The Real Demon

Watching Ramlilas in Delhi you sense how living traditions can be turned into fossils

01 November 2011
Actors get ready for a Ramlila performance in Old Delhi.
Actors get ready for a Ramlila performance in Old Delhi.

THE WEEK BEFORE DUSSEHRA, I saw several performances of the Ramayana story. I went to Old Delhi, the site of three famed Ramlilas and one Ramayana-themed procession called Sawaari, to the sarkari heart of the capital, where I watched the dance drama Shri Ram, and finally to Mehrauli, where a resident friend said there was a local Ramlila.

I watched the Sawaari outside Chawri Bazaar Metro station: brass bands followed by a series of tableaux, actors dressed as Rama, Lakshmana, Ravana, Sita and Hanuman, looking more jittery than benevolent. Friends who grew up with the Sawaari announced it was no patch on what was. By Delhi standards, the watchers were few, the lack of excitement palpable. “Almost no one lives in sheher anymore,” said one friend, using the term for Old Delhi that means simply ‘city’, marking its originary claim to urbanity within the vast, disparate terrain that constitutes the National Capital Region. “And who has the time to come from elsewhere?”

The Sawaari did seem like a local tradition in decline, a ritual that once brought together an urban community and was now only perfunctory. In contrast, the Ramlilas of Parade Ground and Ramlila Maidan, with their gigantic sets and ear shattering sound systems, seemed to be thriving. Massive crowds came to watch the Ramayana story being played out episode by episode, culminating in the 10th day’s burning of Ravana, the symbolic victory over evil.

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    Trisha Gupta  is a writer and critic based in Delhi. Her published work can be read on her blog, Chhotahazri, at

    Keywords: Ramayana old Delhi mehrauli Delhi University Three Hundred Ramayanas Ramlila Dussehra performance Ramanujan traditions