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Ramlila, the traditional performance of the Ramayana

  • Ramlila, the traditional performance of the Ramayana
  • Ramlila, the traditional performance of the Ramayana
  • Ramlila, the traditional performance of the Ramayana

Inscribed in 2008 (3.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (originally proclaimed in 2005)

Ramlila, literally “Rama’s play”, is a performance of the Ramayana epic in a series of scenes that include song, narration, recital and dialogue. It is performed across northern India during the festival of Dussehra, held each year according to the ritual calendar in autumn. The most representative Ramlilas are those of Ayodhya, Ramnagar and Benares, Vrindavan, Almora, Sattna and Madhubani.

This staging of the Ramayana is based on the Ramacharitmanas, one of the most popular storytelling forms in the north of the country. This sacred text devoted to the glory of Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, was composed by Tulsidas in the sixteenth century in a form of Hindi in order to make the Sanskrit epic available to all. The majority of the Ramlilas recount episodes from the Ramacharitmanas through a series of performances lasting ten to twelve days, but some, such as Ramnagar’s, may last an entire month. Festivals are organized in hundreds of settlements, towns and villages during the Dussehra festival season celebrating Rama’s return from exile. Ramlila recalls the battle between Rama and Ravana and consists of a series of dialogues between gods, sages and the faithful. Ramlila’s dramatic force stems from the succession of icons representing the climax of each scene. The audience is invited to sing and take part in the narration. The Ramlila brings the whole population together, without distinction of caste, religion or age. All the villagers participate spontaneously, playing roles or taking part in a variety of related activities, such as mask- and costume making, and preparing make-up, effigies and lights. However, the development of mass media, particularly television soap operas, is leading to a reduction in the audience of the Ramlila plays, which are therefore losing their principal role of bringing people and communities together.

Ramlila is a traditional performance depicting the story of Sri Ram, the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu in Hindu religion. The word Ramlila (Ram - Lila), as the name suggests is a play about Lord Ram, usually performed in the month of September.

Theatrically depicting the Ramcharitmanas by Tulsidas and Ramayana by Valmiki, some Dohas (verses) of the Ramayana are set to music and interleaved with the story being narrated in the play. This helps the audience understand the intricacies of the epic in a lucid and interactive manner.

Initially Ramlila was performed only in Sanskrit or Awadhi but now the language of Ramlila depends on the region in which it is performed.

Ramlila was started by the disciples of Tulsidas after his death. One sect of historians believes that the first person to have started the tradition of Ramlila was Megha Bhagat, a student of Tulsidas in 1625. While another sect holds a view that it was started in Ramnagar (Banaras) around 1200-1500 CE. The performances range from one week to one month. For instance - the Ramlila of Ramnagar (Banaras) is a month long.

Ramlila is a community activity. People participate by taking part as audience, enacting different roles and making the arrangements.

By depiction of the heroic war between Sri Ram and Ravana, the central theme of Ramlila is victory of good over evil. It is enacted to impart certain social and religious learnings. It is also a means of entertainment. The grand performance of Ramlila ends with the festival of Dussehra, when the effigies of Ravana are burnt and fireworks and celebrations follow.