Ramlila (Rāmlīlā) (literally ‘Rama’s lila or play’) is a dramatic folk re-enactment of the life of Rama, ending up in ten-day battle between Rama and Ravana, as described in the Hindu religious epic, the Ramayana.A tradition that originates from the Indian subcontinent, the play is staged annually often over ten or more successive nights, during the auspicious period of ‘Sharad Navratras’, which marks the commencement of the Autumn festive period, starting with the Dussehra festival. Usually the performances are timed to culminate on the festival of Vijayadashami day, that commemorates the victory of Rama over demon king Ravana, when the actors are taken out in a procession through the city, leading up to a mela ground or town square, where the enactment of the final battle takes place, before giant effigies of Ravana, his brother Kumbhakaran and son Meghanath are set fire, and coronation or abhisheka of Rama at Ayodhya takes place, marking the culmination of festivities and restoration of the divine order.
Rama is the 7th incarnation of Vishnu and central figure of the Ramayana. The Ramayana is based on the life, times and values of Lord Rama. Lord Rama is called the Maryada Purushottam or ‘The best among the dignified’. The story of Lord Rama and his comrades is so popular in India that it has actually amalgamated the psyche of the Indian mainstream irrespective of their religion. The very story of Ramayana injects ethics to the Indian mainstream.
Most Ramlilas in North India are based on the 16th century Avadhi version of Ramayana, Ramcharitmanas, written by Gosvami Tulsidas entirely in verse, thus used as dialogues in most traditional versions, where open-air productions are staged by local Ramlila committees, ‘Samitis’, and funded entirely by the local population, the audience. It is close to the similar form of folk theatre, Rasa lila, which depicts the life of Krishna, popular in Uttar Pradesh, especially Braja regions of Mathura, Vrindavan, and amongst followers of Gaudiya Vaishnavism and Vaishnavism in Manipur, with some similarity with Pandavlila of Garhwal, based on life of Pandavas of Mahabharat and Yakshagana of Karnataka, based on various epic and puranas.
Historically it is believed that first Ramlila shows were staged by Megha Bhagat, one of the disciples of Tulsidas, the author of Ramacharitamanas in about 1625 AD, though there are some evidence of its existence in some form before the creation of this version as well. Some scholars believe its first appearance somewhere between 1200 and 1500 AD. Later during in the time of Mughal emperor Akbar, according to some, Akbar is said to have watched a performance. Krishna Das Kaviraj mentions in his 16th century hagiography of saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486–1533), Chaitanya Charitamrita, that once he got carried away while performing the character of Hanuman at a play in Puri, thus proving the existence of Ramayana plays, before the Ramcharitamanas appeared.Though it would safe to conclude that its implosion into the Hindi heartland, happened only after Tulsidas created his version in people’s language of the time, the Avadhi, unlike the original written by Valmiki, in Sanskrit, the language only spoken by Brahmins by then, which excluded much of masses from experiencing the inspirational saga, which is essentially the victory of good over evil.