With Dussehra round the corner, here is the history of Ramleela celebrations in the city from the days of Shah Jahan
Ramleela began to be celebrated in old Delhi when Shah Jahan moved his capital here in the mid-17th Century. Shah-ka-talab once occupied the site now known as Ramleela Ground. The lake served as a perfect setting for the Kevat scene in the Ramayana when Ram, Sita and Lakshman were ferried across the Saryu river by the boatman in the initial stage of their 14-year exile. The main Ramleela celebrations from the 17th to 19th centuries used to be held behind the Red Fort on the Yamuna bank, with the Moghul Emperor watching from the balcony in front of the Shahi Hamams of the fort.
The effigies of Ravan and his kinsmen first began to be burnt during the reign of Bahadur Shah Zafar (1837-1857), but the Ramleela had its own charm in the days of Mohammad Shah (1719-1748).
Whether Mohammad Shah came to Shah-ka-talab is not known but Bahadur Shah Zafar did. The lake was filled up after the 1857 uprising, though some say it was done earlier to facilitate the burning of the effigies there. Had the lake survived, Ramleela in Delhi would have been even more colourful. Just think of Ramleela on the Yamuna bank! The only bridge over the river then was the one of boats. People sat on them to witness the spectacle in its final stages. On Dussehra day the begums in the Red Fort were eager onlookers, craning their neck from palace windows to catch a glimpse of the effigies which were certainly not as tall as they are now. But it seems they were made by the same craftsmen from what is now Uttar Pradesh and a few local Muslims living in the lanes and by-lanes – the same ones who made the Tazias at Moharram time. For the paper and cloth used was of the same type and so also the bamboo frame. The crackers fitted into the effigies were the work of the atishbaazs from behind the Jama Masjid, were a few shops still survive. They were helped by the atish (fireworks) department that came into being during Shah Jahan’s time. When the effigies were set alight, the explosions were such that they could be heard right up to the farthest corners of the Walled City. As Kumbhkaran, Meghnad and Ravan faced their doom from the arrows of Ram and Lakshman, eager eyes watched to see them fall. Many held their breath because the belief was that the direction in which Ravan fell would have a harrowing time in the coming year.
One remembers Zubeda Begum of Machliwalan, looking out from a top window of her house towards Ramleela Ground in 1964, shouting to her friends that Ravan had fallen towards the Red Fort and so no harm would befall those on this side of the city. But one year, when the effigies were set alight on a Tuesday, Ravan just refused to burst into flames and it took all the skill of the atishbaaz to ignite the demon king angry that he, a Brahman, should face his end on a Mangal day. Or so they said!