with such events is that all the elaborate arrangements serve to bracket a performance that lasts roughly four minutes. The incongruity of this is not lost on Banarsis, who appear to take special delight in it. "The whole thing is over in the blink of an eye," one man remarked to me, "yet hundreds of thousands flock to see it, and you must go too!"

The protocol of the Milap allows for the participation of several of the city's traditional communities. On the eve of the great day, a palanquin bearing Ram and his companions is carried from Chauka Ghat (representing Lanka) to the Chitrakut enclosure (representing the Nishadh's ashram, where Ram rests for the night). The enormous wooden palanquin, brilliantly painted in designs of flowers, birds, and animals, represents the flying chariot (puspak[*]viman ) of Ravan, now utilized by the victorious Ram, and is carried by members of the merchant community, who believe that this service insures their commercial success during the year.[57] On Milap day itself, the same task is performed by 125 members of the Ahir, or milkman, caste, who dress in white and tie on red turbans symbolizing their resolve (sankalp[*] ) to carry the Lord's vehicle.[58] They assemble outside the Chitrakut enclosure, within which the boy actors are being costumed, and worship the palanquin before lifting it. Not least among the privileges that their act of service confers is admittance to the cordoned-off inner field, from which they can obtain a clear view of the climactic embrace.

Another class of functionaries are the "beautifiers" (srngariya[*] ), who supervise the costuming and makeup of the actors. These men represent a community of Gujarati silk merchants that has lived in Banaras for some five centuries. They are recognizable by distinctive turbans of


gold-brocaded purple silk; they claim that the privilege of wearing this headgear on state occasions was granted them by Emperor Akbar in appreciation for silk they provided to the Mughal court. Their prosperous community carefully maintains its ethnic identity even while it occupies a prestigious niche in its adopted city. Its members speak Hindi outside the home, but Gujarati within it—a remarkable continuity in view of the fact that, as some of the men told me, they have never been to Gujarat and have long ceased to have relatives there. Notable too is the fact that the srngariyas[*] all belong to the Pushti Marg sect, founded by Vallabhacharya, and worship Krishna as the supreme deity. Pushti Marg theology maintains the absolute supremacy of the Krishna avatar and regards Ram as only a partial manifestation; the merchants' greeting among themselves is "Jay Sri Krsna[*] !" which contrasts with the more typical Banarsi "Ram Ram" or "Jay Sita-Ram!" In Vallabhite temples special emphasis is given to the elaborate adornment (srngar[*] ) of images, which varies with the season and time of day, and the devotee charged with these arrangements is likewise known as a srngariya[*] . In Banaras, even though Krishna is not without his adherents, the silk merchants have adapted themselves to the predominant Vaishnava strain of Ram bhakti by assuming the role of costumers in this prestigious Ramlila .[59]

It was one of the srngariyas[*] , with whom I had chatted briefly while the actors were being made up, who secured my entry to the inner field at Nati Imli on Bharat Milap day in 1983—for the soldiers guarding the bamboo gate, nervous at the press of the enormous crowd outside, had ceased honoring even guest badges by the time I arrived at the enclosure. Once inside, I made my way to the vicinity of the main platform, where I found myself surrounded by prominent Ram devotees and patrons, all dressed in their finest clothes. Also present were the twenty-four Ramayanis, identifiable by broad sashes of ocher satin, who would chant from the Manas during the performance. The gleaming white platform was encircled by purple-turbaned srngariyas[*] , each equipped with a basket of flower petals.

The hour fixed for the Milap is always observed with great punctiliousness. Mehta has noted that early evening in this season is a time of special beauty, which seems to contribute to the extraordinary and otherworldly atmosphere.[60] In 1983 the appointed hour was 4:45 P.M. , and


as afternoon shadows lengthened, a flood of golden light filled the enclosure and the atmosphere of joyous anticipation became unmistakable and infectious. At about 4:30 a slowly swelling roar in the distance informed us that the palanquin had left the Chitrakut enclosure, and we strained to catch a first glimpse of it beyond the tall barricades, the massed ranks of policemen, and the sea of upturned faces. First to appear was a smaller palanquin bearing Vibhishan, the newly crowned king of Lanka. A whimsical-looking man with a long gray beard and ash-white makeup, accompanied by several small children, Vibhishan was carried to a spot close to the main platform as an honored guest. The cheer of the crowd swelled to engulf the whole square as the great viman itself came into view, seemingly borne on a flood tide of bobbing red turbans (popular lore holds that it can actually be seen to float above the milkmen's shoulders). In slow majesty it entered the field and came to rest on the farther of the linked platforms. No sooner had the cheer greeting its arrival died down than another became audible from the opposite side of the enclosure, gradually growing into a thundering chant of "Har, Har Mahadev!" and signaling the approach of the maharaja. The sight of the royal elephant, resplendent in its trappings of velvet and gold, set off another wave of cheering. Vibhuti Narayan Singh, wearing a jeweled turban and shaded by a white silk umbrella, acknowledged the crowd's greeting with a raised namaskar and rode across the length of the enclosure to circumambulate Ram's palanquin.

In the meantime, Bharat and Shatrughna had also arrived and had ascended the nearer platform. Everyone was now in place, and as the magic moment approached, the dead Lash of a great expectancy fell over the multitude. At the far end of the field, Ram and Lakshman descended from their palanquin and stood at the edge of the runway; simultaneously Bharat and Shatrughna prostrated themselves full-out on their platform. A clash of cymbals announced the presence of the Ramayanis, who began singing Tulsi's description of the scene in the familiar chant special to Ramlila . So perfectly synchronized and dramatically effective was the timing that it seemed as if an invisible clock, of which all were aware, was counting off the few remaining seconds, bringing every onlooker to a calculated emotional peak. With measured steps Ram and Lakshman began walking along the runway, but they soon broke into a trot, which gradually increased to a full run. The mass silence was replaced by a kind of involuntary and ecstatic roar, as when a crowd at a sporting event anticipates the imminent completion of a brilliant play. An instant later, the runners reached their destination and sprinted up the stone steps, where each lifted up one of the prostrate


figures and embraced him. A cloud of red and white blossoms, thrown in handfuls by the men ringing the platform, fluttered down over the embracing boys. Loud as the cheering had been, a great sound seemed to explode above it: a mixed cacophony of bells, gongs, conches, and roars of "Raja Ramcandra ki jay!" A moment later the boys realigned themselves for a second embrace, Ram with Shatrughna and Bharat with Lakshman, more cheering and more flowers. Then they formed a line, arms around one another's waist, and faced straight ahead, bestowing their much-desired darsan on the crowd facing the platform; then rotated forty-five degrees and again paused; and so on, through two complete rounds of the eight directions, each pause accompanied by an acknowledging roar from the appropriate sector.

And then it was over. The boys descended and walked to the waiting palanquin, which was soon hoisted on the shoulders of the Ahirs to proceed in slow procession to the committee's headquarters, giving darsan to tens of thousands more en route. The royal elephant departed for a rendezvous with a waiting limousine, which would speed the maharaja back to Ramnagar to supervise the delayed start of his own Ramlila . For the rest of the multitude at Nati Imli, there was little to do but stand and wait; it would be nearly an hour before the approach roads cleared enough to allow the square's human tide to flow back into the rest of the city.

The Nati Imli Bharat Milap was one of the most powerful dramatic events I had ever witnessed. Yet, as my Banarsi friends had promised, the "performance" lasted only a few moments, involved not a word of dialogue, and hinged on a single, elemental gesture. Awasthi has remarked that its extraordinary effect on spectators serves to remind us that the real power of "pantomimic lila " lies in its jhanki , or tableau.[61] It may be added that at Nati Imli there are additional factors at work: the powerful religious expectation, supported by the story of Ram's promise of physical presence on this day; the beauty and auspiciousness of the hour; the impressive, orderly arrangements; and the presence of the maharaja, who represents not only royal authority but also Shiva, patron deity of Banaras, and whose attendance is an affirmation of the city's cultural identity. There is a further sociocultural dimension too—for one may well ask why, of all the emotional events that follow the death of Ravan, the reunion with Bharat alone evokes such an ecstatic response. I return to this topic in my final chapter.


The Enthronement

Two days after Bharat Milap I attended the performance of Ram's enthronement (rajgaddi ) in the garden compound at Lohatiya. The atmosphere could hardly have been more different from that of the frenetic and spectacular Milap. The same little boys who, two days before, had been the focus of the straining eyes of a vast multitude now sat casually on an open-air stage in a small garden, surrounded by the organizers and a handful of adult actors. And even though this performance too had been announced in the newspapers and no effort was made to exclude anyone, the total attendance during the course of the evening cannot have amounted to more than a few hundred persons. Indeed, the atmosphere was so casual that I felt I was witnessing a private party staged by the organizers for their own amusement. The child actors were in full costume—gorgeous silk robes and crowns for this special night—but they hardly seemed to be in "character"; much of the time they were lounging idly on the dais or playfully chatting among themselves, seemingly oblivious of the activities of the adults. The latter were in high spirits; everyone seemed to know everyone else, and the atmosphere suggested a backstage party after a successful opening night. Yet this was neither a party nor a rehearsal, but an actual performance of the lila of Ram's enthronement. What was one to make of it?

Amid the casual ambience, the expected sequence of events did unfold, after a fashion. The chief Ramayani, Pandit Bholanath Upadhyay, invited Ram to come sit with him near a small fire altar, where they were joined by several other Brahmans. The Manas passage describing the royal consecration was sung, and then the Brahmans began chanting Vedic mantras while their leader, smiling broadly, showed Ram what to do, guiding his little hand as he spooned oblations into the fire at appropriate intervals. While the ritual proceeded, the "party" continued all around. Vibhishan lounged at one end of the dais, conversing with an elderly devotee. Bharat and Sita played guessing games, periodically dissolving into giggles; Shatrughna fell asleep. Other groups of people sat in the garden chatting and paying no attention to what was going on. Throughout most of the evening (the ceremony began after 9:00 P.M. and continued for several hours) there were, with the exception of myself, no spectators; there were only participants, either in the lila itself or in the "party" that surrounded it. As the evening wore on, I found myself increasingly puzzled by the nature of the performance I was witnessing. It seemed inconceivable that the chuckling adult participants in the fire


ceremony, much less the inattentive onlookers, actually believed that the little boys were really the divine characters of the Ramayan. Was any "willing suspension of disbelief" possible in such a casual, even chaotic atmosphere?

But when the fire ritual concluded, an interesting thing happened. Upadhyay took Ram by the hand and led him to the marble throne platform at one end of the open-air stage. Sita, Lakshman, and Bharat followed; even little Shatrughna was roused from his nap and escorted over. The red-suited Hanuman donned his enormous brass mask and stepped forward, fly whisk in hand; a glittering silk umbrella was unfurled. Suddenly everyone in the garden was attentive. A tableau had taken shape: Ramchandra was enthroned in glory, Sita at his side, in the midst of his beloved brothers and companions. It was the climactic vision of the Manas , like Tulsi's own reputed first lila ; the nearly full moon of Sharad rode in the sky overhead. The Ramayanis took their places before the dais and intoned a hymn of praise from the Gitavali , and a steady stream of neighborhood people began to file through the garden gate for darsan .

Another performance followed: a long red carpet was unrolled at the foot of the throne, and Upadhyay stood to one side of it. The adult characters in the lila —Hanuman, Sugriv, Vibhishan, and the others—formed a queue at the far end. While "Ram" lounged casually on the throne, looking boyishly amused, the chief Ramayani addressed him in the reverent and formal language of a royal minister: "Divine Majesty, King of Kings, Lord Ramchandra!" He then began presenting each player to him with a brief introduction that was both reverent and, apparently, intentionally amusing:

Your Majesty, here before you is Sugriv. You know, Lord, he is a great devotee of yours, and he has done an awful lot for you. He bit off the nose and ears of Kumbhakarna, you'll recall. [laughter from onlookers] He attacked Meghnad too, and Ravan as well, and altogether he has suffered a lot on your account! Please be merciful, and bestow your grace on him.

While this patter was delivered, the player in question executed a series of seven full-body prostrations, beginning at the far end of the carpet and ending at the foot of the throne. These were accompanied by many chuckles of amusement from onlookers, both at the mock-seriousness of the introductions and at the difficulty with which some of the players—older men in elaborate, constraining costumes and heavy masks—executed their bows. These were anything but casual, however; each pros-


Figure 23.
A procession of boys adorned as Ramlila svarups


tration, achieved with no little huffing and puffing, was total. The man lay flat-out, arms extended toward the throne. Arriving at its foot, each player knelt and removed his mask, revealing a forehead beaded with sweat but a face grave and composed. His reward was forthcoming: the little Ram leaned forward and dropped a garland around his neck.

Reflecting on the evening's performance—on what seemed to me its incongruous conflation of high emotion and low comedy, casual ambience and occasional ritual intensity—I recalled a line from one of Hess's writings on Ramlila and its devotees: "people who grew up in easy intimacy with the God of personality and paraphernalia, the God who has characteristics like their uncles and cousins and is often as common and unheeded a household item."[62] The evening's experience had clarified a point often made by lila aficionados: that the little boys in gilded tiaras really are both children and gods. They are assumed to be guileless and innocent, free of the worries and compulsions of adults. Yet they are not merely blank screens on which devotees project the God of their imaginations; "attributes" are of the essence here, and the ones that the boys possess—innocence, physical attractiveness, Brahman-hood (equated with both social and religious prestige)—are essential ingredients in what they become. The boy chosen as a svarup is like the unblemished nim tree that the woodcarvers of Puri select, once every twelve to nineteen years, for their new image of Jagannath, Lord of the World.[63] Just as the Jagannath devotee may be aware that the image he adores was once a tree, so the Chitrakut spectator may recall, at times, that the boy beneath the crown is so-and-so's son, lives in such-and-such lane, and so forth. At the same time this boy possesses, by virtue of his attributes, the authority (adhikar ) not merely to represent but to become Ramchandra, just as the right kind of tree becomes Jagannath. And having become the part, he can offer something that every devotee craves and even temple images cannot bestow as tangibly: familiarity and intimacy with God; the chance to do seva ("service," connoting both formal worship and actual physical attention) and to experience "participation," which is one of the truest translations of the word bhakti . Each episode of the Chitrakut Ramlila affords a different kind of participation: the mass participation of the Milap, when the lila expands to incorporate the whole city and the auspicious paradigm of the


reunited brothers reaffirms familial and social hierarchies; and the intimate participation of the smaller performances, when large public symbols are replaced by near-private intimacies and grownup devotees play house with a child God.

Khojwan: Ramnagar Remade

The Ramlila of Khojwan Bazaar, a neighborhood on the southwestern outskirts of Banaras, makes claim neither to antiquity nor to originality.[64] When the current production was organized, around the beginning of the twentieth century, Khojwan was a little kasba (market town) well beyond the southern boundary of the city. Today spreading urbanization has engulfed it, but Khojwan's narrow, meandering main street, fronted by high stone buildings, strikes a contrast to the grid-patterned colonies that have sprung up around it. Every muhalla of Banaras nurtures its own sense of identity, but Khojwan's seems particularly strong. The tidy streets, flourishing bazaar, and new secondary school all bespeak municipal pride, and this is equally in evidence in the local Ramlila arrangements.

The printed announcement of this lila is the most elaborate that I have encountered. Its heading reads "Historic Ramlila of Khojwan Bazaar, Kashi," and this is followed by a paragraph summarizing the pageant's short history:

It is well known that the acts of Ram composed by Goswami Tulsidas are performed in Khojwan Bazaar for the benefit of devotees. In olden times, revered Mahatma Apadas-ji sponsored it for some days at Manasarovar, Sonarpura, Kedareshvar, and so forth; after that the late Gokul Sahu-ji, on the Mahatma's departing for heaven, with the assistance of the late Kashinath Sahu and Jagganath Sahu (the grain dealer), sponsored it in Khojwan Bazaar and for his whole life dedicated himself to it, body, mind, and fortune. Now that he has departed the world, this great work has been accomplished for sixty-six years with the will of the community and the assistance of devotees.,[65]

In her discussion of the patronage of neighborhood Ramlila productions, Kumar notes that organizers tend to fall into two categories:


(1) middle-level merchants and traders in grain, wood, metal, or cloth as well as small shopkeepers, including those of milk and pan , and (2) religious figures, whether "official" (mahant or panda[*] ) or "nonofficial" (vyas , sadhu , baba ). The former would control money through his institution; the latter would attract it through his personality. As a rule, the people of categories (1) and (2) work in association.[66]

In its origin and organization, the Khojwan lila conforms to this model. The inspiration originally came from a Vaishnava sadhu who started a series of performances at sites in surrounding communities; the locations mentioned—the great tank called Manasarovar (after the Himalayan lake of Tulsi's allegory) and the bazaar at Sonarpura, about two kilometers northeast of Khojwan—are still used for certain performances. The sadhu's efforts were carried on by a group of traders in the bazaar; "Sahu" is the name of a mercantile caste, and there are still a number of Sahus among the forty-one officers of the Ramlila committee prominently listed on the schedule. The reference to the pageant's being conducted "with the will" of the community (pancayatajnanusar ) indicates that the source of its funding is a general solicitation. It was thus, I was told by committee members, that the 1983 production costs of approximately Rs 35,000 were met: "Some people give four or eight rupees, some give fifty-one, some give three hundred or more, according to their means." The announcement states that the lila has been organized in this fashion for sixty-six years—that is, since 1917, although it also indicates that Mahatma Apadas started his performances somewhat earlier.[67]

Today the Khojwan Ramlila enjoys the status of a venerable community institution and major investments in the pageant have recently been made. In the heart of the bazaar, just behind the popular Puran Das Temple, stands a handsome two-story structure with an open-air stage at ground level and a suite of rooms above. This tidy, brightly painted Sri Ramlila Srngar[*] Bhavan ("Ramlila Production Center," as an inscription on the facade announces) serves as committee headquarters; its upper rooms contain trunks of costumes and props, and their walls are hung with masks. Also kept there are the oversize copies of the Manas from which the Ramayanis chant and the script-books used by actors. These were composed by a local resident when the pageant first began


and have recently been recopied and painstakingly illuminated by an amateur artist, a cloth merchant who, like the sari dealers at Chitrakut, also serves as makeup master. The beauty and exuberance of this man's work—some of his paintings also decorate the inner walls of the building—epitomize the enthusiasm and flair with which the burghers of Khojwan mount their lila ; appropriately enough, the artist's name is Shobhanath (Lord of beauty).

The stage on the lower level fronts on a large field that serves as the schoolyard for the local secondary school, in which the pageant's director is a teacher. In the lila , the stage and the field represent Ayodhya, which thus, as at Ramnagar, is situated in the heart of the community. Other sites—gardens, enclosures, tanks, and small stages—are scattered throughout the area, and participants sometimes trek several kilometers in the course of an evening. Many sites feature permanent structures built especially for Ramlila . One of the most impressive is located at the end of Khojwan's main street: a lofty pavilion with polished columns, resembling a permanent reviewing stand. This edifice represents Ram's abode in Panchvati, from which Sita is abducted by Ravan; it is used for the performance known as Nakkatayya (nakkataiya[*] ), which is described below. Apart from such specially built settings, existing sites in the area have also been incorporated into the drama; thus the large tank known as Manasarovar is used to stage the "Crossing of the Ganga" episode. When Ram alights on its further shore, he is received by the inmates of an adjacent Ramanandi ashram, who become (in the play) the denizens of the sage Bharadvaj's hermitage at Prayag.

The scale and permanence of the lila structures at Khojwan are striking—many community productions manage with makeshift platforms that are hauled about and rearranged to suggest the various sites—and their obvious model is Ramnagar, which lies across the river to the east. Yet the manner in which the prestigious royal pageant is recreated in Khojwan indicates the shift from princely to mercantile patronage that occurred at the close of the nineteenth century, which I noted in my discussion of Katha . The Ramnagar pageant, like the older style of privately endowed Katha , begins in late afternoon, and all but a few of its performances conclude by 9:00 or 10:00 at night. The timing serves the convenience of the royal patron, who schedules a long intermission after less than a hour of performance, during which he retires for his evening prayers—a procedure that, as Schechner has noted, daily advertises the maharaja's punctilious piety.[68] The Khojwan lila , on the other hand,


like modern Katha festivals, never gets under way before 9:00 P.M., when the bazaar closes for the night. This has the result, given the leisurely pace at which most performances unfold, of setting many important scenes at 2:00 or 3:00 A.M. —a fact that organizers and players seem to take, for a month at least, in bleary-eyed stride.

At Khojwan a group of enthusiastic devotees backed by a prosperous business community have taken Maharaja Udit Narayan's inspiration one step further. Unable to go to Ramnagar regularly, they have brought Ramnagar home by reshaping their community to conform to the epic's geography, thereby also making a successful bid for wider recognition within the city. Khojwan was one of the handful of names commonly cited when I asked Banarsis to identify the most notable productions in the metropolitan area, and its biggest event, the Nakkatayya, ranks among the half-dozen or so top crowd-drawing lilas in the city. Such prominence suggests that Ramlila can serve as an effective vehicle for community identity and pride.

Although the Khojwan lila has drawn inspiration from Ramnagar, the imitation has not been slavish. While attempting to match the royal pageant's layout and scale, the local people have made innovations in specific details, which mark the lila as their own. At thirty-one days, it is fully as long as the maharaja's production, but it begins and ends about a week later and its choice of episodes for enactment is notably different. In his description of Ramlila in the Braj area, Hein noted a tendency among contemporary productions to stage and recite less of the Manas , which he ascribed to the increasing obscurity of Tulsi's sixteenth-century dialect.[69] The relatively new Khojwan production, however, displays an impressive degree of fidelity to its text and in fact dramatizes even more of the Manas than the Ramnagar pageant does. The Khojwan lila does not confine its staging to Tulsi's central narrative but begins early in Book One with the story of Sati's delusion, the courtship and marriage of Shiva and Parvati, Narad's infatuation (a crowd-pleasing comedy that is included in many neighborhood productions), and other episodes prefixed by Tulsi to his main story. It devotes six nights to these preliminaries, which precede even the birth of Ravan and the gods' plea to Vishnu to incarnate himself—the episodes with which the Ramnagar cycle begins.

In its staging conventions too, the Khojwan lila closely follows the epic text. At Ramnagar when dialogue occurs in the poem, the Ramayanis chant a character's speech in its entirety and then stop while the


actor gives a prose paraphrase of the passage. At Khojwan long speeches are broken up into shorter units roughly corresponding to sentences; the resulting frequent alternation between chanting Ramayanis and declaiming actors creates the effect of a line-by-line prose commentary. In addition, the couplets that regularly occur within speeches (which at Ramnagar are rendered into prose) are often left untranslated at Khojwan; the actors interrupt their prose declamations to sing these couplets with great emotion, repeating what the Ramayanis have just chanted.

Another Khojwan innovation is a buffoon character reminiscent of the vidusaka[*] of classical Sanskrit drama. He is played by a gifted local actor and is brought into virtually every scene: as a courtier of Ayodhya or Janakpur, the boatman Kevat, and even Ravan when the latter comes disguised as an ascetic to abduct Sita. His special function is to supplement the written script with droll ad-libs delivered with a perfect deadpan expression. Other entertainment also finds its way into the production: there are interludes of lascivious disco-style dancing by female impersonators (hijra[*] ) on the occasion of Ram's birth and marriage. Here the producers are not simply pandering to popular taste but are following the time-honored practice of envisioning the events of the epic in their own familiar vocabulary—for hijras[*] do indeed gather, as they have for centuries, to dance and to sing obscene songs outside homes in which a son has been born or a marriage is about to occur.

Kop Bhavan

Like other Ramlila cycles, the Khojwan production includes both "little" and "big" nights. An example of the former is the episode known as Kop Bhavan (The Sulking Chamber)—the name popularly given to the scene in which Queen Kaikeyi, swayed by her maid Manthara's arguments, demands two boons from King Dashrath, thus precipitating Ram's exile from Ayodhya. At Khojwan this episode is not staged until the fourteenth night—nearly halfway through the cycle. This seemingly delayed beginning Of the central narrative results from the many evenings devoted to introductory stories and an extended treatment of Ram's marriage, which occupies three nights. Such a seemingly disproportionate emphasis on the early portions of the epic is a reflection both of Tulsi's own handling of the story and of the devotional inclinations of later generations of devotees.[70]


Figure 24.
The Kop Bhavan lila at Khojwan

The setting is the royal palace at Ayodhya, which includes the ground-floor stage of the Ramlila Center and the large field fronting it. On this field two small pavilions are erected, connected to the main stage by walkways forming a large rectangle. The pavilions represent various locales within the palace and city; a platform that represents the home of the royal priest Vasishtha later becomes the apartment of Queen Sumitra and the scene of her emotional conversation with Lakshman before his departure for the forest. Another platform in the center of the rectangle is occupied by the Ramayanis, who sit in a circle around a low table bearing two big copies of the Manas . The remaining space within the rectangle is filled by the audience, which also extends into the field beyond (see figure 24).

The crowd is of modest size—perhaps 250 persons—when the performance begins at 9:00 P.M. , but it grows steadily as the night proceeds. Although there are no designated seating areas, men and women instinctively gravitate to opposite sides of the enclosure, as they do at most religious programs. Floodlights mounted on the walls of adjacent buildings provide illumination. No amplification is needed in the semi-en-closed area; on nights when the pageant occurs in more open areas and crowds are larger, a portable loudspeaker is sometimes brought in and its mike passed back and forth between the reciters and the actors. The


crowd is by and large attentive during the performance; people who are less interested gravitate to its fringes, where groups of friends stand gossiping, small children play (some with little bows and arrows, acting out their own Ramlilas ), and snack and souvenir vendors operate throughout the program. But any disturbance within the central area is quickly hushed by the spectators, and most of the children—who probably make up 20 percent of the crowd—sit in rapt attention throughout.

The main stage is outfitted with side curtains and floridly painted backdrops depicting columned halls and vistas of formal gardens complete with topiary and fountains—reflecting the Victorian scenic conventions still prevalent in nautanki[*] stagings of romantic and heroic legends.[71] Dashrath's velvet jacket ornamented with gold braid likewise suggests nineteenth-century courtly dress. The costumes of the boy principals, however, resemble those worn at Ramnagar, which are based on religious iconography and the courtly styles of an earlier period.

The role of Dashrath is played by Kashinath Pathak, the schoolteacher who serves as the director of this lila . He gives a highly histrionic portrayal of the king's reaction to Kaikeyi's demands, collapsing on a gilded couch where he remains, writhing in agony, throughout the evening. His overacting strikes me as comic, but my reaction does not seem to be general; some older spectators are moved to tears. There are other notable performances: the man who portrays Sumitra brings considerable poignancy to the scene in which Lakshman's mother accedes to his request to accompany Ram to the forest. His rendition of her famous speech,

My child, Sita is your mother now,
and Ram, your devoted father.
Ayodhya is wherever Ram resides,
as day is where the sun shines.

elicits more handkerchiefs. The boys, who are older than those at Ramnagar, also give competent performances. The local Ram, aged sixteen, is in his second and final year of playing the part—for his upper lip already betrays a faint moustache.

The episode concludes at midnight (quite early for a Khojwan performance, as I would discover) with an arti ceremony modeled after that of


Ramnagar: the boy actors are garlanded and worshiped to the accompaniment of a hymn sung by the Ramayanis and showers of blossoms from behind the scenes. At the same time, a magnesium flare is held aloft, to sear the auspicious tableau on the minds of departing spectators.


The lila of the nineteenth night is listed on the Khojwan program as "Severing of the nose and ears of Shurpankha, killing of Khar and Dushan etc., stealing of Sita and lamentation." However, it is popularly known simply as Nakkatayya, a colloquial expression for "cutting-off-the-nose," and it attracts the biggest crowd of the whole cycle. Like so much else at Khojwan, it is a borrowing from another production—in this case the lila of Chaitganj, whose even bigger Nakkatayya seems to have given rise to this type of performance.[72] Kumar suggests that the Chaitganj spectacle developed as recently as the first decade of this century; its citywide fame and massive turnouts probably inspired the ambitious merchants of Khojwan to copy it in their lila . They must have gone at it with their usual gusto, for their version is now only a little less famous than its model. Both attract large crowds from beyond the immediate neighborhood, Khojwan drawing more on the southern half of the metropolitan area and Chaitganj more on its northern half.

The Nakkatayya strikingly displays the Ramlila's ability to incorporate other types of folk performance into the prestigious paradigm of the Manas narrative; the resulting performance is both symbolically complex and chronologically extended. For, as Kumar points out, just as the Chitrakut Bharat Milap is renowned for its brevity, so the Nakkatayya is famed for its marathon duration, and the first remark one is liable to hear about it is the admiring comment, "It lasts all night!" It begins in Panchvati, which in Khojwan is represented by the columned pavilion in the central bazaar; here Ram, Sita, and Lakshman are visited by the female demon Shurpankha, Ravan's sister. Spurned in her sexual overtures to Ram and Lakshman, she tries to attack Sita and is mutilated by Lakshman. The subject matter is elemental and highly charged. Conventional (that is to say, male) wisdom regards the demon as emblematic of the oversexed female, whose uncontrollable lust threatens to rob men of their potency. Her mutilation (by cutting off her nose and ears in the


fashion in which, according to ancient lawbooks, adulteresses were to be punished) is seen as a fitting lesson to the female sex.[73] At Ramnagar, where the mutilation is graphically represented—Shurpankha runs wailing through the crowd with red paint splashed over her costume—I was told by smiling men that village ladies are encouraged to attend this episode "in order to receive a good lesson." At Chaitganj and Khojwan, Shurpankha is portrayed by a female impersonator—a supposed eunuch and, like the demon herself, a socially liminal, comic, and yet repellent figure. Following her pantomimed mutilation, Shurpankha rushes off to the demon fortress of Jansthan—located several kilometers away in the Ravindrapuri neighborhood—to summon the forces of Khar and Dushan, Ravan's lieutenants in the region.

Tulsidas dwells at length on the sallying forth of the demon army with Shurpankha at its head, its foolish leaders arrogantly confident of an easy victory over the mortal princes (3.18.3-12). The ensuing conflict is Ram's first encounter with a demon army and prefigures the great battles of Book Six. In nineteenth-century pageants, this probably occasioned a small procession, such as are still organized around other episodes (Ram's wedding, journey into exile, etc.)[74] In the Chaitganj production this procession grew in size and importance to become an all-night event. The iconographic logic behind the expansion was simple: since demons are known to be form changers, capable of assuming any shape at will, a raksas[*] procession can contain almost anything. Thus, the Nakkatayya has become a sort of visual saturnalia, whose specific features have as much to do with the Ramayan as the floats in a Mardi Gras parade do with the life of Jesus. The procession offers an occasion for ritualized inversion, which allows for the release of pent-up tensions. Shurpankha is defaced in the early evening, and the demon forces are finally annihilated by Ram just before dawn; but in the interval the forces of illusion, sensuality, and artifice take to the streets for a sort of Walpurgis Night of phantasmagoric display. Tulsi himself sang of

Numberless vehicles, numberless forms,
numberless hosts bearing numberless weapons


and the Nakkatayya procession, which winds on for hours and contains bands, elephants, dance troupes, and anywhere from fifty to a hundred floats, does seem to approximate this description. All of Khojwan Bazaar is transformed for the occasion: the field before the Ramlila Center becomes a fair, with three country-style ferris wheels, booths housing games of skill and chance, and peddlers of all description; the main street is lined with bamboo railings and festooned with colored lights. It is difficult to say how many spectators witness the procession along its entire route, but thousands pack the central bazaar in the vicinity of the Panchvati pavilion, before which the Ramayanis sit on a lower wooden platform.

The head of the procession arrives in the main bazaar at about 3:00 A.M. , led by Shurpankha, who dances furiously, brandishing a suggestively rounded club that "she" waves threateningly at Ram and Sita. Behind her comes Khar, represented by a figure in a donkey mask (his name in Hindi means "donkey"), and Dushan ("blemish"), a fifteen-foot bamboo-and-paper effigy. The remainder of the procession consists of varieties of folk performance with origins outside the Ramlila .

First there are troupes of Durga dancers, hailing from all over the Banaras area. Each troupe represents an akhara[*] —a combination social, religious, and physical-culture club for men and boys—under the direction of a dancing master.[75] The Durga clubs specialize in a furious style of masked dancing that incorporates elements of martial art. The dancers wear silver masks topped by enormous crowns, and full-skirted costumes. The crowns feature circular coronas extending several feet into the air, ornamented with peacock feathers, mirrors, and other brilliant materials. These male dancers represent—and to some extent, as with all Hindu mimesis, incarnate—bloodthirsty goddesses such as Chamunda and the other six forms of Durga. In martial traditions these terrifying goddesses are associated with other dangerous and powerful female figures such as tantric yoginis and witches, who are believed to congregate on battlefields; like Shurpankha, they are threatening females who eat the flesh and drink the blood of virile warriors.[76]

On the long procession route from Ravindrapuri through Bhelupura


to Khojwan, the Durgas of each troupe dance, brandishing swords, daggers, torches, and skull-bowls with which they are supposed to catch the blood of their victims. Within each troupe, there are novice perform-ers—small boys who do little more than march, swaying in costume—as well as accomplished adult dancers who execute more difficult routines. Some carry metal baskets filled with hot coals, which they whirl about their heads on long chains; stirred into brilliant redness and emitting showers of sparks, they blur into fiery halos surrounding the dancer. There are also dance-duels with bamboo staves, and furious sword dances in which the performers slash at the air with gleaming scimitars. At the conclusion of such a piece, the performer appears to go out of control and rushes to the sidelines flailing his weapon as spectators duck for safety; he is quickly seized by attendants who disarm and hold him for a few moments while others fan him, apparently to calm the possessing goddess's rage. Finally each Durga is outfitted with a short sword with which he executes one last whirling dance, ending with a bow and the presentation of his skull-cup at the foot of the platform. A member of the lila committee steps forward gingerly, careful to avoid the still-twitching dagger in the dancer's other hand, and fills the cup with a handful of flowers and tulsi leaves blessed by Ram. This vegetarian prasad is supposed to satiate the goddess, who is then escorted to a side street, where troupe members remove their masks and costumes. Altogether about a dozen Durga troupes, some numbering thirty or forty dancers, appear in the Khojwan procession. The costuming of each varies slightly, especially in the ornamentation of the tall, shimmering crowns. The impassive silver masks are nearly always the same, however, and resemble the Devi images in many local temples. To a trained eye, the iconography of each costume identifies the specific goddess being represented.

After more than an hour of Durga dancing, the next phase of the procession appears: the humorous, eye-catching floats collectively known as svang (satire or burlesque).[77] The use of such floats in Nakkatayya has an interesting history; apparently when the custom originated in the early decades of this century, the floats depicted sexually and socially indecorous situations and participants sang scurrilous songs. In the 1920s and 1930s the "obscene" character of the processions became the focus of a vociferous reformist campaign championed


by the Hindi press, especially the socially conservative BharatJivan , and such upper-class educational leaders as Malviya and Sampurnananda, whose criticism of the pageant was ultimately successful in "disinfecting" it. Ironically, although the character of the tableaux changed in response to these criticisms, the identification of the Nakkatayya as a vulgar lower-class event caused the educated elite to permanently dissociate itself from it.[78]

Most floats today have mythological themes—to which no one can object—and thus, suitably reformed, the folk art continues to flourish. The procession I witnessed in 1983 drew svang groups from as far away as Madhya Pradesh. The essence of the contemporary art is grotesquerie and trompe-l'oeil, and most floats consist of frozen balancing acts featuring small children. In one, an (adult) Shiva figure holds aloft two fur-suited child demons, each of whom appears to be speared through the middle, like a cocktail olive, by the prongs of his trident; there are gruesome red stains where the prongs emerge from their bodies. Supported by artfully concealed metal rods, the whole tableau—Shiva, trident, and demons—is balanced on a rotating pedestal high above the street. This pedestal rests in turn on a tractor, but others are supported by bullock carts or even hand-drawn wooden wagons with bicycle wheels. These high tableaux teeter along precariously, the performers sometimes having to duck to pass under power lines. By the end of the procession, many of the smallest "demons" are sound asleep on their high perches, securely held in position by the supporting rods. The floats are wired too, with strings of flashing bulbs or rotating wheels of fluorescent lights. A few have attached generators, but most have to stop periodically and be hooked up to local current in order to give viewers the full effect. The floats are preceded by hired musicians playing drums and shehnai, creating a wonderful cacophony as they proceed through the packed bazaar.

The last phase of the procession is a line of ornate carriages (viman ), resembling the chariots in religious calendar art. Each represents (and hence advertises) a tent house somewhere in the city, which hires out these gaudy vehicles to wedding parties. The last carriage, however, returns viewers to the Ramayan story, for it represents the flying chariot used by Ravan to abduct Sita; it parks alongside the reviewing stand to await the fateful moment.

The sky is growing light by the time the procession ends, and the


morning star hangs above the packed rooftops fronting the bazaar. No one leaves, because the final phase of the lila is only now to begin, although in deference to the exhausted condition of most participants it will unfold rapidly. The Ramayanis resume their chanting from the Manas ; Ram seizes his bow and quickly dispatches Khar and Dushan. Shurpankha goes wailing to Ravan, who appeals to his uncle Marich to take the form of a golden deer. At Sita's importuning, Ram stalks the frisky animal (a masked dancer in a spangled body stocking) to the delighted shrieks of curbside children; the detonation of a cherry bomb signals its demise. Meanwhile, Ravan approaches in sadhu's guise, portrayed by Khojwan's resident buffoon (who incongruously sports an ocher Ram-nam shawl!); after a lively dialogue, he is suddenly replaced by a conventionally masked figure who has been lurking under the dais and who now seizes Sita and spirits her away down a side street, pausing briefly to battle the noble vulture Jatayu. As the first rays of the sun strike the housetops, the brothers return to the deserted ashram, Ram gives himself up to grief, arti is performed, and the great crowd disperses.

At 7:00 A.M. I am walking to the main road through the back lanes of Khojwan, past an occasional tethered elephant, floats in varying stages of disassembly, and bleary-eyed Durga dancers crowding around an open tea stall. I get into a conversation with a small, wiry man who walks determinedly with a tall staff. He seems oddly familiar, and as we near the main road I suddenly realize where I have seen him before; "Brother, you're Ravan, aren't you?" He confirms with a wry smile and quickly disappears into the haze and the trudging throngs of pilgrims headed, on this auspicious Nav Ratra morning, for worship at the nearby Durga Temple.

Ramnagar: Pilgrims and Singers

Earlier in this chapter I discussed the origins of the Ramlila of Ramnagar, and I devote a later section to its manner of interpreting the Manas text. Since the work of documenting the individual performances of this month-long production has already been undertaken by others, I do not describe specific episodes in detail here.[79] Instead I focus on two aspects of the pageant that have received little attention: the relationship of the performances to a traditional Banarsi pattern of recreation, and the role of the Ramayanis, or Manas chanters.


Figure 25.
A procession during the Ramnagar Ramlila (photo courtesy of
Linda Hess)


The Art of Crossing Over It is surely clear to anyone who has ever spent time in the city that the Banarsi way of life consists of more than ritual bathing and visits to temples; even these and other pious activities for which the place is justly famed have (in Western terms) "secular" dimensions that contribute to their appeal. Yet scholarly writings on the city have tended to focus on its theological status and the complex hierarchy of its religious institutions and functionaries, and only recently has a study examined the everyday life of its people, particularly their concept of "Banarsiness" as "an ideology of the good life."[80] Central to this ideology, as Nita Kumar discovered, is a cycle of leisure activities based on indigenous concepts of the person, space, and time, articulated in terms whose importance has often been overlooked "because they perhaps do not fit very neatly into a text-based or ritual-oriented scheme. Among these are the principle of pleasure (khusi , anand ), the philosophy of freedom and carelessness (mauj, masti ), the image of play (khel, krira[*] , lila , manorañjan ) and a stress on individual taste, choice, and passion (sauk )."[81] That Kumar's subjects represent some of the city's poorest artisans (such as metalworkers and woodcarvers) may appear paradoxical; the economic realities of these men's lives—starkly documented at the beginning of her study—do not suggest a great scope for leisure. Yet Kumar vividly catalogs the surprising range of participatory recreations in which artisans engage: poetry and singing clubs (including Ramayan singing groups), Ramlila troupes, wrestling and swimming clubs, and the full array of fairs, temple srngar[*] festivals, processions, and other annual celebrations in the city concerning which a popular saying holds, "Eight days—nine festivals."[82]

Among the most popular recreational activities is the practice known as bahrialang[*] (literally, the "outer side" or "farther shore"), which refers to boating excursions to the opposite bank of the Ganga and to the activities pursued there. In questioning some of the city's poorest artisans concerning their recreational activities, Kumar found that most would at first vehemently deny having any—"Are sahab , what entertainment can we poor people have?" Her inquiry might have ended there, had she not discovered the magic formula bahrialang[*] , at the mention of which the same men would wax eloquent concerning its exquisite pleasures—whether enjoyed daily, weekly, or more infrequently.[83] The essential constituents of the practice are so simple—one


crosses the Ganga, relieves one's bowels, and washes one's clothes—that an outsider may not readily grasp just what is so recreational about it. But of course, it is never a solitary activity; it is enjoyed with friends, and much time is whiled away in talking, joke telling, and singing. In addition, it provides a complete and much-needed change of environment. I have already mentioned the distinction between the two banks of the river: the city side and the "outer" side. The former is civilized and sacred, but also chokingly congested. The farther shore, in contrast, is a sandy, uninhabited floodplain, an accessible wilderness. As such it offers a refreshing antidote to the crowded bazaars and cramped working and living spaces that otherwise form the boundaries of the city man's life.

There are other dimensions to the excursion as well. Since the outer side is a ritually impure area, it has always been regarded as a good place to relieve oneself, and there is an old tradition that exemplary people repair beyond the sacred borders of the city for this purpose. The appeal of this aspect of the trip must be understood in the context of a culture in which personal hygiene practices are powerfully associated with ideals of purity and deep levels of identity. The journey itself is also pleasing; the river is the city's great scenic attraction as well as its claim to spiritual greatness, and there is no better way to appreciate its beauty than from a boat. The act of crossing the Ganga inevitably has a religious dimension—Banaras, like all pilgrimage centers, is a "crossing-place" (tirthsthan ), where believers are assured safe passage over the turbulent flood of this world—and every Hindu reaches overboard in midstream to sprinkle a few drops of water on his head while uttering a formula such as "He Mata Ganga, teri sada jay!" (O Mother Ganga, may you ever be victorious!). Finally, an essential ingredient in the pastime for many Banarsis is the consumption of bhang and the resultant intoxication. In most excursion parties one man assumes the job of preparing the treat: crushing the leaves and straining a decoction that is then drunk, or shaping the pulp into little balls—combined, if budget will allow, with raisins, nuts, and savory spices—that are eaten. A moderately powerful psychoactive drug that alters visual and time perception, bhang has a religious dimension as well, since it is associated with yogis and their lord, Shiva, who is said to consume great quantities of it. Needless to say, a draft can add a new dimension to mundane activities: one can, for example (as Kumar was gleefully told) seize a bar of soap and spend a satisfying three-quarters-of-an-hour deeply engrossed in laundering one's dhoti.[84]


In his writings on Ramlila , Schechner observes that an important characteristic of Banaras's most famous production is the fact that it is not located in Banaras.[85] By constructing their dramatic environment on the further shore, the royal patrons created a theater that urban residents have to cross the Ganga daily in order to reach. Schechner vividly describes the difficulties and even hazards that this pilgrimage can entail, especially during the early part of lila season when the river is still swollen from monsoon rains. At the very least, the trip is time-consuming; a person coming from the city may require two or more hours simply to reach the lila site. If he is someone whose personal regimen is to witness every performance from beginning to end, attendance will be more than a full-time job, easily occupying ten hours a day. But I am convinced that time is still a relatively cheap commodity in Banaras and that some of the inconvenience that I, for example, experienced in getting to Ramnagar each day was not felt to the same degree by local pilgrims, who seemed to accept the journey itself as part of the recreational experience of lila . For among other things, the Ramnagar Ramlila is a grand, month-long bahrialang[*] excursion with all that this implies.

Many thousands of people attend the Ramnagar pageant sporadically, turning out for big events such as the breaking of Shiva's bow and the slaying of Kumbhakarna. But there is a core group of spectators—probably amounting to one or two thousand—who attend daily. To be able to do so is highly valued. The question I was invariably asked by fellow audience members was "Do you come daily? " and their satisfaction when I answered in the affirmative was evident, for regular attendance is the ideal, although everyone is not able to manage it. The great exemplar of such dedication is the maharaja, the patron and principal spectator.

Those attending daily fall into two categories: sadhus and nonsadhus. As already noted, sadhus in large numbers—mainly Ramanandis—reside in Ramnagar during the month of lila ; special camps are set up for them and daily rations are provided from the maharaja's stores. With their sectarian marks and seamless garments (or lack of them, if they belong to naga , or "naked," orders), the sadhus are a distinctive presence at the festival grounds, where they often cluster around the boy actors to entertain them with devotional singing and ecstatic dancing. But the householder who comes daily from the city is no less readily identifiable, for he too affects a distinctive costume. He is known as a nemi (from niyami , "one who adheres to a regimen") or by its expanded


variation, nemi-premi (the latter connoting "lover" or "aficionado"). He typically wears a clean white dhoti and baniyan (T-shirt), a cotton scarf (dupatta[*] ) block-printed in a floral design and tied as a diagonal sash across the chest, and yellow sandalwood paste on the forehead. He goes barefoot—this is part of his regimen—and carries a small wooden stool for comfort as well as protection from dust and mud in the varied environments. He may also carry a bamboo stave with a polished brass or silver head.

According to nemis , their costume has no special significance. Its details are either utilitarian (the staff is a convenience for walking and a protection against dogs when returning home late at night) or else (as in the case of the dhoti and the scarf) simply reflect "the old-time style of Banaras city." Since the Ramnagar production is a self-consciously old-fashioned event, it is appropriate that its core audience dresses accordingly; I have seen spectators change out of Western-style pants and shirt at the riverside, donning nemi dress and placing their carefully folded "work clothes" in a bag. Other aspects of the regimen include a bath in the Ganga before each performance and, of course, daily attendance. This may not mean witnessing all performances in their entirety; many regulars pick and choose among the episodes, giving their full attention only to favorite ones. But all make a point of being present during the concluding arti ceremony each night, when the divine presence is considered strongest. Some staunch nemis observe a daily fast, which they break only after they have had the Lord's darsan at arti time.

Although I initially understood the Ramnagar regimen as a kind of religious austerity, I gradually became aware, in conversations with aficionados, of the sensual and aesthetic richness of the nemi experience. One lila regular of the milkman caste came from a village on the western outskirts of the city. Although he had completed secondary school and was employed in a railway office, this man retained a strong taste for traditional Banarsi pastimes and was a great devotee of bahrialang[*] . Together with a group of friends, he owned a share in a boat kept at Gay Ghat and used for daily excursions throughout much of the year. During the month of lila , however, the boat brought the group to Ramnagar. This man's description of his daily routine during the season was delivered with evident relish and testifies to the pleasures of the pilgrimage for many regular participants:

During lila I go to work very early and leave the office at about 11:00 A.M. I go home and take a light meal, then head for the ghat to meet the others. First we row across to the other side and stop there for a while. We take some


dried fruit and a little bhang—not too much, or we'll get sleepy—then a glass; of water to cool the body. Then we go off and attend to nature's call, then meet and row to Khirki Ghat [at Ramnagar—a strenuous journey against the current; the men row in teams, chanting to set a steady rhythm]. Then have a swim and wash clothes. Then rub down with oil, then dress. Prepare sandal paste and apply it, to cool the forehead. Also a little scent at each ear, according to the weather. Then go for God's darsan .[86]

What kinds of people pursue this "regimen"? Most obviously, of course, men; women in Banarsi society have no part in the practices described here, although they may occasionally enjoy boat rides and excursions in the company of their families, and many women do attend the lila periodically. Not the extremely poor either, or for the most part the very rich. The former lack the resources for the daily outings, for regular attendance at Ramnagar is costly, not merely in the working time lost but in the expense incurred in getting there—to maintain a hired boat, such as the Gay Ghat club did, would probably be considered the ultimate recreational luxury by poorer Banarsis—and in maintaining the proper appearance and being able to afford snacks of tea and pan , if not the many delicious foods sold in concession stalls at the grounds. The wealthy modern-educated classes possess the means to attend but nowadays mostly lack the inclination; their tastes in entertainment have changed. Those men of means who are lila -goers are people who are conspicuous in their adherence to traditional life-styles: temple owners, expounders, Ayurvedic physicians, and socially conservative merchants. The majority of regulars, however, seem to be from the middle and lower-middle classes: small-scale merchants, milkmen, betel sellers—self-employed people who can afford to shutter their shops early for one month each year or leave a relation minding the store—and lower-level office workers and clerks, who can somehow arrange (in the tolerant milieu of Banarsi business) the time away from work. These men have both the means and the inclination to attend, and their presence at the lila is no less an ideological statement than is the maharaja's staging of it. By their daily attendance, clad in their distinctive uniform, they offer an affirmation of their faith not only in Sita-Ram, the Manas , and the maharaja, but in the Banarsi way of life as they conceive of it—a "natural" life of aesthetic intoxication, wholesome outdoor activity, male camaraderie, seasonal celebration, and vociferous piety.


The Voice of Lila The melody to which the Manas is sung at most Banaras Ramlilas is known as Narad vani[*] ("Narad's voice," after the divine rhapsodist who is said to have created it) or lilavani[*] , (the voice of lila ), and it shares with other forms of epic recitation an antiphonal pattern requiring two groups of singers. At Ramnagar there are twelve Ramayanis divided into two teams of six; neighborhood productions sometimes have smaller contingents. Musical accompaniment consists of double-headed drums (mrdang[*] ), and brass finger cymbals (jhal or manjira ), which are played by the lead singer.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Naradvani[*] is its stylized, distorting quality, which necessitates frequent minor alterations in the text. These follow a conventional pattern: the singers begin the first line of each stanza with the shouted syllable he! ; subsequent lines are begun with the syllables e-ha ! The end of each half-line is drawn out for five beats and its final vowel replaced by a , sung to a melodic pattern of three descending and two ascending tones. While this concluding pattern is sung by the first group, the second group is ready to join in on the fifth beat, which glides directly into the second half of the line. This too concludes with a , this time held only for the three descending tones, before another e-ha ! from the first group begins the next line. The ends of half-lines must often be adjusted to fit this pattern. If the final word ends with a long vowel, it may lose only a syllable; thus, the word gai (sung) becomes simply an extended ga . But words that end with short vowels may lose two syllables, and so the word pavana (pure, holy) in final position is reduced to pa , drawn out for the requisite number of beats.

The Ramayanis I interviewed could offer no explanation for the peculiarities of the style; the ringing e-ha ! with which each line began was inserted, they said, "just for the rhythm." It is a trademark of the style, however, and a Banaras newspaper article at Dashahra time mentions "the chanting of Narad vani[*] " as a sure sign of the advent of the festive season.[87] One purpose of the melody seems to be smooth transitions between half-verses, as the teams of singers alternate, echolike. The presence of two groups reflects not merely the antiphonal conventions of Manas recitation but also the strenuous nature of the performance style; the alternation provides a much-needed rest.

The other common meters in the text—doha , soratha[*] , and chand


are also rendered antiphonally, but for these the two parties sing alternate lines and there is no distortion of the words. As already noted, the couplets that complete each stanza are particularly well known to devotees, and whenever the Ramayanis sing a doha at Ramlila , a low murmur arises from the surrounding crowd, as listeners softly intone the familiar words. Many regulars carry pocket editions and read along; after the sunset break, the well-equipped nemi produces a flashlight for this purpose. But there are also listeners who know the text well enough to forego books; they sit near the Ramayanis and listen, sometimes nodding approvingly or chiming in on the last few words of a line.

The performance style might best be termed strident—a combination of singing and shouting. Performing without amplification before often-immense crowds, the Ramayanis endeavor to put their message across by sheer lung power, and their effort shows in reddened faces, bulging neck veins, and foreheads beaded with sweat. Maintaining such an effort for four hours a night is no easy task, and the result can hardly be called lilting. Naradvani[*] resembles neither the melodious strains of Manas folk singing nor the reverent drone of the mass-recitation programs. Perhaps this is why some have criticized it as "lacking in beauty."[88] But others, myself included, disagree. The adjectives that always came to my mind were "bardic" and "heroic," and the lusty vigor of the singing seemed appropriate to the occasion: the retelling of the epic of the greatest of all Kshatriyas, sung on a battlefield by a king's own singers. Others clearly share my taste; the brother of a prominent vyas told me almost confidentially one day when we were discussing Katha that even though he had heard all the greatest contemporary expounders, he would, in the last analysis, always prefer simply to hear good Manas recitation, "and the way they do it at the Ramnagar Ramlila is best of all!"

The chief Ramayani in 1982 was Ramji Pandey, who had sung in the pageant for more than forty-five years. A stocky, venerable-looking man, he is employed as a temple priest in the palace and also expounds the epic both within and outside Banaras. He claims to represent the seventh generation of his family to serve in the lila , and he is joined in this work by a younger brother and nephew. Ramji's family has charge of the Vyas Temple on the ramparts of the fort, and a nearby parapet serves him as office-cum-library. A closet-sized room perched high above the Ganga, it is packed from floor to ceiling with Ramayan texts


Figure 26.
Ramji Pandey leads the chanting at Ramnagar, 1982

and commentaries, framed photos and posters from Katha programs, and other memorabilia. Also kept here are the cymbals played in the lila and Ramji's turbans—an ordinary one used throughout the cycle and a special one reserved for the enthronement night. Every afternoon during the pageant month, as the sun reddens the sandstone ramparts of the fort, Ramji bathes, puts on clean clothes, and selects the manuscript leaves to be recited from that evening; these are rolled up and placed in metal canisters for transport to the lila site.

The Ramayanis wear brightly colored turbans and ocher Ram-nam sashes; these help them to recognize one another and reassemble quickly when they get separated during treks between sites. They go barefoot, as do the actors, directors, and the majority of audience members; this, they explain, is because they are in the presence of Lord Ram both in the form of the boy actor and in the sacred book they carry—therefore, they show the same reverence they would in a temple. On reaching each site, the Ramayanis quickly seat themselves in a circle; the two singers charged with carrying the manuscript leaves touch the pages to their foreheads and place them atop their canisters. All eyes go to Ramji Pandey, who sits bolt upright, cymbals in hand, looking toward the actors and their directors. Since the reciters sit directly in front of the maharaja, who is mounted on an elephant at the rear of the crowd, they


Figure 27.
Kamlakar Mishra, a village schoolteacher who serves as a Ramayani
at Ramnagar


Figure 28.
Kailash, the aged drummer who accompanied the Ramnagar chanters,


are frequently quite distant from the actors. The success of the performance depends on a clear exchange of signals between Ramayanis and directors (who often cannot hear one another) so that recitation and dialogues unfold in smooth succession and the players mime each action just as the Ramayanis chant its description.

The pace of recitation varies from passage to passage; it is announced by a whispered signal from Ramji, confirmed by the first clang of the cymbals, and immediately picked up by Kailash, the aged drummer who sits on the edge of the circle. Its alternations are not arbitrary but conform to established custom. The evening's recitation always begins slowly but picks up speed during long descriptive passages. However, lines that tradition has singled out as particularly important are intoned slowly and majestically, and occasionally even repeated. Thus, in the opening verses of Aranya[*]kand[*] , when Ram, enthroned on a crystal rock in the forest of Panchvati, adorns Sita with a garland of forest flowers plaited with his own hands—a romantic passage dear to many devotees-each half-line is slowly sung four times while the actors mime the emotion-laden scene, allowing viewers time to savor it.

The Ramnagar staging is characterized by carefully maintained archaisms aimed at preserving the atmosphere of the middle of the nineteenth century, when the pageant attained its f.nal form. The use of handwritten manuscripts is one such convention, for most other productions prefer large-format printed editions, which can be easily read under adverse conditions. The Ramnagar texts, in contrast, run words and verses together in the manner of all manuscripts, but their legibility does not appear to be of prime concern. The Ramayanis pride themselves on their knowledge of the text and rarely "read" from the manuscripts. Seated in a circle, many of them view the sheets only sideways, and while singing tend to keep their eyes on their leader's face. If they glance at the text it is only to note the first word of a line or an approaching break for a dialogue, which is indicated by a red mark on the page. After dark, they are joined by two white-turbaned attendants bearing oil torches—another deliberate archaism—which cast a flickering glow over the scene but hardly improve the visibility of the texts.

Several of the Ramayanis reside in Ramnagar and are in the maharaja's service; the rest come from villages in the surrounding area. Three work as schoolmasters, three more as priests, and one is employed by the local health department. Following Ramji Pandey in seniority is one man who has been singing for more than thirty years and several others whose participation dates back a decade or more. In 1982 the youngest Ramayani—a secondary school student who was much teased


as the "baby" of the group—was in his second year. Whatever their outside careers, the Ramayanis all become, for the duration of the lila , employees of the maharaja, although their remuneration, like that of other participants, is very modest. For approximately forty days of work, each receives less than Rs 50 in cash; a slightly more valuable token is a daily ration of uncooked rice, flour, and pulse, as well as a quarter-liter of milk. In addition, whenever the actors are fed during a scene, portions of the sweets served to them are distributed to the Ramayanis and other cast members as prasad . By these gifts, the maharaja symbolically carries on his ancestors' tradition of maintaining the pageant workers during the course of the cycle.

During the sunset intermission, the Ramayanis take tea and pan —unlike some spectators, they strictly abjure the use of bhang—"Because it brings drowsiness, and then how could we sing?"—and pass the time in conversation, which often runs to lila gossip and Ramayan-related anecdotes. At times they are joined by senior expounders from Banaras, such as Shrinath Mishra and Ramnarayan Shukla, who come to view favorite episodes; these men greet Ramji Pandey affectionately (they are "guru-brothers" through their former teacher, Vijayanand Tripathi) while the younger Ramayanis respectfully touch their feet. The atmosphere is lighthearted and comradely, and the presence of costumed actors milling about can create startling visual juxtapositions, as when several Ramayanis stand chatting casually with Ravan in his full regalia.[89] Like other regular participants, the Ramayanis enter with special intensity into the world of the lila , which colors all their perceptions and blurs the hard boundary between play and life. Ramayan jokes are frequent, but they are only half jokes, because the "other world" is pervasively and tangibly felt. On our first night in Lanka, for example, we were troubled by a horrible stench of putrefaction, which was particularly strong near Ravan's pyramidal citadel at the far end of the field; evidently some animal had died and its carcass was rotting nearby. As we struggled to control our nausea, the Ramayanis discussed the cause of the stench. At last, Ramji Pandey offered the definitive judgment: "After all, brothers, it's Lanka; what else do you expect?" And he quoted a verse from Sundar kand[*] :

Everywhere the wicked demons gorge
on buffaloes, men, cows, donkeys, and goats.


"The demons devour all these creatures and just toss the bones and half-eaten carcasses here and there. That's why it reeks so."

On the night of kot[*] vidai the ceremony of "farewell to the fort" unique to Ramnagar, the Ramayanis wait with the maharaja in an inner courtyard of the palace for the arrival of the principals, who now come as visiting heads of state. Lakshman himself serves as mahout of the royal elephant, while Hanuman holds the state umbrella over Ram's head. In contrast, the maharaja, who has always been splendidly dressed, wears the costume of a simple householder: a plain dhoti, kurta , and cloth cap. Before the audience of thousands that jams the courtyard, he washes the feet of his guests and serves them an elaborate meal, while the Ramayanis chant from the latter portion of Book Seven—this is purely "background music" to the feast, for the enacted text concluded the preceding day at Rambag with the fifty-first stanza of this book.

When the meal is finished, the boys return to the coronation pavilion to give a final darsan to the crowd. The Ramayanis' work is not yet completed, however, for some sixty stanzas remain to be recited. For this task Ramji Pandey takes up position at one corner of the pavilion with one of the manuscripts cradled in his lap and begins reciting rapidly in a low voice. A few nemis , determined to complete their own parayan[*] recitations, cluster around him, pocket editions in hand. The other Ramayanis simply mill about, waiting for their leader to finish. Shortly before 10:00 P.M. , he slows down and raises his voice; the others gather around him for the final, auspicious verses:

These deeds of the jewel of the Raghus—
one who recites, listens to, or sings them,
effortlessly cleanses the stain of the Dark Age
and of the heart, and enters Ram's abode!

On the completion of the final Sanskrit benediction, the little group around Ramji sets up a loud cheer and there are many embraces. The last arti follows immediately, and the Ramlila is over.

Ramlila and Devotional Practice

Even when the spectators cannot hear the lines or make out the actors clearly, they see the play, because it is being enacted in their minds. . . Some devoted spectators sit with eyes shut, "watching" the performance.[90]


The Gautamcandrika passage quoted earlier contains an intriguing ambiguity. It is usually interpreted as a description of Tulsi's first staging, on Assi Ghat, of a tableau representing Ram's enthronement; yet read differently, the passage may not describe a lila at all—or rather, not an externally represented one, but an inner vision seen by the poet as he contemplates the Ganga on the full-moon night of Ashvin. Whether the text offers an authentic account of the poet's life, the ambiguity it presents is significant, for Ramlila is an activity with both external and internal dimensions. Thus far I have concerned myself only with the externals of these productions, but in this section I consider another dimension that I believe essential to understanding how the Ramlila developed and what the drama represents to devotees: its relationship to spiritual practices favored by Vaishnavas during the past few centuries.

In his study of the origins of Vaishnava theater, Hein suggests that the custom of using child actors is of comparatively recent origin. He notes the use of children to represent Shiva and the Goddess in Shaiva/ Shakta rituals of the tantric tradition, a custom of some antiquity in parts of Bengal and Nepal, and speculates that this form of dramatic "simplification" spread westward "in the special moral climate of the time of Muslim dominance."[91] Although he may be correct in asserting a historical link with the tantric tradition, he overlooks the positive theological and ritual motivations behind the decision to put children on the stage. Indeed, given the special training that children require in order to perform in lila plays, one may question whether their use is truly a form of "simplification" at all; may it not, instead, reflect a new iconographic and ritual agenda?

Since Hein wrote his landmark study and partly as a result of it, there has been increased scholarly interest in Vaishnava theatrical traditions and their relationship to sectarian theologies. Most research to date has focused on the Krishna cult and particularly on its theological articulation in the writings of the Gauriya Vaishnava goswamis of Vrindavan, who adapted the aesthetic theories of Sanskrit drama to the service of their Krishna-centered theology. Several recent studies have turned from texts to sectarian practices and have examined the significance of role playing and theatrical performance in the lives of devotees.[92] The shift from a text-oriented approach to Hindu tradition to one giving greater importance to praxis and performance has helped modify some common generalizations—for example, the notion that bhakti sects empha-


size spontaneous, ecstatic practices and a similarly spontaneous experience of grace, and give little importance to psycho-spiritual and ritual techniques. Haberman's work has shown that for Gauriya Vaishnavism this is anything but the case; initiates in this sect pursue a demanding discipline of visualization and internal role playing, based on their belief in the existence of an eternal lila of which this world is only a shadow. However, no study in English (and to my knowledge, only one in Hindi) has examined similar practices among devotees of Ram,[93] perhaps because most scholars have assumed that the erotic-aesthetic themes emphasized in such practices are consonant only with the mythology of the "playful" Krishna and are inappropriate to that of the Ramayan's "exemplary man of decorum" (maryadapurusottam[*] ). In fact, the theology and mystical practices of Ram- and Krishna-oriented sects developed along congruent lines from the sixteenth century, when the aesthetic approach became an influential current in Vaishnavism; they reflect a continuous cross-pollination between the two main branches of the Vaishnava movement.

The roots of this tradition may indeed lie to the east and reflect the influence of the tantric traditions of Bengal, Assam, and the eastern Himalayan region. Buddhist tantric treatises are essentially visualization manuals, which instruct the worshiper in the summoning up of divine and demonic figures in order to integrate their characteristic powers and attributes.[94] It is also likely that historical factors contributed to the expanding influence of such techniques. Several recent studies have pointed to the shift, beginning from roughly the time of the Muslim conquest of North India, from royally patronized temple cults centered on powerful, heroic incarnations of Vishnu such as the boar, the man-lion, and Krishna of Dvarka, to an almost exclusive preoccupation with the adolescent amours of Krishna Gopal in the pastoral dreamscape of Vrindavan. It has been suggested that this development paralleled "a gradual retreat from the Muslim-dominated socio-political center as a sphere of religious meaning" and reflected a "serious need for an expression of Hindu dharma that placed the world of significant meaning far beyond that sphere controlled by the Muslims."[95] Appropriately enough, the sixteenth-century Gauriya theologians who pro-


vided the justification for this change in outlook were men who had themselves retreated from politics, having once occupied high positions in the Muslim government of Bengal.

The devotional paradigm developed by the most influential of these teachers, Rupa Goswami (fl. c. 1500-1550), arranges the dramatis personae of the Krishna legend in a hierarchy of relationships, each exemplifying a characteristic mood (bhav ) and capable of producing a corresponding emotion (ras —literally "juice" or "flavor"). Each emotional mood reflects a role that the devotee may assume in relation to the embodied Lord—in general practice, that of servant, friend, elder, or lover. A person initiated into this system of ritual and meditative practice is known as a rasik —"one who savors ras "—a term that can also connote a connoisseur or even a bon vivant. Rasik practice has both external and internal dimensions: the daily rituals of worship, which emphasize the service of the deity with every kind of luxury and entertainment; and guided meditations in which the devotee inwardly recreates the Lord's acts and savors their emotions by imaginative participation.

Two features common to much Hindu devotional literature point in the direction of such practices. The first is the tendency of poets to place themselves in the myth and become participants in the events they describe. Already in the ninth-century poetry of the Tamil saint Nammalvar, we find the poet assuming the voice of a young maiden of Braj and angrily chiding Krishna for his naughty pranks—the scolding, of course, providing an ironic commentary on Krishna's divine nature.[96] In the later poetry of Mithila and Bengal, such poets as Jayadeva,[97] Vidyapati, and Chandidasa assumed similar roles, and in time these became conventionalized: the female friend of Radha, the male comrade of Krishna, the go-between, and so on. The achievement of the sectarian rasik teachers was the transformation of these literary conventions into a complex system not only of theology but of mystical practice, which helped individual devotees realize what inspired poets of the tradition were assumed to have achieved: personal entry into the divine drama.

A second characteristic of much bhakti poetry is its delight in systematic physical description, particularly of the sort known as nakh-sikh —"from toenails to crown of head"; numerous poems and songs reflect this convention, which is also found in longer narrative works. Such


passages offer more than rich description; they present, as Kenneth Bryant suggests, "verbal icons" on which the listener is often explicitly admonished to meditate; such poems are, in effect, recipes for visualization.[98]

In the Manas , such icons occur in two characteristic variants. One is the nakh-sikh passage itself, which focuses on Ram and elaborates the conventions of Vaishnava iconography; a good example is the stanza in which the Lord appears before King Manu and Queen Shatrupa:

His face like the autumn moon, beauty's apogee,
graceful cheeks and chin, throat like a conch,
ruddy lips, charming teeth and nose,
smile that shames moonbeams,
eyes like newly opened lotuses,
glances to delight the heart,
brows that plunder the beauty of Love's bow,
bright mark shimmering on brow's expanse,
fish-shaped earrings and gleaming crown,
curly hair like a swarm of bees.
On his chest, jewel and forest garland,
a diamond necklace and gem-studded ornaments.
Leonine shoulders, gleaming sacred thread,
armbands of matched loveliness,
arms like elephants' trunks,
quiver at waist, bow and arrows in hand.

Yellow robe that embarrasses lightning,
stomach with three noble folds,
the beauty of his navel
as if snatched from Yamuna's eddies.

His lotus feet, on which rest
the bees of sages' hearts, beggar description.

To a Western reader interested primarily in the advancing narrative, such recurring conventionalized descriptions may appear as redundant halts in its flow. One wonders, for example, why the poet, having provided a detailed description of Ram and Lakshman in the garden scene (1.233.1-8), indulges in an even longer one a mere ten stanzas later (1.243.1-244.2) while describing the entry of the brothers into the royal assembly. Yet such passages, which carefully delineate an already familiar image, fulfill an expectation of the traditional audience and must be


understood in the context of Hindu religious practice, with its great stress on the visual perception of the divine, both through external darsan and internal dhyan (meditation) and smaran[*] (recollection)—terms often used to connote visualization.[99]

The second type of descriptive passage favored by Tulsidas might be termed a verbal tableau, or jhanki —a momentary freezing of the action to dwell on an image of Ram and his companions. An example of such a tableau explicitly identified as an object of meditation occurs near the beginning of Book Six. Ram's army has reached Lanka and camped atop Mount Subel. As twilight deepens, the Lord and his companions rest from their labors.

Finding a lofty summit,
level and resplendent,
Lakshman with his own hands spread
a carpet of fresh leaves and blossoms,
and over these a soft deerskin.
On it the Compassionate One is seated,
resting his head on the monkey king's lap,
bow to his left, quiver to right.
With both hands he trues an arrow.
Vibhishan at his ear offers counsel.
The fortunate Angad and Hanuman
deftly massage his feet.
Behind, Lakshman sits in warrior stance,
quiver at his waist, bow and arrows in hand.

Thus is enthroned Lord Ram,
abode of compassion, loveliness, and virtue.
Fortunate the man who rests
ever absorbed in this vision!
6.11.2-8, 6.11a

The frequency of verbal icons and tableaux in the Manas can be better understood in the context of religious practices current in Tulsi's day, especially the role-playing exercises, which not only aimed at a visualization of the scenes verbally crafted by poets but sought to effect the practitioner's entry into them. The conventional assumption is that Tulsi's own relationship to Ram was that of a humble servant to an awesomely powerful master, epitomizing the "servile mood" (dasyabhav ) of the system of idealized devotional relationships that was al-


ready well-articulated in his day.[100] Later rasik practitioners regarded him as one of their preceptors and reinterpreted his epic according to their own agendas, discovering esoteric meanings that they believed he had concealed in the text. I now briefly consider some of their interpretations, for they came to influence the development of Ramayan performance during the nineteenth century.

Because of the erotic content of much rasik visualization, the preceptors of this tradition advocated secrecy and restraint in its propagation. Like tantric treatises, rasik texts often contain warnings against revealing their teachings to the uninitiated or people who have not yet attained mastery over their senses.[101] Nevertheless, the influence of at least the more superficial aspects of the tradition, like that of the tantric cult in earlier times, came to pervade North Indian Vaishnavism and indeed much of North Indian culture during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The post-Mughal painting of Rajput courts, which emphasized the Radha-Krishna theme and delighted in erotic representations of musical modes, as well as the riti or "ornate" school of Hindi poetry, may be viewed as related manifestations of a worldview for which rasik theology provided the philosophical underpinnings and rasik practice offered the spiritual and experiential inspiration.

The Ram rasik tradition is a branch of the Ramanandi order, and the spiritual lineage of its great preceptor, Agradas, is usually traced to Ramanand (c. fourteenth century) as follows:

The tradition has historical roots in Rajasthan, for it was at Raivasa, near Galta, on the outskirts of modern Jaipur, that Agradas's guru Payhari resided, and it was there that Agradas established his own spiritual center or "throne" (gaddi ) and trained his disciples—who included Nabhadas, author of the hagiographic classic Bhaktamal . Agradas is


thought to have lived during the latter half of the sixteenth century; he was thus contemporary with Tulsidas and also with the later Vrindavan goswamis, with whose teachings he was undoubtedly familiar.[103] Although a full evaluation of Agradas's influence must await a detailed study of the surviving works attributed to him,[104] it may be noted that of the fifty-two "gateways" to the Lord (dvar —i.e., initiatory centers) recognized by Ramanandis, eleven are held to have been established by him. His poetic signature, "Agra-ali," is considered indicative of his devotional orientation, for ali is a colloquial term for a girl's intimate female friend and the tradition holds him to have been an incarnation of Chandrakala, one of Sita's intimate circle.[105] Portraits of Agradas often show him in a garden: he is said to have chosen this setting for his visualizations of Ram and Sita's intimate pastimes, and the custom of planting formal gardens adjacent to Ram temples may have originated with him.[106]

After Agradas's time, the rasik movement divided into two main branches—the sakhi and sakha traditions—each represented by numerous preceptors. Devotees of the former persuasion inwardly assumed the personae of Sita's girlfriends and maidservants; the latter visualized themselves as male friends of Ram. Although the Manas remained a basic text for both groups, it was supplemented by the songs of sectarian poets, most of whom wrote in the voice of one of Ram's or Sita's companions. These songs, together with the oral exposition accompanying them, constituted an esoteric Ramayan commentary, revealing secret meanings that (it was believed) Tulsi had concealed from the ordinary devotees of his day. Only in the eighteenth century did some of these teachings begin to be expressed openly in written commentaries; Mahant Ramcharandas of Ayodhya, the author of the first complete Manastika[*] , was said to have been an avatar of Tulsi whose mission was to


reveal the secrets of erotic devotionalism (srngari[*]bhakti ) hidden in the depths of the Manas Lake.[107]

Srngar[*] means "adornment," especially the adornment that excites passion. Like the term rasik it can have both worldly and spiritual connotations. The "bhakti of erotic adornment" was the devotional path trodden by spiritual "connoisseurs" who served the Lord with every beautiful object of sense and conceived of him in terms of the highest and most engaging metaphor: human sexual passion. Just as rasik devotees of Krishna selected, from the god's total legend, a certain phase of his adolescence and attributed to it not only a special charm but the profoundest theological significance, so Ram devotees selectively edited their Lord's story. And just as the earthly locale of Vrindavan was transformed by rasik theologians into the transcendent sphere of Golok, where Krishna's ultimate lila unfolded eternally, so the mundane Ayodhya became the eternal realm of Saket.[108] There the supreme godhead, known to other traditions as Parabrahma or Ishvar, resided eternally in his ultimate form as the sixteen-year-old Ramchandra and his parasakti , or feminine energy, Sita. Saket was conceived as a beautiful city, foursquare in plan, surrounding the Kanak Bhavan, or "House of Gold." In the center of this palace was a magnificent garden, and at its center, a dais in the shape of a many-petaled lotus, at the heart of which stood a gem-studded throne-couch. Here was enacted the supreme mystery: the eternal union of the two divine principles in human form, worshiped and served by their intimate attendants who alone could gain entry to this inner sanctum. The tantric influence on this conception is clear; iconographically it is especially evident in the mystical diagrams (mandal[*] , yantra ), created as aids in rasik meditation, showing the plan of Kanak Bhavan with its four gates and maze of symbolically labeled chambers and passages, all leading to the central lotus throne.[109]

Where, the noninitiate might ask, is the Ram of the Ramayan in all this—the noble prince who relinquished his kingdom, lost his wife to a demon king, and fought a heroic battle to win her back? Adepts reply that the Lord's lila has two aspects, one earthly (laukik ) and one spiritual (alaukik ). In the former, the quality of "majesty" (aisvarya ) predominates, and Ram acts as the exemplar of worldly dharma. This is also known as the "lila to be understood" (jñney lila ), and it encompasses


the conventional cycle of the Ramayan story. But beyond this, they say, there is a secret lila known only to certain fortunate ones, in which the quality of "erotic sweetness" (madhurya ) predominates and Ram expresses his ultimate reality. This is the "lila to be contemplated" (dhyey lila ) and it is deliberately omitted from the Ramayan, although it may be glimpsed in those portions of the story dealing with Ram's exploits at the youthful age when eros is thought to be most perfectly manifested.

The devotee's goal is to gain access to this ultimate lila in the only way possible—by becoming a participant in it. He passes through a series of five preliminary initiations[110] and a program of meditative practice designed to familiarize him with the iconography of Saket and its inhabitants. Sectarian texts abound in nakh-sikh descriptions of Ram, Sita, and their youthful companions, intended to assist in the visualization of the ideal realm. The most important step, which in theory is taken only when the guru perceives the aspirant to be inwardly prepared for it, is the "initiation of relationship" (sambandh diksa[*] ), which establishes a personal connection to the supreme lila by the creation of a "divine body" (variously termed cit deh, sadhanasarir , and divya sarir ).[111] Although this new body is, in fact, one's real identity, recognized within one by the guru, its experience depends on emotion (bhav ), which in the beginning must be carefully cultivated. The initiate receives a wealth of contextual information to aid his identification with the divine body and cultivation of its emotional mood. For example, treatises catalog seven kinds of girlfriends of Sita, ranging in age from less than six to more than sixteen years, and provide each with a list Of close relatives and teachers, and details as to their place of birth, favorite activities, and so forth. Similar catalogs exist for the male companions of Ram.[112]

Once established in the visualized body, an aspirant is ready to begin the most characteristic aspect of rasik practice: the mental service of Sita-Ram during the "eight periods of the day" (astayam[*] )—a cycle based on the pattern of daily worship in Vaishnava temples and ultimately on the protocol of royal courts. Most of the prominent rasik preceptors composed manuals detailing their own interpretations of the cycle and the type of activity to be visualized during each period. Dedi-


cated adherence to an astayam[*] schedule involves rigorous discipline; the aspirant must rise by 3:00 A.M. , bathe and purify himself by repeating the sectarian mantra, mentally reassume the visualized body, and be ready to begin offering service to the divine pair when they are awakened at about 4:30—a service that will continue at prescribed intervals throughout the day and night. The aim of this discipline (sadhana ), which may occupy one's whole life, is clearly expressed in sectarian writings: what begins as an "imaginative conception" (bhavna ) gradually becomes real. By long practice in visualization, the devotee begins to catch "glimpses" (jhalak ) of the actual lila; these gradually intensify and lengthen until the adept acquires the ability to enter the realm of Saket at any moment—a condition regarded by this tradition as "liberation in the body" (sadeh mukti ).[113] Of course, this supreme state is not attained by all devotees, but it is an ideal to which all aspire. The intensity with which exemplary initiates have pursued these practices and the extraordinary experiences vouchsafed them are celebrated in sectarian hagiography, while the notion of the heavenly Ayodhya as the soul's ultimate abode is constantly reaffirmed in the Ram devotees' preferred idiom for death: to "set forth for Saket."

Despite the emphasis, especially in the sakhi branch of the tradition, on erotic themes, the personal meditations of many rasik devotees centered on other possible relationships to Ram. Some chose to visualize the Lord as a young child and cultivate tender parental emotions toward him (vatsalya bhav ).[114] In this they had as a model the immortal crow Kak Bhushundi of Tulsi's Uttar kand[*] , who asserted,

My chosen Lord is the child Ram,
who possesses the beauty of a billion Love gods

and who was said to return to Ayodhya in every cosmic cycle to experience the childhood sports of his Lord, thus paralleling the aspirant's own inner journeys to Saket and recreations of its lila . Common to all rasik practice was an emphasis on the techniques of role playing and visualization as well as an aesthetic delight in sensorially rich settings, rather than any specific content.


As in the Krishna tradition, so in the rasik literature of Ram we find warnings against the externalization of the meditative practices, for the content of the visualizations could easily provoke the misunderstanding and scorn of the uninitiated. Yet paradoxically, since an underlying assumption is that the events seen in meditation are real, the most exemplary devotees are often those whose lives reveal a blurring of the boundary that separates this world from Saket and a spilling over of its lila into the mundane sphere. Such legends confirm the power of the technique and suggest that the devotee's "acting" is less a mental exercise than a way of life.

The early saint Surkishor (fl. c. 1600?), who, like Agradas, came from the Jaipur region, is said to have visualized himself as a brother of King Janak; hence he regarded Sita as his daughter and Ram as his son-in-law. So strictly did he observe traditional rules of kinship that on pilgrimages to Ayodhya he refrained from taking food or water within the city limits, since a girl's blood relations should not accept hospitality from her husband's family. He had an image of Sita that he carried with him everywhere and treated exactly as one would a real daughter, even buying toys and sweets for her in the bazaar. It is said that other devotees, shocked by his disrespectful attitude toward the Mother of the Universe, stole this image. Heartbroken, he went to Mithila to find his lost daughter, and Sita, pleased by his steadfastness, caused the idol to reappear.[115]

In Katha sessions, I twice heard the story of the child saint Prayagdas. Taunted by other children because he had no elder sister to feed him sweets during the festive month of Shravan, he went tearfully to his widowed mother, who appeased him by telling him that he had a sister who had been married before he was born: "Her name is Janaki, and her husband is Ramchandra, a powerful man in Ayodhya. She never comes to visit us." The guileless child, determined to see his sister, set out for Ayodhya and after many trials reached the holy city. His requests to be directed to the residence of "that big man, Ramchandra" met with laughter; everyone assumed the ragged urchin to be insane. Exhausted from his journey, Prayagdas fell asleep under a tree. But in the dead of night in the inner sanctuary of Kanak Bhavan Temple, the images came alive. Ram turned to Sita and said, "Dearest, today the most extraordinary saint has come to town! We must go meet him." The divine entourage proceeded in state to Prayagdas's lonely tree, where the ringing of the great bells around the necks of the elephants awakened the boy.


Undaunted by the magnificent vision, he repeated his question to the splendidly dressed man in the howdah and received the reply, "I am Ramchandra, and here beside me is your sister, Janaki." But the boy, unimpressed, told the Lord, "You are surely deceiving me, because where I come from we have the custom that when a sister meets her brother again after a long separation, she falls at his feet and washes them with her tears." Devotees delight in describing how the Mother of the Universe, unable to disappoint him, got down from her jeweled palanquin and threw herself in the dust of the road.[116]

The romantic predilections of rasik devotees led many of them to focus on the first book of the Manas . Maharaja Raghuraj Singh of Rewa wrote in his epic Ramsvayamvar[*] that his guru had instructed him to read Balkand[*] exclusively. A great devotee of the Ramnagar Ramlila , he is said to have attended only the early portions of the cycle each year. The sadhu Rampriya Sharan, who regarded himself as Sita's sister, composed a Sitayan in seven books (c. 1703), confining its narrative to Sita's childhood and marriage. A few preceptors even took the extreme position that the distressing events of the exile, the abduction of Sita, and so forth, were not lila at all, but only divine drama (natak[*] ) staged for the benefit of the world.[117] Another story told of Prayagdas has the guileless saint happen on a Katha on Ayodhyakand[*] , the events of which are altogether unknown to him. He listens with growing alarm as the expounder tells of the exile of Ram, Sita, and Lakshman and their wanderings in the forest, but when he hears that the princes and his "sister" are compelled to go barefoot and sleep on the ground, he becomes distracted with grief. Rushing to the bazaar, he has a cobbler fashion three pairs of sandals and an artisan make three rope-beds and, placing these things on his head, he sets out for Chitrakut, inquiring of everyone concerning the wanderers. He eventually makes his way to Panchvati where, it is said, he is rewarded with darsan and the opportunity to bestow his gifts.[118]

The influence of the rasik tradition appears to have peaked in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—the period when the Ramlila developed into its modern form. B. P. Singh's biographical listing of prominent rasik devotees includes many Ramayanis who were active in the


court of Udit Narayan Singh and his son Ishvariprasad and were involved in the development of the royal pageant—such as Ramgulam Dvivedi, Raguraj Singh, Shivlal Pathak, and Kashthajihva Swami. Singh's study also suggests the political implications of the theology and mystical practice of the sectarian teachers: in a period dominated by a foreign power, they offered devotees and patrons an interiorization of the old Vaishnava royal cult, based on a "new kingdom,"

limitless in extent, and millions of times greater in splendor than any earthly kingdom. Its king is so great that the five elements and time itself stand reverently before him . . . while he himself, in the company of countless maidservants and his own beloved, remains in the Golden House immersed in dalliance. . . . This imaginary kingdom of the rasiks is the world of Saket, its sovereign is the divine couple Shri Sita-Ram, and the easy path to reach it is through the technique of visualization.[119]

But just as in the theory of rasik practice, what begins as imagination ends as a reality so concrete that the real world seems to be no more than a dream in comparison, so in the case of the Ramlila , what began as a play was transformed, under the guidance of the Banaras rulers and their rasik advisors, into a city and kingdom not only reimagined but physically transformed into an enduring ideological statement.

For rasik devotees the Ramlila offered a foretaste of the goal of their mystical endeavor—the realization of the adored deities and their richly iconographic world—but this exteriorization of the vision necessitated certain adjustments. The use of Brahman child actors reflected both the organizers' fascination with the corresponding phases of Ram's life and their conviction that only innocent children of pure birth could fully manifest the qualities of deities. Devotees may also have been influenced by the erotic content of much of their visualization; as in the Krishna plays of Vrindavan, in which the deity's amours, graphically described in literature, were rendered charmingly innocent by their symbolic enactment by lisping children, so the little boys of Chitrakut and Ramnagar enabled rasik initiates to harmlessly exteriorize** their visions of the loveplay of the Lord and his consort. At the same time, the Ramlila afforded them an opportunity to render tangible service to the flesh-and-blood deities, to touch and be touched by them—an intimacy that would have been impossible with adult actors.


Theological Views of Lila

Even today, when the conservatism of the Ramnagar Ramlila has become a matter of local pride, suggestions for the pageant's modernization are occasionally heard. Is it not inconvenient, some ask, for spectators to have to sit on the ground and to troop long distances each evening? Would it not be more sensible for the whole cycle to be staged in a single location, equipped with permanent stage, awnings, and chairs? There have been times when the producers' traditionalism has seemed to run counter to the best interests of the play—as in a recent year, when ritual pollution due to a death in a family that provided several key actors decimated the cast in midcycle and resulted in hasty and unsatisfactory substitutions. At that time, even some older devotees urged the maharaja to overlook the possible breach of dharma. They argued that the deceased was only a distant relation of the actors and the pollution was slight; why not let some purificatory rite be performed and the cycle proceed with cast intact? Vibhuti Narayan Singh was unyielding, and his sarcastic response is still quoted admiringly by aficionados: "What do you think this is . . . some play? "[120]

It is indeed the position of many devotees that the Ramlila is not a "play" (natak[*] ) in the usual sense; this view has been articulated by Thakur Prasad Dvivedi in an essay that illuminates some of the religious concepts underlying Vaishnava performances. Using the terminology of the classical dramatic treatise Natyasastra[*] , Dvivedi argues that lila is a unique class of performance distinct from conventional dramatic representation; indeed, it is not "representation" at all, because it is born of the Lord and is one of his essential forms (vigrah ). Through specially consecrated actors, the Lord manifests Himself and recreates His sports in every detail, regardless of theatrical considerations.[121] The use of footwear and chairs is eschewed by audiences not out of stoicism but out of their conviction that they are in the physical presence of God.

To underscore his contention that lila is fundamentally different from theater, Dvivedi describes the training regimen of the Ramnagar principals. On being selected by the maharaja, the boys who are to play the four brothers and Sita retire for two months to a secluded enclosure, where they are fed a special diet to enhance their "luster" (tejas ) and tutored daily by directors. This training is not merely to help them mem-


Figure 29.
Adult players representing monkeys and bears at the Ramnagar
Ramlila (photo courtesy of Linda Hess)

orize dialogues and gestures—indeed, this is a secondary consideration, for a director with a promptbook will always be at their sides in performance to assist them if they forget. Rather, they are put through a process akin to the one that rasik initiates impose on themselves: they are taught to identify completely with their parts and to live them even when not in costume or in public view. From the time of their selection they are called, and are supposed to call one another, only by their lila -names, and they are taught to behave as their characters would: thus, when Ram rises from his seat, his three brothers rise respectfully as well, and whenever they address him they first bow their heads. Once the performances begin, even their nightly place of residence is determined by the narrative. Ram and Sita are kept strictly separated until the flower garden episode of their first meeting; after her capture by Ravan, Sita remains at all performance times in the compound that represents the Ashok grove in which she is imprisoned. Unlike ordinary actors, who shed their roles when they leave the theater, the Ramnagar players are never supposed to be out of character. This particular brand of painstaking verisimilitude belies the notion of Ramlila as a form of theatrical "simplification," but it has less to do with theater in the conventional sense than with sadhana .


Ramnagar's conventions are widely admired, but few neighborhood productions can afford the special training and environments used to create the kind of identification just described, and many pay only a conventionalized lip service to it. Yet the tendency of neighborhood actors—especially adult participants who play the same roles year after year—to identify with their parts has often been remarked on; many become known by their lila names year-round in their localities and claim to be deeply affected by their participation.[122] Ramnagar devotees still cite the total identification of the elderly man who played Hanuman for nearly fifty years and, even on his retirement, continued to "play" his role, constantly shadowing the Ram actor and serving him. Nor do they find it incongruous that the boys are playful and mischievous in their lodgings, for they assume that the Lord too relaxes and sports in his private moments. But the effects of the boys' participation may manifest later in life; among the Manas expounders I interviewed, several cited childhood participation in a Ramlila as a decisive factor in their choice of career.

Citing the Krishna lila of Vrindavan, especially the van yatra tradition of pilgrimage theater, Dvivedi quotes a Vaishnava saying,

In the forest of Vrindavan occurs the manifest lila ,
in the mind's Vrindavan, the unmanifest lila .[123]

Both the van yatra and the Ramlila belong to the "manifest" (prakata[*] ) category, as does the daily ritual cycle of Vaishnava temple worship. But the verse suggests the relationship that external performance has with the internal discipline of visualizing an "unmanifest" (aprakata[*]) lila , and in discussing the various kinds of people who benefit from the Ramlila , Dvivedi concludes by noting that it offers "to initiated aspirants and especially to those who practice rasik devotion the lovely opportunity to render service."[124]

Such service may take a variety of forms. Since the feet of a svarup are never supposed to touch the ground except when he is enacting a scene, he is transported from place to place on the shoulders of devotees, and sadhus especially vie for this opportunity to enjoy physical intimacy with God. During breaks in the performance, the boys receive an endless stream of worshipers, accept offerings of garlands and return them as prasad , are fanned and offered pan , and sometimes have their feet mas-


saged by adoring devotees. Some sadhus simply sit gazing on them, rosaries in hand, while practicing the repetition of the name (nam-jap ).

Even at smaller productions similar conventions are observed. One reason the Khojwan performances last far into the night is that frequent interruptions allow devotees to offer service. Whenever Ram and Lakshman traverse the neighborhood in the course of their wanderings, they are invited to pause at homes and shops. Each establishment is decorated with lights and flowers, and even though it may be 1:00 or 2:00 A.M. , the whole household is awake. The boys are seated on richly draped couches, their feet are washed, they are fed savories and sweets, and their arti is performed by family members. The sponsors are usually merchants, sometimes householder initiates in the Ramanandi tradition, who prize this opportunity to offer intimate service to living deities. The boy actors in the Chitrakut production are housed with a different family each night—a special, coveted honor. The desire to experience such intimacy—and to gain the status it confers—must be reckoned among the factors responsible for the proliferation of neighborhood Ramlilas . By supporting the pageant, the merchants of Khojwan and Chitrakut earn the right to do what the king does at Ramnagar: play host to Ram and Sita for the duration of the cycle.

Entering the Play

How successful is Ramlila in facilitating identification with the story and its characters? To judge its success, one must attempt to enter its world. Yet the Ramlila is a form of performance that makes considerable demands on its audience. Apart from the physical hardships viewers sometimes endure,[125] there is the prerequisite of knowledge of the text. For even though, when viewed overall, the lila may seem to be a grand and colorful pageant, most performances are actually slow-moving and uneventful. Moments of high drama and spectacle occur periodically, but they emerge out of hours of alternation between Manas recitation and dialogues, stylized and deliberately slow acting, and endless treks between sites. As one Ramnagar connoisseur exclaimed to me with wry delight, "The fact is, unless you know half the Manas by heart, our Ramlila is probably the most boring play in the world!"[126] Few outsiders, unversed (as our idiom aptly puts it) in the performance text, have


the patience to sit through even a single complete episode—as I occasionally found when I brought a foreign acquaintance to Ramnagar with me—and casual visitors in quest of Ramlila may be better advised to see one of the edited versions adapted for modern tastes.[127] But if one has some familiarity with the text and makes the effort, by regular attendance, to penetrate the Ramlila 's world, the reward can be an insight into the religious motives that underlie this drama. In Hess's words,

To be vigorously and devotedly involved in the Ram Lila for one month is to take an excursion out of ordinary space and time. . . . The participant not only sees the drama, but finds himself acting in it. A vast world is created before and around him. Performance after performance this world is built physically and psychologically. The devotee's days are curved around the necessity of being there. . . . The tawdry samsara[*] of ordinary life pales while the Ram Lila world becomes ever more vivid, brilliant and gripping.[128]

This experience, particularly intense for devotees, may be shared even by outsiders, and in perceptively writing of the "audience experience," Hess necessarily included her own. I too find myself compelled to describe personal experiences in an effort to complete my accounting faithfully.

In 1982 I attended the Ramnagar performances daily and sat with the Manas chanters; like any regular from Banaras, I too found the pattern of my days "curved around the necessity of being there." I seldom reached home before midnight and barely had time each morning to write notes on the previous evening's events and attend to a few household chores before it was time to bathe, put on clean clothes, and set out for Ramnagar again—a routine that continued unbroken for thirty-one days. My experiences during this period ran a gamut from boredom to intense fascination and even to fear (of being trampled by elephants during nighttime treks, since the Ramayanis walk directly in front of the maharaja's mounted party); but one response became quite predictable. The arti ritual with which each performance ends is orchestrated around a hymn sung by the Ramayanis. Two are used in the course of the pageant: one whenever Sita is with Ram, and one when she is separated from him. Both are typical rasik lyrics—descriptions of the beauty of the deity enthroned in the eternal Saket—and bear no apparent relation to


the Ramayan story. Although the "Ram" before them may be seated-on the ground in forest exile, the Ramayanis still begin,

A palace of gold, a jewel-studded throne,
servants spread out shimmering carpets

As they sing, a fireworks man attaches a magnesium flare to a long pole. Just as they reach the third line of the verse,

while on them shines the Light of the World!

he ignites and elevates it. It blazes forth like a new star exploding in the firmament, bathing the whole area in unearthly brilliance. Simultaneously an involuntary sound rises from thousands of throats: something between a jubilant cheer and an awed gasp, it sounds like the roar of the sea. Always, at this moment, my throat contracts, my eyes mist, and I am swept up in the intense emotion of the crowd. At such times, I sense a change in Ram's appearance too. All the boys strike rigid poses for arti —bodies erect, faces impassive, lotuses in hand; arranged by the directors according to iconographic prescription. Yet these are not stone images, but living beings, and the difference is important to devotees. During the tumultuous sunrise arti following enthronement night, in the midst of one of Ramnagar's biggest crowds, I look at Ram's face and get an almost physical jolt: surely this is not the same boy I have been watching daily for more than four weeks; he seems older, more powerful, almost luminous above the swaying heads of the throng. And there is something else besides; something that eludes description but sends a chill up my spine. The faith that sustains the production seems, at this moment, utterly tangible.

If the power of Ramlila is revealed in its unfolding presence, it is felt no less in its absence; as Hess has noted, the sudden dissolution of the drama's vast and encompassing world on the final night is a pralay (the term used for the periodic reabsorption of the cosmos into an unmanifest condition) that profoundly affects spectators.[129] The morning after the last performance in 1982, I awoke with a feeling of emptiness and loss. Although I had many pressing errands that had long been delayed, I felt irresistibly drawn back to Ramnagar and went to visit one of the Ramayanis, a schoolmaster in a nearby village. At sunset we cycled to the huge field where Ravan had fallen in battle six days before; it was now deserted and windswept, barely recognizable without the


Figure 30.
A giant puppet effigy representing Kumbhakaran at the Lanka site,
Ramnagar Ramlila (photo courtesy of William Donner)

crowds, the oil lamps, the sounds. When I remarked to my companion that I already missed the Ramlila , he replied quietly, "As for us, well, we just live somehow for eleven months until it all begins again."

But the Ramlila never disappears completely. Its names and environments remain etched on the landscape, and its magic can occasionally resurface in surprising ways. I cannot agree—nor could the people I talked to—that players are unaffected by the roles they assume.[130] Their external acting, like the inner role playing of rasik initiates, is a serious business to them, and the personae they briefly assume are not quickly forgotten. It may be recalled that the great turn-of-the-century vyas Ramkumar Mishra always prostrated himself at the feet of Dharmdatt, one of his own pupils, because the latter had once played Ram at Ramnagar.

After lila ended, I continued to make periodic research visits to Ramnagar; one afternoon many months later I was walking in front of the palace with Ramji Pandey, the chief Ramayani, when we encountered a group of secondary school boys. Pandey chatted briefly with them, and


then they requested that we join them for a cup of tea. As it happened, we had just had tea and I was in a hurry to return to Banaras, so I declined their repeated invitations. Pandey (who was constitutionally reluctant to turn down free refreshments) tried to coax me out Of my bad manners: "Certainly you must take tea; why not?" It had been a long day, and I was beginning to feel annoyed by their insistence. Then Pandey motioned toward one of the boys and asked me if I recognized him. The youngster, clad in a school uniform of Western-style shirt and khaki trousers, smiled shyly. "No," I replied firmly and started to unlock my cycle. "Yet you've seen him before," Pandey continued softly, "many, many times." I looked again; the face was oddly familiar, but my growing irritation still kept me from catching on. As I turned back to my bike, the old Ramayani suddenly became grave; taking hold of my sleeve, he almost whispered, "Don't you realize who he is? He is Ram , and he is offering you prasad of tea."

The obvious came as a complete surprise; just for an instant the sharp contours of the mundane seemed to dissolve into transparency, and another, familiar world swam back into focus, like a stone glimpsed at the bottom of a pond. I looked again at the face I had seen that morning at the sunrise ceremony. Then we all had tea.

The Ultimate Commentary

In the middle of the nineteenth century, an influential Ramayani by the name of Raghunath Das "Sindhi," working under the patronage of Maharaja Udit Narayan Singh, composed a commentary entitled Manasdipika (Lamp of the Manas ).[131] In a verse prologue explaining how the work came to be written, Raghunath declared that his patron had caused three "commentaries" (tilak ) to be created.

The first commentary was the great Ramlila ,
beholding which, man is saved from hell.
The legions of soratha[*] and doha ,
of ingenious chand and lovely caupai
whatever meaning each possesses
is clearly shown in the beautiful lila .[132]


The passage goes on to identify a famous illuminated manuscript, the Citra Ramayan[*] (picture Ramayan), as the second commentary, and the Manas dipika itself is said to be the third.

In 1983, when Udit Narayan's great-great-grandson Vibhuti Narayan Singh spoke to me of the significance of the Ramlila , he proposed a different order of composition for the three commentaries. His view was that his ancestor had aspired to "bring the Manas to life" and communicate it to the widest possible audience. To this end he had commissioned the Manas dipika , but when it was finished he reflected that it was too scholarly to reach the masses. Then he spent a fortune on an illuminated version, only to conclude that it too could never have a wide impact. At last he had the inspiration of his life: the overhaul of a local Ramlila into the great pageant-cycle of today. With this third tilak he at last achieved his goal. Concluded the maharaja, "And that is what is different about our Ramlila: it is not just a lila; it is a commentary on the Ramcaritmanas ."[133]

Both Vibhuti Narayan Singh and Raghunath Das view the Ramlila in essentially the same way: as a form of textual exposition. Indeed, the Ramayani's verses stress the play's ability to explicate every single line of the epic. This assessment, often repeated by aficionados in explaining why the Ramnagar production is so special, suggests a link between the aims and techniques of Ramlila and Katha . This link and the nature of the pageant's "commentary" now need to be examined in greater detail.

As noted earlier, the city of Ayodhya remains a center for "continuous" (nitya ) Katha , in which the Manas is sequentially expounded on a daily basis. In most of the institutions that sponsor such programs, however, there are breaks in the exposition cycle during festival periods that commemorate important events in Ram's earthly life. At such times, the daily Katha is preempted by a participatory lila of one kind or another. One such period is the bright half of the month of Chaitra (March/April), when Ayodhya's biggest festival, Ram Navami, draws thousands of pilgrims and every major temple mounts a special program, sometimes featuring professional lila or jhanki troupes. Infant images of Ram and his brothers are placed in cradles and people sing songs of congratulation (badhaiyam[*] ). The month of Shravan (July/August) is similarly renowned for its Swing Festival (jhulamela ); a rasik -inspired adaptation of a festival held in Vrindavan, it celebrates the dalliance of Ram and


Sita during the sensuous monsoon season. To climax this verdant month, all the temples and ashrams take their images in procession to the forested slopes of the hill known as Mani Parvat.[134] Here they create decorated bowers containing opulent couch-swings on which the divine couples are swung and entertained with seasonal folksongs.

Within the context of Ayodhya's traditional cycle then, Katha and lila are viewed as complementary activities; however, because of its participatory nature and the fact that it engages all the senses, lila is regarded as a kind of intensification of Katha and takes precedence over it during its special seasons.[135] Katha , as we have seen, is itself an elaboration of simple recitation (path[*] ), to which it adds a new dimension by expanding the text into a profusion of interpretations and digressions. Like an ongoing Katha program, the Ramnagar Ramlila is likewise structured around a complete recitation of the Manas , and it also has a principal listener—the maharaja—who must be present each day in order for it to begin. The belief that the king of Banaras represents Shiva adds another dimension to his presence—for Shiva is the primal narrator of the Manas; thus in the maharaja the god listens reflexively to his own narration.[136]

The Ramayanis chant the Manas but they do not expound it, for in this particular Katha the place of the exposition is taken by the miming of the players and their intermittent dialogues. Although ordinary exegesis is oral, that of the Ramlila is visual as well, and aficionados like to cite the fact that the pageant offers a "visible commentary" (drsya[*]tika[*] ) on the epic. As one of Schechner's interviewees noted with satisfaction, "If they say 'asok tree' they have an asok tree, if they say 'jungle' they go to a jungle, if they say 'Ayodhya' they show Ayodhya."[137] Indeed, one cannot fail to be impressed by the producers' efforts at textual fidelity, the more surprising in the context of a performance that can hardly be called, in Western terms, naturalistic. Like the Hollywood director who is said to have insisted that a closed briefcase on a set representing a turn-of-the-century interior actually contain a newspaper from that period (because, he said, even though the audience would never know it


was there, "I will know!"),[138] the Ramnagar producers indulge in visual details that remain invisible to the great majority of spectators. Of the thousands who flock to the popular "flower garden" scene, for example, few can get close enough to Ram and Sita's lotus-covered bower to realize, when the Ramayanis chant the verse,

The catak and cuckoo, parrot and cakor all sang

that in fidelity to this line, live birds are placed within the foliage and secured by strings around their feet. Similarly, when Indra's son Jayant, in the guise of a crow, tests Ram's greatness by pecking Sita's foot, Tulsi's two-word mention that "blood flowed" (3.1.8) occasions a brief halt in the action to allow a prop man to pour a tiny stream of red paint—equally invisible to the multitude—on the offended limb.[139] Such fidelity to detail is not only a sign of the esteem in which the producers hold the Manas; it also reflects a visual sensibility characteristic of the devotional milieu in which the performance developed.

It should now be clear why the two white-turbaned directors of the Ramlila , who carry the script-books and prompt the actors, are accorded the honorific title vyas; for it is they, and not the Ramayanis, who assume responsibility for the elaboration (vyakhya ) of the text into an act of performance. Their work is thus conceived as akin to that of an expounder of oral Katha . Even though the textual mediation of a traditional commentator often begins with the rendering of an epic verse into contemporary prose, it does not end there, nor should it be supposed that mere translation is its primary function. As we have seen, such expounders presuppose an audience that is already conversant with the text, and the Ramlila 's producers appear to make similar assumptions. Thus, one should not assume that the pageant's dialogues are meant to serve the needs of an audience that no longer understands the Manas . Ramlila dialogues often depart significantly from the text, frequently expand on it, and leave large portions of it untouched to receive only visual elaboration.[140] This approach, common to many lila productions,


is codified in such popular texts as Ramlilaramayan[*]satik[*] , which offers Ramlila committees a series of Manas passages with accompanying stage directions and suggestions for dialogue.[141]

One of the most common ways in which the lila significantly expands on the text is found in its handling of the instances where Tulsi reports the occurrence of a conversation or speech but chooses not to quote it. Because at such moments Ramlila producers feel obliged to present the reported speech, they must decide how to reconstruct it. Sometimes they enlist the aid of other texts, such as the Valmiki and the Adhyatma Ramayanas[*] , but in other instances they favor their own interpretations. A well-known example occurs when, just before crossing the Ganga, the exiles take leave of the courtier Sumantra and give him messages to carry back to the king. Ram and Sita speak comforting words, but Lakshman indulges in an emotional outburst, which Tulsi discreetly refrains from quoting.

Then Lakshman uttered some harsh words,
but the Lord, perceiving them to be improper, checked him.

Here the producers face a problem in deciding what to have their player say, for the nature of Lakshman's remarks on the riverbank has long been a matter of controversy.[142] With characteristic boldness, the Ramnagar directors disregard Valmiki's version of the speech and instead create a short but powerful dialogue that effectively captures the fiery spirit of Tulsi's Lakshman.


Not long ago, falling under the spell of a woman, he sent us to the forest. Now he tries to wheedle us with sugary words! I'll come back after fourteen years and give him my answer—with arrow and sword!



Lakshman! Don't speak like that, it's very improper. Keep still.[143]

The stark irreverence of this samvad —an example of the play's tendency, shared with Katha , to domesticate epic characters—is greatly enjoyed by the Ramnagar audience, which responds with an excited cheer: "Sri Lakhanlal ji ki jay!" (Victory to dear Shri Lakshman!).

An example of a more substantial expansion on the epic text occurs in the "Bow Sacrifice" episode and typifies another type of exegesis often found in Katha: the elaboration of legendary allusions in the Manas . When King Janak gives Vishvamitra, Ram, and Lakshman a tour of the arena where Shiva's bow is displayed and Sita's bridegroom choice is to take place, the poet makes a passing reference to a story that the king relates:

He respectfully narrated his own story,
and showed the sage the whole of the arena.

Here too the Ramnagar expounders feel constrained to provide elaboration: to explain how the divine bow came into Janak's possession and why Sita's betrothal depends on it—two matters nowhere treated in the Manas . And so after the Ramayanis chant the above verse, the player portraying King Janak declares,

O Lord, Sati relinquished her body at Daksha's sacrifice, and because of that glorious act, Mahadev-ji [Shiva] destroyed the sacrifice with this very bow. At that time the assembled gods propitiated Mahadev-ji with a hymn of praise, whereupon by the agreement of all the gods, this bow was given to the eldest son of King Nimiraj. Since that day it has been worshiped in my family.

One day, taking Janaki [Sita] with me, I left the palace and went off to where the bow was kept, worshiped it, and then returned. Then Janaki thought to herself, "It's such a hardship for Father to have to come so far," and so she picked up the bow and brought it home! O Lord, for that reason I took the vow that I will give this maiden to whomever can break the bow.[144]

In such passages, the domesticating of story and characters is achieved both by the introduction of homely tales that are not in the epic and by


the language itself, which is often idiomatic and colloquial and at times—especially in the speeches of Ravan and the heated exchange between Lakshman and Parashuram—highly amusing. Its choppy, singsong sentences make gods and demons, sages and kings, begin to sound like one's relatives and neighbors.

Another form of commentary that the Ramlila shares with the Katha tradition is its use of excerpts from other texts, and especially from other works of Tulsidas, to expand on the Manas . Such an expansion reflects the producers' need to provide action, dialogue, and music whenever Tulsi mentions its occurrence. Thus, when the poet describes how the women of Ayodhya, hearing the news of Ram's birth, stream into the palace to see the child and congratulate his parents,

Bearing golden vessels and trays heaped with auspicious things,
singing, they passed through the king's portal.

the producers must not only show us the women (represented by a handful of sari-clad actors) but must also let us hear their songs. The text sung here consists of two stanzas of the conventional congratulatory type (badhai ), bearing no poetic signature. Similarly, when the poet describes Sita's companions "singing songs with sweet voices" (1.228.3), the sakhis in the performance actually sing a song, reportedly drawn from a work entitled Siyarampaccisi . And as might be expected, in the course of the marriage ceremonies more women's songs are introduced, including one from Tulsi's short work Ramlalanahchu .[145]

The Ramlila 's commentary is expressed not only in words but also in gestures. A good example is the treatment of Ram's "mysterious speech" to Parashuram, which precipitates the latter's recognition of the hero's divinity. The production today accepts an interpretation by certain commentators, which I have already described.[146] When the Ramayanis chant the words,

Such is the greatness of the Brahman race

the boy playing Ram pushes aside his upper garment and points gravely to his bare chest. This gives his words a striking new meaning, for afici-


onados understand that he is displaying a mark made by the foot of Bhrigu—one of the physical signs by which Lord Vishnu may unfailingly be recognized. This staging is said to have been suggested by one Kamlasharan, who died several decades ago after coaching the boy actors at Ramnagar for nearly half a century. He in turn reportedly learned it from his guru, Purushottam Datt, who himself played Ram and later became a vyas; Purushottam Datt was a pupil of the great Ramkumar Mishra, in whose fertile imagination this bhav may have originated.[147]

Such interpretive decisions were never made lightly, and the lore of the Ramnagar production includes many stories of furious debates that raged over what may appear to outsiders to be minor details of staging, costuming, and dialogue. Another story told of Kamlasharan concerns the interpretation of a line in Lanka[*]kand[*] . When Ram tells Lakshman to kill Ravan's powerful son, Meghnad, he follows it with an order to the other principal warriors in his entourage:

O Jambavant, Sugriv, and Vibhishan,
You three remain with the army.

The question that vexed lila stagers here was "which army"—Ram's or Lakshman's? Did Ram let his younger brother face Meghnad with only a small force, or did he send his best fighters to accompany him? It is said that after mulling over the matter for many years, Kamlasharan decided on the latter interpretation, because he reasoned that Ram would not risk further injury to Lakshman (who had already been mortally wounded by one of Meghnad's magic weapons); he therefore ordered the three players to depart with Lakshman. However, the other principal vyas , who was in charge of the adult actors, disagreed and insisted that his players remain with Ram. The argument simmered through several seasons. Eventually the two protagonists debated the question in the presence of the maharaja, citing such factors as the mythical geography of Lanka and the strategy of the two armies. The maharaja sided with Kamlasharan's opponent on strategic grounds; to this day the three warriors remain at Ram's side during Lakshman's final confrontation with Meghnad.[148]


Shivpur’s Visual Allegory

Although the royal Ramlila cycle presents a striking example of spatial commentary, even modest local productions lacking resources for the expansive environments constructed at Ramnagar have evolved methods of staging that comment no less effectively on Tulsi's text. At Shivpur, a village on the northwestern outskirts of Banaras, virtually the entire Ramlila transpires within a large rectangular enclosure oriented to the four directions. Each of the walled sides has an elevated dais at its center: the one to the north is approached by seven steps and surmounted by a throne; the southern dais has five steps and likewise bears a throne; the eastern dais is raised only two steps; and the one to the west is but a single step above ground level. These platforms are linked by raised walkways that intersect at the center of the enclosure, dividing the performance area into four rectangles (figure 31).

According to Bhanushankar Mehta, who has studied this production, the northern dais with its high stairway (reflecting traditional cosmology and the sequence of seven steps through which Tulsi narrates his tale) is the seat of divine characters and sages. The lower throne-dais to the south, with its staircase symbolic of the fivefold material world, is the seat of worldly kings—Dashrath, Janak, Bali, Sugriv, Vibhishan, and of course, Ravan. The orientation of these two platforms conforms to symbolic geography, the north being associated with the gods and immortality, the south with mortality, the underworld, and demons. The eastern platform is the seat of female characters: Kaushalya (whom Tulsi salutes as "the eastern sky . . . in which appeared Ram's beautiful moon"; 1.16.4-5), Ram's stepmother Kaikeyi, Janak's queens, and Sita (who is from the eastern kingdom of Videha); it serves as both the flower garden in Janakpur (the site of Ram and Sita's first meeting) and the Ashok grove in Lanka (the garden of their separation). The western and lowest platform, said to represent humble devotees, is used by the Ramayanis.[149]

Most of the action of the play transpires on the bisecting runways that link these cardinal platforms and literally chart the "goings of Ram" (Rama-ayana —a traditional interpretation of the Sanskrit epic's title). The main axis of the narrative is the north-south path, along which the Lord descends from his heavenly abode to engage in adventures that eventually carry him to its opposite pole for a decisive con-


Figure 31.
The Shivpur Ramlila grounds

frontation with his archrival. His mission accomplished, he returns in triumph and reascends the seven steps to occupy his throne in Ayodhya. Spectators occupy the four quadrants bounded by the runways, which place them in the midst of the story: in a world visited and transformed by Ram.

Mehta is a Banarsi physician and lifelong Ramlila aficionado whose writings on the pageant occasionally appear in the local press or the popular Hindi weekly Dharmyug . When he attended the Shivpur production, he was struck by the peculiar tetradic symmetry of its staging, which immediately reminded him of the overall design of the Manas epic. Like Tulsidas, the creators of this neighborhood pageant seem to have sought to frame the deeds of Ram within a geometric paradigm, each side of which highlights a key aspect of the whole. Assuming each of the platforms to correspond to one of the ghats of the Manas Lake, Mehta developed an elaborate chart of correspondences that relates the foursquare design to other symbolic tetrads invoked by epic commentators (table 1). Such analysis reflects the ingenuity and penchant for all-encompassing systematization of traditional scholarship, yet it is not altogether farfetched. The Shivpur Ramlila is itself a product of the

































Physical locus










same tradition, and its distinctive layout clearly suggests an underlying symbolic logic.

In other details, the Shivpur production resembles many other Banaras Ramlilas : it lasts thirty days; features Ramayanis who chant each line and players who periodically interject dialogues; and utilizes a directing vyas , who stands with script-book in hand, prompting the actors. But in its original and symbolic groundplan, which translates into visual terms the epic's own implicit structure, this neighborhood Ramlila seems no less sophisticated than its royal cousin at Ramnagar, and it contradicts the notion that local productions are only vulgarized and scaled-down versions of the royal pageant.[150] If Ramnagar's patrons expanded their lila into a macrocosm that ultimately encompassed and re-envisioned their kingdom, Shivpur's sponsors, more constrained in their means, created a microcosm not unlike the mystical groundplan of a medieval Hindu temple (sthala mandala[*] ), which likewise embodied and externalized the theology of the builders. The aim in each case was the same: the spatial articulation of myth.

From the devotee's point of view, the Ramlila 's tangible, encompassing world of text-made-flesh bids fair to represent the ultimate realization of the Manas . Some would go further and accord the lila a kind of primacy. A Ramnagar connoisseur once remarked to me that, although it is conventionally held that the pageant is a commentary on the Manas , "I sometimes feel that it is really the other way around and the Manas itself exists to explain our Ramlila! That's how living a thing this lila is for us."[151] If Katha , as some of its practitioners suggest, presents the epic as a mirror for our contemplation, then Ramlila invites us, Alice-like, to step into that mirror (as the rasik adept ultimately enters the magic realm of his visualization) and experience a world transformed.


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