As a child, Dusshera was special. Not just for the fun and food that accompanied it, but also for the “Raavana Dahan” or the burning of the effigy of the demon king Raavana at the Gandhi Maidan on Vijayadashami day. While we watched in awe, someone dressed as Lord Rama would shoot an arrow at the larger than life, ten headed effigy of the cacodemon, stuffed with crackers, and it would splutter his ten heads, setting him on fire. I remember cheering and clapping with the crowd, feeling what everyone felt- no matter how evil someone is, goodness will ultimately prevail and engulf it in the flames of righteousness.
I am no stranger to the Ramayana, I have read and re-read dozens of different versions of the epic. The approach to the narration might be different, but all of them propound the same theme - Raavana was evil, he deserved to die.
I grew up thinking that the world hates Raavana.
But it is now that I know I wasn't entirely right. Because not all do.
There are versions quite contrary to what we have been reading all along! And here, Raavana is definitely not the evil one!
Noted 17th century French writer and noble, Francois de La Rochefoucauld, says it best,
“There are heroes in evil as well as villains in good”.
We can’t really define the world in black and white, can we? There’s so much hiding amongst the grays! Perhaps, that is the thought behind the many temples dedicated to Raavana. While the whole world (or rather, most of it!) hates the demon king, there is a perceptible population in the country that worships him!
Was Raavana a Gond king?
A few hours from the place where I have spent my childhood watching Raavana being consigned to flames every year, is a tiny village called Gond. Its tribal population venerates the demon king and ascribes godly status to him. While the rest of the country revels in the celebration of Dusshera, the Gonds celebrate the ‘Raavan Mahotsav’. They call themselves descendants of Raavana–the ‘Raavanvanshis’ and have their own version of the story of Ramayana which is nowhere near to the story we have heard so far! To them, Raavana was a Gond king and Lanka does not refer to Srilanka but to a ‘hilly place’ in their local dialect, Gondi. He was apparently slain by Aryan invaders.
They say Raavana was born here!
The Bisrakh village in Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh is believed to be the birth place of Raavana. A 5.5 feet idol of the demon stands alongside a 42 feet Shivalinga.
They claim Raavana is their son-in-law!
There are many such temples all over the country. Ravangram in Madhya Pradesh’s Vidisha district has a temple dedicated to Raavana. Constructed somewhere between the 9th and 14th century, the temple has a 10 feet reclining idol of Raavana, which has been worshipped as a symbol of prosperity for over 600 years now. The demon king is regarded as the son-in-law of the village as his wife Mandodari is said to belong to this village.
And here’s where the wedding supposedly took place.
Speaking of Mandodari, there is also a village called Mandor named after her near Jodhpur, in Rajasthan, the place where she is supposed to have wed Raavana. The people of this village also worship Raavana and observe his death anniversary on Vijaydashami day, offering “pinddaan” or obeisance to the departed soul.
Here, he is regarded as a learned man.
Vijayadashami is also the day when some people in Kanpur, worship Raavana at his ‘Dashanana Raavana’ temple that opens only once a year. These people believe Raavana to be a highly learned individual who had immense knowledge of the scriptures, especially of the SamaVeda and was a great exponent of music.
Similar sentiments echo at the Kakinada Raavana temple in Andhra Pradesh and Koteshwar Temple in Gujarat.
Are we prepared to see the other side of the story?
This Dusshera, when I look back on those times, and remember the symbolic slaying of Raavana year after year, it makes me wonder if he was indeed so evil and if he deserves to be punished thus! Especially, when there are alternative versions of the story to look into. Especially, when I look at the savagery happening in the world around me.
The brave and learned Raavana, was among Lord Shiva’s greatest devotees. On a particular day when the combined grey matter of all his heads were in resting stage, he unceremoniously kidnapped a married woman and whisked her off to his exotic land.
He regretted his decision pretty soon. For he paid for it with all his heads rolled off his proud and arrogant neck.
What a dreadful thing to do! With just one act of immorality, he drew a cloak over all the goodness that he could have stood for.
He sure did have a glad eye for Lord Rama’s wife, but no one disputes the fact that he never misbehaved with Devi Sita, neither did he force her to marry him. He waited. Waited for her to consent. It irked him that she never did consent, and he probably knew that she never would, but that didn’t turn him into a monster.
Most men these days wouldn’t have half the patience, quarter humility and one-tenth the respect for women! Where’s the respect for women these days, anyway?
The once mighty Raavana is paying for it every year since. Thousands of years later, people still find it entertaining to see his head blasted off with crackers…amidst festivities and distribution of sweets.
In the very same place as the festivities, thousands of women are being whisked off unceremoniously every day. Putting even the mighty Raavava to shame! Unabashedly displaying ten times the barbarianism, with a single head over their shoulders than Raavana managed with his ten heads together! But the modern Raavana walks tall with his proud and arrogant head still intact on his head, the wails of the outraged women notwithstanding.
No. I don’t intend to glorify Raavana.
I just wish we could punish the Raavanas of the modern times - the “rakshasas”who are ten times guiltier, ten times more demonic, and ten times more fiendish than the original was. If Raavana deserves to be burned every year, so do they, who defile and degrade women every day, everywhere. Don’t you think so?