More than 2000 years ago, on the banks of the fast flowing Indus, seers and sages of yore had sighted what the past was and what the future could be. They did not write about what they saw, rather passed on what they thought of the world to generations that lay in times ahead of them, by way of speech. These ‘sightings’, as I have called them, were to shape human life in the Indian subcontinent for millennia to come.
I must add that these were not mere primitive hypothesizing but an elaborate system of philosophical principles, which according to them, governed this world and the world beyond. I, of course, refer to the 4 Vedas- the Rig, the Yajur, the Sama and the Atharva. The word Veda literally means ‘knowledge’ and in the life, both cultural and political of ancient India, the Veda was the root of knowledge which not just dictated but powered what ‘thought’ was.
As the rivers Tawi, Ravi and Chenab flow through the dry Kandi region of Jammu and refresh it with the freshness of water, so did the Vedas charge human thought in ancient India with the freshness of a profound luminosity. The ‘saar’ of the Veda was churned like milk and the butter was found in the Upanishads. Of the 14 Upanishads there are, the Isha is considered the most sacred.
The Isha, as is characteristic of most of the Upanishads, talks about the Parabrahmana and how we as individuals are part of this infinite and thus are infinite. One verse from the Isha beautifully puts this forth:
“As the Sun, who is the eye of the world, cannot be tainted by the defects in our eyes nor the objects it looks on, so the one self, dwelling in all, cannot be tainted by the evils of the world. For this self transcends all!”
At this point, one may ask, why am I possibly saying so much about the Vedas and the Upanishads when what was supposed to be written about was the Ram-leela? Well, the simple answer to this would be that the ram-leela which you see in front of your eyes if you leave your houses and take your phones away from your eyes for a moment, is a’story’unravelling itself in front of you which constitutes one of the main Itihasas of Hindu literature. An Itihasa that has beautiful epistemological and ontological etchings of the Vedas and the Upanishads embellished within the contours of its narrative.
In order to understand what the Ram leela today is, one must first understand what the Veda and the Upanishad is. This is because there is an indelible link between the two that can be reworked but never be broken.
The way the Upanishad and the Veda were structured made it extremely difficult for the common people to comprehend the expanse of what these philosophisations were trying to say. Therefore, the ‘saar’ of the Veda and the Upanishad was further ‘churned’ and reworked into Itihasas like the Ramayana.
The Ramayana, as varied as the number of languages in our land, first appeared in the literary scene of the subcontinent around the 6th – 7th millennium. It was written in epic verse and narrated the story of Prince Rama of Ayodhya, his banishment, victory over the demon king Ravana and going back to his throne in Ayodhya.
Among many things, the Ramayana shows how Rama is perhaps the unluckiest being there has ever been. He loses his throne, his wife and his home. Yet in all such adversity, he approaches everything around him with godlike composure and determination. Perhaps this is why he is called the ‘MarayadaPurushottam”. Perhaps this is why he is a god.
The Ram-leela then is the retelling of the Ramayana or the 13th century Ramacharitmanas to be more exact. Either way, it retells the story of Rama on the stage, utilising the ancient theory of dramatics that can be found in books like the Natyashastra.
From the Gupta era till the Muslim invasions and continuing till the present day, the temple has been the nodal point of a village. It has been the centre of trade, worship, protection from earthly and supernatural maladies alike. But, along with this, the temple, at least, in the medieval era of Indian history was the cultural heart of a village. It was around the temple where dances to the deity were performed, local folklore narrated and theatre like the Ram-leela played out.
This will make it quite clear that what was being recreated in village temples was something that was quite elaborate, which was something that had a cultural as well as a metaphysical meaning attached to it. It is quite amazing to imagine, these rural subunits of larger socio-political areas being not just politically and economically self-sufficient but also partaking in such a profound synthesis of philosophy and art. Something that we in today’s world would call too complex for the rural yoke to fathom, yet these very rural people made the Ram leelas their own.
In 2005, the Ramleela was officially proclaimed as one of the world’s intangible cultural heritage by the UNESCO. Therefore, it becomes all the more important to understand what its importance is. To illustrate the same, I shall now go to Billawar and lay out how the people here traced and continue to trace their understanding of the world through a confluence of philosophy, folklore and dramatics.
Ram leela in Billawar
The Rajatarangini or ‘the river of kings’ written by Kalhana refers to Billawar in the district of Kathua as Vallapura. It is contested but some say that a Raja from Kullu by the name of Bhog Pal founded the town in 765 A.D, after he defeated Rana Billo. The clan that ruled Billawar then came to be known as Billawaria and then went on to establish the kingdoms of Basohli, Bhaderwah, Batol and Bhadu.
Sometimes, the principality of Basohli made Billawar its feudatory and sometimes the opposite took place. Whatever may have been the case, it is a certain fact that Billawar was the seat of a principality in the now province of medieval Jammu.
Professor Sukhdev Singh Charak writes that, Billawar-Basohli was one of the three parent/ original states of the Duggar group along with Jammu and Poonch.
One of the most significant monuments left from the medieval era, is a Shiva temple called the Mahablikeshvar temple which dates back to the 8th century A.D. A few metres away, down a fleet of stairs, as is common in these parts is a giant rock with the engraving of Lord Hanumana, beneath which flows the Bhinni.
This then is the geographical landscape of Billawar. It in itself is a peaceful town, with the Chughan or ‘plain’ for English, being the centre of the town. With the end of the ‘sraddhas’ or the ‘pitru paksha’ (fortnight of ancestors), the town becomes enmeshed with a hubbub of festivity, creativity and religiosity. The sincere austerity and respect for ancestors is substituted with a gradual energy and vigour towards celebrating the upcoming Navratri or the ‘nine nights’.
A whole team comprising of – a president, director, deputy director, organiser, cashier and store keeper – is elected which is headed by the person with the most experience in the field of theatrics called the ‘Sarprastha’. The Sarprastha is usually the eldest.
Each evening, youngsters and elders alike practice their roles with lines taken from the ramcharitmanas, written in ‘Khadi Bhasha’, a dialect from the Punjab. It is very interesting to note that only men play the roles here – both male and female. This obviously has to do with how gender norms in these societies are shaped with particular occupations, rather, even recreations assigned to only men.
The budget for these locally organized ram leelas is not much and therefore ingenious methods are pursued and made use of to recreate scenes of a gigantically magical proportion, as they are in the Ramcharitamanas. For example, it would be a genuine question to ask how would a Ram – leela be able to recreate the scene of say, Hanuman carrying the Sanjeevi mountain in his hands?
This is how they would answer this conundrum – tie a rope to the jacket of the actor playing Hanuman, wave it around a peepal tree around 100 metres below your position, such that you have a pulley. Finally, you release the actor from a position above and the whole scene gives an image of lord Hanuman actually flying over the lands of Tamilakam.
The whole ‘Leela’ is conducted on a single stage. However, this is not the case in the Ram-leela’s conducted in Basohli where the pool of finances is significantly larger. Here a specific durbar, say the Rama Durbar, is constructed just for the performances which tell the story of Rama in the narrative, whereas the Ravana Durbar is specific to performances of the actor playing Ravana.
The holy week of Navratras is fast approaching and as you wade across the holy Shiva temple, climb the slope and straddle across the market of the main town, you will reach the chughan with the holy Mahakali temple marking the eastern boundary of the ground. Here, in the evenings you will see the youth and the elderly passionately and vigorously preparing their lines in one corner, in another you will see the costume team brainstorming on what Ravana’smoustache will be made of, all under the supervision of the elderly.
In the holy week of Navaratri, I believe the youth in the town of Billawar will show the way, that moving with the future need not be a mechanical lonesome path based on a foreign model, but something that can be re-fashioned by rediscovering our collective shared past.