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Ramlila the Intangible Cultural Heritage of UNESCO

© Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi

Ramlila, the traditional performance of the Ramayana was inscribed in 2008 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Ramlila, literally “Rama’s play”, is a performance of then Ramayana epic in a series of scenes that include song, narration, recital and dialogue. It is performed across northern India during the festival of Dussehra, held each year according to the ritual calendar in autumn. The most representative Ramlilas are those of Ayodhya, Ramnagar and Benares, Vrindavan, Almora, Sattna and Madhubani.

This staging of the Ramayana is based on the Ramacharitmanas, one of the most popular storytelling forms in the north of the country. This sacred text devoted to the glory of Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, was composed by Tulsidas in the sixteenth century in a form of Hindi in order to make the Sanskrit epic available to all. The majority of the Ramlilas recount episodes from the Ramacharitmanas through a series of performances lasting ten to twelve days, but some, such as Ramnagar’s, may last an entire month. Festivals are organized in hundreds of settlements, towns and villages during the Dussehra festival season celebrating Rama’s return from exile. Ramlila recalls the battle between Rama and Ravana and consists of a series of dialogues between gods, sages and the faithful. Ramlila’s dramatic force stems from the succession of icons representing the climax of each scene. The audience is invited to sing and take part in the narration. The Ramlila brings the whole population together, without distinction of caste, religion or age. All the villagers participate spontaneously, playing roles or taking part in a variety of related activities, such as mask- and costume making, and preparing make-up, effigies and lights. However, the development of mass media, particularly television soap operas, is leading to a reduction in the audience of the Ramlila plays, which are therefore losing their principal role of bringing people and communities together.

© Ministry of Clture of Government of India


Ramlila is one of many performance arts-related festivities within Hinduism. Ramayana epic is dated to the 1st millennium BCE, and is one of the oldest Itihasa genres of Indian literature. It is unclear however as to when the first performances of Ramlila were held. The first enactment of Ramcharitmanas by 16th century Tulsidas is undocumented, but according to the tradition, his student Megha Bhagat started the Ramcharitmanas-based Ramlila in 1625. According to Norvin Hein, a professor of Divinity and of Religious Studies specialising in Indology, Ramlila was in vogue before 1625, at least in North India between 1200 and 1500 CE, but these were based on Valmiki's Ramayana. According to Richard Schechner, the contemporary Ramlila has deeper roots, as it incorporates both the teachings of ancient Sanskrit texts and modern theatre techniques.

According to John Brockington, a professor of Sanskrit specialising in Indian epics, Ramlila is likely an ancient tradition of India because it is generally accepted by scholars that written manuscripts emerged later in Indian religions, and ancient texts were largely a product of oral tradition. Thus, not only Ramalila, but all ancient epics of India must very likely have been recited and transmitted by bards and students in Ramlila-like manner, verbally from one generation to another, and consistently preserved across a wide geographic region by rules of acting by many teams. Further, states Brockington, the Hindu epics are too vast, with the Ramayana containing 20,000 verses and the Mahabharata with 100,000 verses, to have been preserved over two thousand years without being written down and without reciting and acting out. It is therefore unlikely that the Ramlila tradition emerged only in the modern era.



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