Madhya Pradesh Chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan's celebration of Ram, Ramlila and Ramayana clearly indicates that the state could emerge as the leader in presenting and revealing a cultural vision around Ram bhakti.
Last month, in the state's celebration of cultural pride under the ongoing 'Gaurav Diwas' programme in Orchha, he addressed the people of Orchha. This celebration of Gaurav Diwas was heavily meaningful. It took place on the occasion of Ram Navami. He took note of the ongoing developmental plans and work for Orchha being undertaken by the government and spoke about his focus on the development centered on the Ram Raja temple and the revival of the ghats of Betwa river.
In Orchha, Ram is worshipped in his swaroop as the Raja of Orchha. CM Chouhan acknowledged his status as a serving devotee to 'Ram Raja Sarkar' and joined the locals in marking the festivities with a deepotsav (festival of earthen oil lamps). The grand celebration of Ram, the Ramayana and Ram Navami will extend to 12 districts in the state associated with the Ram Vann Gaman pathh (the path walked by Ram during his 'vanvaas').
CM Chouhan's short speech on Ram Navami from Orchha is a solid indicator that he is initiating a brilliant move -- of bringing and deflecting Ramlila performances and groups to Orchaa and from Orchha (to other parts of the state). A safe conclusion: he wants to see Orchha becoming the radius of Ramlilas of MP -- particularly the janjatiya narratives. CM Chouhan's strength lies in his ability to think of several cultural elements spun into one central emotion.
Orchha is known as the 'Ayodhya of Bundelkhand'. The devotion for Ram Raja brings people from Bundelkhand in MP and Uttar Pradesh, and other states, to Orchha. Devotees turn to the Ram Raja temple to celebrate Ram's virtues as a king. On Ram Navami this year, 5,00,000 lamps were lit on the ghats of Betwa river, continuing a thread of deepotsavas at Ayodhya at banks of Saryu and in Ujjain at the banks of Kshipra (to mark Mahashivratri).
The development work of the Ram Raja temple will be multi-phased, reports say. CM Chouhan's focus on Orchha comes at a time when the Centre-state 'double engine' is working on the Ujjain Mahakaal Corridor prior to the inauguration of the first phase (expected in July).
Ujjain and Orchha, with this governmental focus, could rise as two nodes of devotion-inspired tourism (along with pilgrimage) in the coming years for devotees from across India.
CM Chouhan has another advantage: a partnership. In 2020, Orchha along with Gwalior found a place in the UNESCO World Heritage Cities list.
In 2021, the MP government joined hands with UNESCO for heritage-based sustainable urban development for Orchha (and Gwalior). Protecting the natural heritage within the wider goal of urban development, protecting the architectural and cultural heritage within the larger action plan for boosting tourism in the historic town will be the main areas of the partnership.
Last year, this author wrote here on how people of Bundelkhand in Madhya Pradesh are looking forward to the bhoomipujan (part of the auspices during foundation laying) and the beginning of the Ken-Betwa river linking project coming to the region. Orchha's revival as a pilgrimage centre and MP government's pitch for religious tourism will provide a vibrant additional element to the preservation of Betwa river.
Last month, reports said that Union Minister of Road, Transport and National Highways Nitin Gadkari has approved the construction of the Jabalpur-Damoh-Orchha National Highway. This push to road infrastructure could eventually turn around the tourism and pilgrimage story towards Orchha.
It's important to see CM Chouhan's cultural push in the perspective of the expected bhoomipujan of the Ken-Betwa river linking project owing to its focus on the transferring water from the Ken river to the Betwa river. The river-linking project is being awaited for its expected benefits to Bundelkhand's Sagar, Panna, Chhatarpur, Tikamgarh, Damoh, Datia, Vidisha, Shivpuri and Raisen districts. Connecting the state government's focus on Orchha with the overall prosperity of Bundelkhand becomes essential.
There is one cultural aspect CM Chouhan has got marvelously right in celebrating Orchha’s cultural legacy. He is making the temple town the convergence point for Ramlila. His government's encouragement to the Ramlila, especially the narratives performed by the janjatis of the region and state, from the dias in Orchha, could lay a foundation for a movement.
CM's Chouhan's focus on the Ramlilas performed by the janjatis of Madhya pradesh, without doubt, will automatically weave in more encouragement to Bundeli folk songs, Bundeli Ram katha, and people groups performing them. Better lives, changing lives, of artistes, along with meaningful development is the best nutrient for cultural continuity.
This approach makes CM Chouhan easily exceed his peers in vision and implementation of cultural initiatives inclined to Hindu devotion. It's bound to create the right path, stage and audience for the REAL Ramlila narratives and Ram Kathas of India cradled in Madhya Pradesh.
On Ram Navami, former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh Uma Bharti was also present at the programme to mark the deepotsav. The two leaders made short speeches, keeping the focus on the deepotsav, leaving a weighty message on the BJP unitedly celebrating Hindu pride. Noteworthy here was CM Chouhan's mention and appeal to the curbing of addiction during his speech in Orchha in the presence of Uma Bharti (her stand on the state's liquor policy made news after which the matter cooled down with messages of mutual respect and affection from both). Chouhan's plea to people of Orchha for making the town "nashaamukt" (addiction free) echoed as his message for cultural change, in line with Uma Bharti's own emotion on the subject.
If his government remains consistent with his view when it comes to implementation of the envisioned projects, MP, being in the spiritual 'madhya' of Bharat, could turn around the story of preservation of janjatiya narratives in the retelling of Ramayana. And this will allow a space for weaving in or assimilating narratives from other states, especially Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, if partnerships are part of the cultural intentions of the CMs of three BJP-ruled states.
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