It was during the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s rule that the Savari Ramlila emerged as an important tradition in Old Delhi. When representatives from the Hindu community expressed their desire to celebrate Ramlila, the emperor not only agreed, but also funded the Ramlila extravagance which was accompanied by a joyous 10-day procession called the Savari. The celebration brought the neighbouring Hindu communities together and became one of the most important cultural events of the locality.
Click here to view a slideshow of Old Delhi’s Ramlila festivities
However, with time, the festival has slowly deteriorated to a pale shadow of its former self. More than half of the original inhabitants of Old Delhi have moved out as residential places have converted into commercial hubs. The present population is not as invested in this age-old tradition. Lacking local sponsors and enthusiasm, the practice is slowly losing its prominence.
Bahadur Shah Zafar allowed the procession that symbolized Ram’s journey to traverse the entire city, including the Red Fort. The procession began in the afternoon and travelled from one temple to another till it reached its final destination—the Ramlila performance ground—in the evening. Late in the night, after the performance had ended, the Savari would return to the temple it had started from.
Seventy-year-old Yogeshwar Dayal, who is a former resident of the neighbourhood, and Akhilesh Dayal, who lives in Nai Sarak, have fond memories of the Savari of yesteryears: The procession would be at least a kilometre long and pass through many significant galis and mohallas of the walled city. It was led by horses, followed by camels, elephants and soldiers marching in uniforms tailored specially for the occasion. Next to follow were traditionally crafted carts with water dispensers that moved along the Savari, supplying water to the crowds waiting eagerly to get a glimpse of their favourite tableaus or jhankis. Troupes of musicians playing instruments such as the nafir and shehnai would lead these.
Each tableau depicted a scene from the Ramayan. The last one, which carried Ram, Sita and Lakshman, was followed by hundreds of hawkers selling teer-kaman (bows and arrows), masks, kulfi, (ice cream) and so on.
In its glory days, local businessmen sponsored the major events. The brand 502 Pataka Bidi, for instance, became almost synonymous with the Savari in the 1980s. With locals’ enthusiasm waning, most of the big sponsors withdrew their funding.
The Ramlila performance still manages to attract financial and state support. It has a customary visit by the Prime Minister and the President on the final day, for instance. But the Savari itself is in a state of neglect. Before each season, the organizing committee is not sure whether it will be able to raise enough funds. Some local residents have even petitioned for government support, but with no result.
To alter this state of affairs, the Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee is trying to promote the Savari this season. While there is no single big sponsor, a number of businessmen and shopkeepers, especially jewellers from Dariba Kalan, have made donations to help run the procession.
But the Savari, even in its worst avatar, ensures that there will always be enough stories for us to write about. What remains to be seen, however, is how these stories change.
The last day for the Savari this year is Tuesday, 29 September.
The writer and photographer of this piece belongs to one of the families that are considered among the earliest inhabitants of Shahjahanabad, or Old Delhi.
She started photographing the Savari last year and is documenting the festivities this year as well. The pictures shown here are from both years.