A village near Delhi reveres Ravana, but still celebrates Dussehra.
Bisrakh is a sleepy village devoured by the high-rises that have claimed nearly all of Greater Noida in Delhi-NCR. It would have lost its significance if it weren’t for the demigod, Ravana.
Arriving at Bisrakh was uneventful but I can’t say the same about the village. At the very entrance is Ravana Mandir. People here actually venerate the demon king that others in the country can’t wait to burn at the end of Dussehra. I entered the temple and was met by a priest who looked more like a hippie than a messenger of god. With dreadlocks wrapped on top of his head, smoking a bidi, and a loincloth to cover his…well loins, it was getting interesting.
Superstitions abound in this village.
Even though it was time for his afternoon nap, 56-year-old Ram Das who has been managing the temple for the last 35-years entertained my questions. “What should I tell you about Dussehra? We don't do it here. There is nothing to celebrate. We simply conduct prayers and get on with our lives.” He explained that Ravana is a son of this village that is named after his father, Vishrava. According to him, he was a learned king and they are proud of his legacy. He also added that in Bisrakh the festival is celebrated differently. “We don't mourn him, but we don't burn his effigy either.”
Ravana is called ‘son of the village’. Image source: Hindustan Times
For more detail he directed me to Antram who sits at Dada Ki Baithak. Dada Ki Baithak is a courtyard in Antram’s home where villagers gather to deliberate on common village issues and discuss random things. Everyone convenes in these premises. The practice was started by his grandfather years ago, hence the name. Just like the priest, Antram also seemed unenthusiastic about Dussehra. “We don't do anything. No Ramlila, no burning of anything, no crying or mourning. It is the 10th day after Navratri, we pray in the morning and that’s it.” Everyone seemed to celebrate his life’s work and teachings, there was no reason to rejoice his death. The morning prayers mark the end of Navratras and this is what Dussehra means to them.
His 18-year old nephew, Gaurav Bhati, added a little flavor to the discussion by revealing that even though they don't celebrate in a traditional sense, they go to the grounds nearby to see the burning Ravana effigy. He also explained that being a part of the evening celebrations doesn’t mean anything, he just tags along with his friends. Luckily for him, his family doesn’t mind. However, not everyone in the village is as open-minded as them, especially when it comes to upholding old traditions and belief systems.
Dada Ki Baithak
Some village elders even believe that not respecting the son of Bisrakh and participating in celebrations that bring dishonor to his name can only spell doom for the village. My conversation with a 70-year-old man sitting outside his house enjoying the mild evening sun shed some light on this belief. In between sipping tea, he told me that once they tried to stray away from tradition and celebrate Ramlila, but the man who was playing Laxman died inexplicably, something they took as a sign to never do anything that disrespects Ravana’s integrity. He said some misfortune always befalls the people if they break tradition.
Village elders stick to their beliefs.
As I walked deeper into the village, I realized that Bisrakh largely remains dull on the day of Dussehra while the neighboring towns prepare for evening celebrations. Their custom of abstaining from partaking in any activity that is an affront to Ravana is something that the elders follow religiously, but most youngsters fail to understand.
As fear and faith grips this village, there is a new generation of (non) believers who is indifferent to the practice of praying to Ravana or burning his effigy on the evening of Dussehra. 26-year-old Sachin refrains from upsetting the elders by mentioning the festival. In fact, he even participates in the usual morning Vijaydashmi prayers. However, the day doesn’t end there. He does go out in the evening with his friends from nearby villages and often ends up being a part of Ramlila or Ravana burning. “What is the hype about anyway? If you don't want to see him burn, don't. Why tell others not to?” Sachin clearly finds no merit in following a custom everyone else seemed to disagree with.
A new generation of (non) believers.
Another teenager seated in Dada Ki Baithak was excited about Ramlila. He told me in confidence that his mother doesn’t allow him to be part of the occasion. “Once we are done with the morning prayers, we are free for the day. So, last year I jumped the compound wall to go out with friends. She still doesn’t know.”
4-year old Shanu still doesn’t understand why it isn’t celebrated and said, “Kyun? Hum toh jalayenge” (Why? We will burn the effigy).
While it may be too soon to say what Shanu will feel 15 years down the line when she is a mature adult and capable of making her own choices, one can already see the inevitable change that her generation is bringing. There has been a visible decrease in people’s earnestness to keep up with tradition. Whether its faith or superstition, it’s hard to say. It’s probably only a matter of time before Bisrakh loses its uniqueness to a more widely accepted belief of demonizing the mythological king.
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By Kanika Gupta
Photographs by Kanika Gupta