City Landmark – Ramlila Maidan, Central Delhi
Living to its name.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Break Dance, Joy Wheel, Columbus, Cross, Tora Tara… such are the names of the joy rides that have sprung up here. There’s a toy train too.
Sandwiched like a no man’s land between New Delhi and Old Delhi, the historic Ramlila Maidan lives up to its name only for ten nights every year when it stages Ramlila—the theatrical depiction of Bhagwan Ram’s saga, spanning from his birth to the lighting of Ravan’s effigy. The night before was the first night of this year’s Ramlila. This late morning, handfuls of joyride operators are fixing up their respective joyride. Otherwise the ground is empty. But packed. Beyond these joy rides is the vast seating area for the Ramlila audience, stacked with hundreds of currently empty chairs, beyond which lies the temporary stage for Ramlila. And beyond the stage, hidden from view, stands Ramlila Maidan’s most iconic landmark. It is the temple-like pavilion built for Queen Elizabeth II’s 1961 visit to Ramlila Maidan.
A long time ago when there was no Ramlila Maidan, there was a lake in the vicinity called Shahji ka Talaab, and a garden called Shahji ka Baagh. After the failed uprising of 1857, the revengeful British filled in the lake. (Today, you see Kamla Market over it.) They also destroyed the garden. It was later turned into a ground to stage the Ramlila, which would previously be held by the Yamuna. The Maidan has evolved to hosts political rallies as well. The rest of the time it becomes a playground for cricketers from the adjoining Purani Dilli.
Right now the stage of the old pavilion, accessed by a staircase, has two elderly men sitting crosslegged on the floor, quietly playing a card game. On 28 January 1961, the British queen stood where these card players are, attired in fur stole and hat, greeting thousands of Delhi wale in the Maidan. Welcoming the foreign monarch, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had said, “You are welcome here in this city of Delhi which has been a city of kings and emperors, but which today is the capital of the Republic of India…”
Nehru died decades ago. Queen died last year. While Ramlila Maidan is staying as timeless as the Ramlila it is currently staging.
PS: The toy train operations seen in the photo are from Muzaffarnagar–Sajjad Ali Zaidi, Zafar Mehdi, Muhammed Zaidi, Ishan, Iqbal Ahmed, Noor Mohammed.