Keeping the faith: Ramleela in Trinidad

Every year, in the weeks leading up to Divali, Trinidad's Hindu communities perform elaborate re-enactments of the Ramayana. Natasha Ramnauth remembers seeing Ramleela as a child, and explains the spiritual significance of this gripping tale of love, war, and the triumph of good over evil

Lord Rama prepares to string the bow of King Janak and win the hand of Sita, near the beginning of the Ramleela story. Photograph by Bruce Paddington

I’ve always felt fortunate to have grown up in Trinidad’s
multicultural society, in the small village of El Dorado, halfway along the
East-West Corridor. But, being something of an introvert, I preferred to
watch rather than participate in the continuing saga of village life.

Carnival, Hosay, Divali all came and went, part of the ordinary rhythm of
life.

My grandparents’ upstairs porch was a perfect vantage point for observing
activities in the Hindu temple just across the road. One of the events I most
looked forward to was Ramleela, the folk theatre spectacle performed annually
in the weeks leading up to Divali, the festival of lights. To my child’s
eyes it was a marvellous fairy story brought to life, with all the right
ingredients: heroes and villains, danger and bravery, and rollicking fight
scenes.

Ramleela is based on the Ramayana, the Hindu epic recounting the
story of Lord Rama, whose wife Sita is abducted by the ten-headed demon king
Ravan. With the aid of Hanuman and his monkey army, Rama besieges Ravan’s
kingdom; after an extraordinary battle the evil king is destroyed and the
beautiful Sita rescued. Over a sequence of ten nights, each starting with
a pooja, or prayer session, the performance brings the ancient verses to
life for an enthusiastic crowd. The grand finale is the defeat of Ravan,
burned in effigy to the accompaniment of whoops and cheers. Unsurprisingly,
people of all beliefs can identify with the themes espoused in Ramleela:
the triumph of good over evil, and the importance of faith and courage.

The vivid memory of pundits chanting and amateur actors dressed in bright
costumes performing on the open-air stage has stayed with me. Ramleela celebrations
seem more elaborate now than they were when I was a child — or maybe my memory
has been coloured by time. But I know this for sure: once again this year,
at the climax of the Leela, Rama will shoot off his flaming arrow, the towering
figure of Ravan will burn to a crisp, and the world will be safe again, at
least until next year.