The enthusiastic participation of the Muslims in the Hindu religious festivities celebrated under the patronage of the Mughal kings reflected the prevalence of a composite culture in medieval India, where social and cultural interaction between the two communities flourished at various levels enriching both.
Maheshwar Dayal’s book Aalam Mein Intekhaab: Dilli, published in 1987, by Urdu Academy. It describes the history, traditions and culture of Delhi from Mughal times to date. One of the things which fascinated me was the book’s description of the celebration of festivals in the walled city, particularly Dussehra and Ramlila.
After Shah Jahan shifted the Mughal capital from Agra to Delhi and established the walled city of Shahjahanabad, he extended his patronage to celebrations of various important Hindu festivals observed by his army and people. Dussehra was one such festival which was established for the Hindu soldiers of his army, celebrated on the banks of Yamuna, behind the Red Fort.
The Mughal emperors consolidated their rule in India with inter-religious marriages, intermingling with the local rulers and populace and by often adopting local customs, often mixing it with theirs which had come from Central Asia and Persia.
Ramlila, an important part of the Dussehra celebrations, is a theatrical enactment of the Ramayana narrating the story of the triumph of good over evil. The first Ramlila Committee in Delhi was established by Bahadur Shah Zafar, and it continues to exist till date.
Mirza Qateel in his Persian book, Haft Tamasha, written in the 18th century, says that the Hindus and Muslims celebrated Dussehra and Ramlila together with great gusto. In the markets and chowks of Delhi huge effigies of the demon-king Ravana made of cardboard and paper were erected. In Ravana’s stomach an earthen vessel containing sherbet was placed, and small children dressed up as Lord Rama came and fired arrows at this vessel. Huge crowds would gather to watch this spectacle.
Another tradition in those days was the distribution of sherbet in earthen cups called kulhads to everyone. People drank the beverage as a symbol of victory over Ravana ‒ the red coloured sherbet signifying Ravana’s blood. A very big fair was held on the banks of the Yamuna, which drew crowds from far and wide. According to Dayal, on the morning of Dussehra the Mughal emperor would hold a durbar, or the royal court, at the Red Fort. In accordance with tradition, the bird Neelkanth (Indian Roller), which signified victory and success as per Hindu traditions, would be set free in front of the emperor. In fact, it is called the Dussehra bird in folklore. In addition to this practice, a falcon was brought to perch on the emperor’s hand. According to Timurid traditions, the falcon symbolised victory and success. This is a classic case of adopting and adapting to local customs.
The emperor on Dussehra rewarded the courtiers and citizens in his durbar. He was weighed in gold and silver and that was distributed amongst the poor. In the evening, the darogha (incharge) of the royal stables had the horses decorated with henna on their hooves and designs on their forehead, and they were bedecked with jewelry. They would then be taken to the Red Fort and paraded under the jharokha (window). The emperor would inspect them and reward the grooms for the best decorated horses. Beautifully adorned horses and elephants would also be taken to the havelis (mansions) of the nobles and rewarded suitably.
During the 9 days preceding Dussehra called “Navrate” or nine nights, barley would be sown in small boats. On the day of Dussehra old and young alike would decorate their caps, turbans and ears with barley sprigs, as it was considered auspicious. Since Persian was the court language and widely understood, the quatrains of Tulsi Das’ Ramayana would be recited in Persian for all to enjoy and understand. Verses would be composed in Urdu and Persian for the occasion.
Ramlila would be enacted everywhere, and people dressed as Lord Rama, Seeta, Lakshman and Ravana were taken around on chariots. Every day there would be new tableaus in the procession. When Lord Rama’s exile was enacted, a boat with a boatman would ferry Lord Rama, Seeta and Lakshman across Shahji’s pond (a symbolic Ganga) near the Ramlila grounds. After 1947, the pond was filled up to make way for Kamla Market. During the day children would dress up as Rama and Sita and enact the Ramayana. In the evenings enormous crowds of Hindus and Muslims, men and women, young and old, rich and poor would gather at the Ramlila grounds to watch the plays there.
Translation of Hindu Scriptures
The Mughals also encouraged the translation of Hindu religious texts to promote better understanding between the two communities. Abul Fazl, a historian during Akbar’s reign, wrote that the fanatic hatred could only be removed by removing ignorance about each other’s religion and texts. The first translation of a Hindu scripture was done under Akbar, when Mullah Abdul Qader Badayuni translated the Ramayana into Persian. The difference between Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana and this was the illustrations. A team of painters illustrated it beautifully,, and it contained 176 illustrations. The challenge before the team of painters, who were mainly Hindus, was depicting religious Hindu text in contemporary Mughal court settings. Some of the miniatures have Fatehpur Sikri as a background with people dressedin Mughal court dresses!
Another rare Persian translation of the Ramayana by the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh is with a Jammu businessman, Sham Lal Angara. For him the book has a deep underlying meaning apart from its historical and religious significance. “This is a unique Ramayan, as it starts with Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim ‒ the same verse with which the Quran starts. When a Ramayana can have the same start as the Quran then why cannot Hindus and Muslims live together in peace?” he says. He asks and adds, “This is a lesson for the religious fanatics who are hell bent on creating a divide between the communities on religious lines”.
(This article was first published in EPW on 13 October 2013)