The Ramayana and Rama unite India culturally. In the 1990s, they turned into symbols of political unity. Today, they have become the source for active political expression and popular protest.
The Dashashwamedha Ghat in Varanasi holds great significance for the holy city. Ten Ashwamedha Yagyas were performed here by Brahma, according to belief; ten by the ruler Divodas, according to the Vedas; and ten by the Bhar Shivas, rulers of the Gangetic plains famed for carrying emblems of Shiva on their shoulders even into battle, according to inscriptions. The Peshwas of the Maratha empire renovated some parts, and ardent patroness of Varanasi, Queen Ahilyabai of Indore, repaired others.
The Dashashwamedh Ghat is synonymous with spectacular, public celebration of Hindu victory rituals. It's where the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, went to celebrate and reaffirm his triumph in 2014 as a practising, proud Hindu. It's where he took his friend Shinzo Abe of Japan for a shorthand introduction to all that's holy in Hinduism, and it’s where he concluded his spectacular road show before filing his nomination for the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
In a rapidly evolving socio-cultural milieu, protecting the symbolism of the Ghat isn't easy. That protection can come, and can be guaranteed, when Hindutva proper is nurtured. However, today a Hindu in India is caught in short-term considerations and alliances of caste, language or region. To get him to overlook these fissures, and nurture Hindutva proper, is a Herculean effort.
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, led by Narendra Modi, doesn't slack in making that effort. Take his roadshow of 25 April in Varanasi, which was a combination of good, old shakti pradarshan and the traditional Hindu way of celebrating an important occasion with the public. The moribund city of Kashi, mired in bureaucratic sloth for decades, now boasts of piped gas, a smooth road and waterways network, underground power cables, and the Homi Bhabha Cancer Hospital. The cleanest Ganga yet has revived tourism and special trains, tour packages, and state schemes for pilgrims has put the city on several must-visit lists. The villages adopted by the prime minister have solar powered lights, running tap water, and are ODF, i.e., open-defecation free.
When the roadshow took place, only 26 seats of UP had voted. What was the message of the Shobha Yatra then, for the remaining seats, in Uttar Pradesh, and for other parts of India, specifically West Bengal where there were 32 seats left out of 42 then?
The trajectory of cultural programmes getting grander, pandals getting bigger, and idols becoming larger with time follows a wary society's need to belong to a vocal, visible community that has their back. The processions, the music, the noise, the new clothes, the open, welcoming temples are all elements of an unafraid, unifying Hindutva. The need to reclaim public spaces and identity surrendered through decades of appeasement politics, is the natural consequence of populations intermingling, and hardened linguistic and traditional lines blurring.
For example, chanting “Ganapati Bappa Morya” gets people acceptance and community support in cities they have migrated to, and brings them closer to their Hindu roots, or participating in local Durga Pooja pandals brings you closer to an entire culture and tradition replicated by its adherents wherever they go.
On that note, whatever happened to Ram Leela and Dussehra, and Ram Navami in the heartland?
Ram Navami, as celebrated in the late 1700s to 1900s, involved fasting in the Chaitra Navratra that precedes it, and bhajans and kirtans being performed at Rama or Vishnu temples. At 12 pm sharp, the doors of these temples were flung open, and the Lord declared to have descended. A massive tumult of cymbals, kettle drums and other instruments rent the air.
Ram Navami traditions through the country
Most Indians know Shri Ram via a simpering Arun Govil, in the television serial Ramayan. Aired on the Indian state mouthpiece Doordarshan, this serial took Ram Katha and bound entire generations together. Govil's portrayal though didn't capture the battle-hardened prince who had been fighting accomplished warriors since he hit puberty. But the Maryada Purushottam fought obstacles of all kinds as he traversed through lakes and forests, meeting and making friends and slaying foes.
It was through these well-worn, ancient paths that the story of Rama travelled through the subcontinent. While the Dogra rulers of Jammu worshipped their family deity in the Raghunath temple on Rama Navami, a pleasing tableau would be taken out in massive processions throughout the city.
Across the Rajputana, folks playing Ram and his brothers sat on a chariot, and would tour the city, and still do.
In Nagpur, for instance, the Ram Navami Shobha Yatras define the cultural fabric of the city. Floats, processions and stalls at various points of the city over the past forty years have symbolised values of Rama that are martial, as well as just. In mid-twentieth century Ayodhya, a tableau featuring Ram was taken around the city in a chariot.
Elsewhere, fairs marked the occasion. The book, Open Rebellion in the Punjab, written in 1919, describes how Ram Navami was celebrated throughout Punjab, and Amritsar in particular, and "a grand procession was taken out on a truly imperial scale".
Undivided Bihar too, has a long tradition of public celebration of Ram Navmi. In 1929, Krishna Lal was in Hazaribagh, and witnessed a Shobha Yatra in the neighbourhood temple. He got two flags stitched, showing flying Hanumans, cut out of saffron cloth, and sewed them onto khadi. With his brother Dr Ramakrishna, and three other friends, he took out a procession from Mahavir Chowk, to the nearest Shri Rama temple in Doranda.
Slowly, about 30-40 people joined in, while others stood and mocked. In 1930, one year after later, thousands came together to join in the procession. Under the aegis of the Shri Mahavir Mandal, the Shobha Yatras only expanded. Folks from all parts of united Bihar, and even Chhattisgarh, came to watch and participate.
In Ranchi, and parts of the Chhota Nagpur Plateau, all processions were, and are, armed to the teeth, thus clarifying the essential function of the deity in his most elemental form. After all, undivided Bihar was also the largest component of the East India Company's Bengal Army.
Across Jharkhand's major cities, these Shobha Yatras are greeted with food and water stalls. Violence and communal tension marred them for years however, but the tradition of carrying arms continues.
For the past ten years, T Raja Singh has been taking out Ram Navami Shobha Yatras in Hyderabad. The demographics of the city make such a task very challenging. Every year there are disturbances. The lone BJP legislator, along with a crowd of 50-60,000, braves the heat, and extraordinary police presence, to chant, sing and take a towering, muscular idol of Shri Rama around. It's impossible to be unimpressed by this act of defiance.
Thus, from the earliest times, wherever Ram Navami was celebrated in public, there were clashes, because everyone saw such processions and celebrations for what they were - ways to keep alive and pass on the martial, vocal, territory-claiming spirit. Shri Rama is the socio-cultural expression of primacy vis a vis equality, self-confidence versus diffidence, yet all within the strictest of ambits of dharma (righteousness) and maryada (maintaining boundaries & thus, familial prestige).
In the 1990s, when the Ram Janmabhoomi movement reached its peak, caste politics too, saw its high point. Later, as the economy opened, educated migrants moved out, and public spaces became unsafe due to a string of terror attacks, public celebrations of Shri Rama started to fade. Moreover, since the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, Rama has been as an aggressor in the Leftist worldview, and his followers as violent, misogynist, 'cow-belt' northerners. As many graduates from top institutions are revealed to be right-leaning, entire study streams get similarly tarred. Rama is now the arch-enemy of feminism, and one powerful female in particular.
When the Mamata Banerjee government changed “ramdhenu” to “rongdhenu” in textbooks in late 2016, to protect the delicate feelings of her henna-steeped constituency from across the border, she was widely praised for her inclusivity, and pilloried for her overreach. The next year, having suffered the accelerated pace of innumerable bombings, a fake-currency smuggling empire, vast tracts of opium poppies, a stagnant jobs scene, forced migration, and rapidly shrinking space to practise their faith, nationalist Bengalis and non-Bengalis decided they had had enough.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) held their Ram Navami processions throughout West Bengal in 2017, with surprisingly enthusiastic participation, in 22 locations in Kolkata alone. In the fine tradition of neighbouring Bihar-Jharkhand, armed with trishuls and swords, some raised the slogan ‘Mandir wahi banayenge’. Editorials went berserk, the chattering classes clutched their pearls in horror, and Ms Banerjee's reprisals were swift and accompanied by an ironic anti-outsider rhetoric. But in 2018, armed Ram Navami processions in areas bordering Jharkhand, continued. The TMC declared that they too would take out processions.
In 2019, in the face of more attacks and full-blown skirmishes, the state Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the RSS held nearly 700 Ram Navami processions throughout the state. Nowhere did Bengalis hold back from participation.
On his political campaigns across the state of West Bengal in April-May, the Prime Minister has been bringing out Shri Rama as a symbol of courage to fight the bigger, more powerful foe against all odds, as a breaker of chains, as a warrior against adharma. The state BJP has reclaimed saffron and Shri Rama imagery including Hanuman, and subsequently, inspired the young and the restless on whom none of this intense symbolism is lost. The PM said in an interview with India TV that, in his imitation, Opposition members were on temple runs, which was forcing them to join the mainstream - mukhyadhara se judna hoga - and understand the lives and issues of Hindu Indians too. In return, Ms Banerjee chanted garbled mantras and raised the cry of Rama and Hanuman from stage, inadvertently shining a harsh spotlight on her phony appeasement of voters. Mr Modi had hit his message home hard - Shri Rama was the God and hero of the people, who had united the entire Opposition into turning visibly religious.
Through visible public participation and as a symbol of socio-political assertiveness, Shri Rama is rising again, across the country. In his ‘home state’ of Uttar Pradesh, a lot has been done to revive the old links with Shri Rama and Ramayana. In 2018, Prime Minister Modi and UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath announced that the Akshay Vat, or Undying Banyan Tree, enclosed by the Akbar Fort in Prayagraj, would be open for 11 months a year, and be guarded by civil police. The Ramayana mentions Shri Rama, his wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana having rested under this tree when on their way to a 14-year exile.
Earlier, the Yogi Adityanath government had renamed Faizabad district as Ayodhya and had announced the development of the Ayodhya airstrip into an airport. The Rs 23 crore Tamsa river rejuvenation project will use MNREGA to dig the length of the 150 km long river, and reforest both banks. Recently released statistics by UP Tourism show that 28.88 crore tourists visited the state in 2018, of which 28.5 crore were domestic tourists. Prayagraj topped the list with a footfall of 4.46 crore followed by Ayodhya at 1.92 crore.
The UP government has picked Ayodhya along with Varanasi, Mathura and Prayagraj to develop a tourist circuit. The state government organised a grand Diwali in Ayodhya in 2017 and 2018. These measures are aimed at significantly healing a bruised civilisation, and re-establishing the old pilgrimage paths that have worked for ages to weld Indians together through dharma.
The 21st century edition of muscular Hinduism in India, this time as symbols of vikas, or progressive, development-focussed Hindutva renders caste and other differences between Hindus redundant. It relies on age-old symbols of socio-political unification, and seamlessly toggles between Gods and regions. It doesn't matter whether the festival has the provenance in the area or not, as long as it resonates with, and energises the base.
The Ramayana is the single unifying strand in the subcontinent, geographically and philosophically. Details may vary slightly, but continuation of the story has been astonishing in a verbal, repeatedly-attacked tradition. Intuitively, every Indian grasps this. But merely tugging at an Indian's basic emotion and civilisational memory doesn't guarantee democratic action. To bring Ram Rajya, one has to go and vote for Ram Rajya!
As West Bengal embraced Shri Rama with familiar love and ease, Swami Ayyappa of Sabarimala may well go national next. The unapologetic Hindu is rising. She greets Mamata Banerjee with “Joy Shri Rama”, she is muscular, she is rooted, and above all, she is proud. And the politics of the last five years has a big role to play in it.