The day after Dussera was celebrated with the burning of effigies of King Raavan in many parts of the country, depictions King Ram, his wife Sita and his brother Lakshman were set ablaze in the Mylapore area of Chennai.

On Wednesday evening, members of a Dravidian Periyarist group in Tamil Nadu organised a “Raavana Leela” to demonstrate their opposition to the Ram Leela celebrations that depict the victory of King Ram over Raavan, who, according to Indian mythology, had kidnapped Ram’s wife Sita.

“Every year, in North India, Ram Leela is celebrated by burning effigies of Raavan,” said Tinker Kumaron, the Chennai district secretary of Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam. “This is being done to insult South Indians. We consider Raavan to be a Dravidian.”

The police arrested 11 members of the group in connection with the event, and around 40 others were detained in a marriage hall near the Mylapore police station. The group had originally planned to hold the event outside the Madras Sanskrit College of Chennai to protest against the institution's version of the Ramayana, but it was later shifted to a spot about a kilometre away due to police intervention.

Security outside The Madras Sanskrit College.

Kumaron said that Ram Leela is not celebrated quite as widely in South India, which he considers to be further proof that the Dussera festival is biased against Dravidians.

The group said that it has sent a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, asking him to end Ram Leela events, especially with those that involve the participation of the president and the prime minister. But they have not received a reply.

“It is clearly proven once again that the rulers of India will never care to respect the feelings of the Southerners," said the group. "If they have cared so, then they would not have ventured to burn the effigies of the three choicest heroes of the Dravidian race in the guise of honouring a hero of religious epic.”

The Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam, which was founded in 2012, follows the teachings of social activist and politician EV Ramaswami Naicker or Periyar, who had also questioned the portrayal of Raavan in the popular version of the Ramayana. As reported in Outlook, some of the questions posed by Periyar were, “Isn't it true that Ravaan abducted Sita as an honourable revenge for the insult heaped upon his sister? Isn't it a Brahminical ploy to give the colour of lust to a most honourable kidnapping?”

Kumaron said that this protest against Ram Leela celebrations gathered momentum in 1974, when the group sent a letter to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi demanding a stop to the festivities. Over the next few decades, there have been at least three instances when the group has burnt effigies of Ram, and had been arrested for this.

Long history

Dravidian movement analyst K Thirunavukarrasu said that this anti-Ram sentiment has existed since the beginning of the Dravidian movement in the 1920s. The 1940s saw the publication of works such as Raavana Kaviyam (Raavana Epic) by Pulavar Kuzhandhai and Iranyan Allathu Inayatra Veeran (Hiranya or the Unparalleled Warrior) by Bharatidasan, which eulogised the characters Raavan and Hiranyakashyap, who had been depicted as asuras in popular versions of Indian mythological stories.

"The asuras have been depicted in these stories in a manner that denigrates Dravidians," said Thirunavukarrasu. "The intention of the Dravidian movement is to oppose the depiction of Dravidas as asuras in all these plays."

Tamil writer D Ravikumar said that according to the version of the Ramayana written by medieval Tamil poet Kambar, Raavan was not a Dravidian King but a Brahmin.

"If you look at this from the lens of Kambar's Ramayana, it is hard to say how he came to be associated with Dravidian identity," said Ravikumar.

However, Ravikumar added that there are several versions of the Ramayana, as cited in an article by literature scholar AK Ramanuja called Three Hundred Ramayanas, and in Many Ramayanas, a book edited by Paula Richman. A number of oral versions of the epic are also popular in Tamil Nadu - one of which also depicted Raavan as the father-in-law of Nandan, a popular figure in dalit literature.

Ravikumar said that around the 1960s, Tamil Nadu politics was based on antagonism towards North India, Brahminism, Aryans and Hindi. The protest against Ram Leelas rode on this sentiment, he said. But in the 1970s and 1980s, theissue became irrelevant. When the main parties in power were all Dravidian parties, it was no longer a vote-catching subject.

"Now, this has been revived by some groups after the BJP has come to power," said Ravikumar. "Raavan acts as an anti-BJP symbol. This Raavana Leela is only a reaction to the BJP's attempt to revive Ram Leela. But we don’t know how successful it will be."

Correction & clarification: The post has been updated to properly contextualise comments by Tamil writer D Ravikumar about the relevance of the Ram Leela in Tamil Nadu.