Rituals and reality

Today, Dussehra is being celebrated in India and elsewhere.

Indian mythology and religious texts venerate Lord Ram (considered to be an incarnate of the God, Vishnu) who is said to have been born some 5,000 years BC.  For various reasons, too detailed to elaborate in this short space, Ram was banished from his kingdom for 14 years.  Accompanied by his dutiful wife Sita and doting younger brother Lakshman, he spent this time wandering through wilderness, traveling south across India.  At some stage, Sita was abducted by a local scholar-king, Ravan and Ram waged battle to get her back.  It is my understanding that he triumphed on the tenth day and Dussehra, also known as Vijayadashmi (literally, the tenth day of victory) symbolizes jubilance.  In East India, this day also marks the subjugation and killing of the demon Mahisasura by Goddess Durga and is the culmination of the nine days of Durga Puja (literally, worship of Durga.)

I have fond memories of Ramlila (literally, the dramatization of Ram’s life) being enacted over nine days leading to the grand finale – Dussehra.  It gave budding actors in the neighbourhood a chance to demonstrate their histrionics.  The hammy performances would draw a lot of applause and raillery from the audience comprising mostly of family, friends and local personage.  These amateur actors would frequently forget their dialogue and before the person tucked-behind-the-curtains-to-prompt them could utter a word, someone from the audience would yell out the lines, adding a comical remark much to the amusement of all attendees.  Older grandmas and venerated persons would shake their heads disapprovingly, reminding those who cared to listen that this was “God’s work” that deserved respectful treatment.  Such “believers” would even go up to touch the feet of the actors representing Ram and Sita and seek their blessings.

Younger folks just stepping over the threshold of puberty would use these evenings to steal away from watchful families and attempt to secretly rendezvous with the object of their current affection in obscure, dimly lit corners of the park.  Roving gangs of nine or ten years old kids took pride in “catching” such canoodling couples but could be cheaply bought out, settling for a “kulfi” or a “minto” drink (in the iconic Codd bottle, with its special glass marble stopper.  It was more fun to “pop” the marble and watch the drink fizz out like champagne, than to drink it!)  Men would casually wander off with their pals and a few would settle down to play out a few hands of “rummy, just for time pass” while the irreverent, non-religious types could be spotted taking surreptitious swigs from a bottle of “Indian Made Foreign Liquor” (whiskey) brought out with a flourish, by an enterprising “uncle ji.”

The sprawling Ramlila Maidan (grounds) in Delhi were famous for the best Ramlila performance in the 1960s.  On Dussehra day, three huge (over 100 feet tall) effigies of Ravan and his demon brothers Meghnad and Kumbhakaran would be erected in the middle of the Maidan.  I must have been around eight or nine years old, when my maternal aunt’s husband, whom I fondly called “Barre Daddy” (elder father) took my cousins and me to watch this spectacle.  We traveled from their Daryaganj home to the Maidan on the “Phatphatiya” which was at the time the most popular mode of transport in Old Delhi.  It is said that during the Second World War, an enthusiast used the Indian Chief and Harley-Davidson motorcycle chassis to construct the four-seater “Phatphat” (so called because of the thundering, unique sound that these bikes produce when revved.)  We were told to hold hands to avoid getting lost in the jostling, milling crowd.  Barre Daddy (a tall, sturdy man) lifted his toddler daughter and me on each of his shoulders to allow us a clear view of the proceedings.

It was exciting to watch Ram, Sita, Lakshman, Hanuman and the assorted cast of gods and demigods ride out in colourfully decorated chariots, holding aloft their bows and quivers full of bamboo arrows with silver-foil tips.  From the other side, Ravan, his brothers and henchmen rode in on darker, ominous looking chariots.  Both sides drew closer and engaged in “battle” feinting and taking mock-swipes at each other while the assembled crowd roared encouragement, shouting, “Siyavar Ram Chandra ki jai” (victory to the husband of Sita’s husband).  Eventually, Ram took careful aim and let loose an “arrow” that felled Ravan, who staggered around the three effigies for all of five minutes before falling down “dead.”  Ram then took another arrow from his quiver, to which an organizer tied a rag soaked in gasoline.  This was lit and Ram fired it at Ravan’s ten-headed effigy, starting a small fire in the straw strewn at its feet.  The flames soon leapt up, igniting several pounds of firecrackers strategically placed in the three, straw-stuffed bamboo and papier-mâché images.  Each time a firecracker exploded, shooting out sparks that lit up the sky, a thunderous roar from the crowds rent the air.

To this day, I clearly recall the acrid smell of fireworks, smoke and dust, mingled with the aroma of freshly fried samosas, chhole-bhature (chickpeas and fried pancakes) and jalebis (deep fried flour, soaked in sugar syrup, not unlike funnel cakes.)  We ate and waited for the crowd to thin out, so that we could approach Ravan’s smouldering “skeleton” and retrieve an “auspicious rib” (burnt-out bamboo piece.)  I was also very excited to buy a replica bow and arrow set made of bamboo and covered with shiny, silver and red coloured tin-foil.

“Good” always scores over evil and is religiously celebrated through such rituals (pun unintended.)  Why do we then turn away and refuse to right the wrongs being perpetuated around us each day, I wonder.

It may therefore be a “Good” day to set aside rituals and reflect on this beautiful Tulsidas bhajan sung by the late Bhimsen Joshi, entreating Lord Rama to extend his Grace and protection to all.  Its lyrics and a simple English translation can be found here.

4 Replies to “Rituals and reality”

  1. Happy Dussehra..!

    If only more people practised the teachings of dussehra, rather than just celebrating it as an annual festival…. the world would be so much better off…


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