With some major festivals round the corner, the author looks at the journeys of Ramlila and Durga Puja celebrations in the Capital
Ramlila began to be celebrated in the Walled City some 350 years ago when Shahjahanabad came into being though Mehrauli and the Purana Quila area may have been the earliest venues. While moving his court to Delhi from Agra, Shah Jahan took care to see that merchants, intellectuals, artisans, including craftsmen of various kinds, also followed his court into the new Capital. Among them were Sheikhs, Mirzas, Chaudhuris, Jain, Kayastha , Khatri and Baniya businessmen, but not Punjabi merchants, who came only in the reign of Shah Alam in the 18th Century. However in their place were Kashmiri Pandits, mostly constituting the intelligentsia. The result of this exodus was that Phulhatti, Seo-ka-Bazar, Kinari Bazar, Kashmiri Bazar, Johri Bazar and Rawatpara (that predates Khari Baoli spice market) almost became a shadow of their former self. It was through these bazaars that the Ramlila procession used to wend its way from Belanganj, on the riverfront facing the Taj Mahal.
Some of these bazaars found their incarnation in Delhi and their names are still there as a reminder. For that matter even Chandni Chowk was originally in the Agra Fort, until Jahanara Begum built a more magnificent and spacious version of it in Delhi. However to maintain communal harmony the Ramlila processions, which passed through these areas, were later taken out from near the northern wall of Delhi. In Agra the main celebration of Dussehra, in which the effigies were burnt, took place at the Ramlila Grounds facing the Agra Fort (as they do even now). But in Delhi the celebration was behind the fort until it was moved to the present site opposite Asaf Ali Road. The change came about in the time of Bahadur Shah Zafar but after 1857 there was a break as the talab or lake covering the area had begun to stink with rotting corpses.
It is recorded that there were communal clashes in the 19th and 20th centuries, including the worst one in 1947 during or before the Ramlila. In 1886 the festival coincided with the Tazia processions, leading to great strife. Katra Neel was attacked and the maximum damage was suffered by the havelis of the rich Lalas. Side by side with Hindu-Muslim rivalry, which led to the discontinuance of the Id mela in the garden of Maldhar Khan for some years, Hindu-Jain rivalry also came to the surface. In 1877 siding with Lala Rammi Mal, Lieutenant-Governor Egerton allowed the Jain rath yatra to pass through the thoroughfares. . This was objected to by the Hindus who were sour that similar permission had not been given to the Ramlila procession. It was only much later, well into the 20th Century, that the Ramlila as we see it now began to be celebrated at the sites associated with it. Before that there was no Ramlila ground as such, save for Shahji-ka-Talab. Parade Ground, where once stood the mahals of the Mughal nobles, had become desolate after these were demolished post-1857. It was only in 1920, according to Narayani Gupta, that the place was grassed over and much later that it became a Ramlila venue.
One thing worth noting is that Gali Batashan acquired great prominence during yesteryear Ramlila because sugar toys were made there and supplied to the various markets. Crackers were made by Muslim “aatishbaaz” behind the Jama Masjid since Mughal times and you can still find some shops there. The effigies were also made mainly by Muslim artisans who came from as far as Bareilly, Rampur, Saharanpur and Meerut. The effigies of Ravana and his kinsmen began to be made in Titarpur much later. Incidentally, Titarpur, Todapur, Naraina and Nangal Raya were among the 12 prominent village mandis during the time of the Pandavas, with Naraina having the largest grain market (hence probably the expression “Barah Mandi ka Mamu”). The Dussehra bonhomie even in the medieval era continued up to Diwali, celebrated also by the Mughals, who had a special department for aatishbaaz (cracker makers).
Now Ramlila processions do not excite the same command passions as they did in former times and so are quite peaceful, despite the lurking threat of terrorist attacks. Durga Puja, which coincides with Dussehra, came to Delhi only in the second decade of the 20th Century, with Kashmiri Gate and Timarpur as the main centres. Some think that even in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries it was a small-scale celebration by the Bengalis then residing in Delhi, who immersed small idols of Durga in the Yamuna without much fanfare. It was Akbar’s general, Raja Mansingh who is said to have given an impetus to Durga Puja in Agra and Jaipur after his return with a famous idol of the Devi from the 16th Century Bengal campaign. That idol is still installed in Amber fort. But in Delhi his descendant Sawai Jai Singh II, the builder of Jantar Mantar, could be said to be among the pioneer patrons of Delhi’s Durga Puja. Later Dr B.C. Sen, H.C.Sen, S.N. Bose and A.C.Sen took over. However the history of the Ramlila processions that start from Dauji-ka-Mandir in Esplanade Road, stretches to the beginning of the 20th Century after the arrival of the seths of Mathura, for whom Dauji (Lord-Krishna’s elder brother) is a much venerated deity. But the mandir in Delhi came up much earlier, some say at the end of the 18th Century.