Whenever Durga Puja comes around one is reminded of Shanno Bai, who ruled over hearts in Chawri Bazar in the pre-1947 days. She was 68 when one met her in 1970, a shadow of her former youthful self when the rich and mighty came to hear her mujra and a select guest stayed back to spend the remainder of the night with her.

Shanno got quite a surprise in middle age when a kumhar making idols barged into her bordello and asked if he could take some mud from the courtyard. “What for?” she asked the emaciated old man. “To make an image of Ma Durga”, he replied. “I’m a woman regarded as unchaste by society, so why should you need mud from here? And in any case, the courtyard is not a “kutcha” one, as you can see. Then how will you collect the mud?” she said.

The potter looked puzzled and then his face brightened up. He pointed to some flower pots and said, “I can take the mud from them, for they are also part of your courtyard”. Shanno Bai smiled and nodded approval. After the man left she asked an elder Bai why mud from a courtesan’s courtyard was needed to complete the Durga image. Devki Bai said the story she had heard was that the mud was the repository of the passions of society, which found an outlet at the kothas and was offered to Durga to sanctify those who had erred.

She went on to say that once a rishi got an idol of the Devi made and proudly set it up in front of his ashram so that people could come and worship it during the Nau Durga or nine days devoted to her worship. The same night the goddess appeared to the rishi in a dream and told him that pride did not find favour in her sight. What she needed was humility and sacrifice, without which devotion was hollow.

“What should I do then, O, deity”? asked the rishi. Get mud from the kotha of the prostitutes, who live in the city and ask the potter to mix it with clay to make a new image of mine, then and only then will I deem it fit to enter it on the night when the pujari breathes life into the pratima. Those who are considered the dregs of society and looked down upon as sinful and evil are not so of their own accord but forced to lead that sort of existence by those who exploit them. They also are worthy of my blessings”, she said and vanished.

The rishi got up and did as he was commanded. Since then idol makers (even those from Kumartoli) follow the old practice by and large. Shanno Bai lost her clientele when she became old and in the end was reduced to begging on the staircase of the new kothas that had come up in G.B. Road post-Partition. She would stand with a garland in one hand, and the withered palm of the other extended for alms. If a man gave her Rs 10 she handed over the garland to him so that he could present it to the dancing girl performing the mujra he had come to attend.

The buying power of Rs 10 in the 1960s was equivalent to Rs 100 of today. Once a foreign journalist writing a story for a London paper on the dancing girls of Delhi met Shanno Bai in the staircase and on hearing her tale gave her a Rs 100 note, after which she was not seen for more than a week. Even now when one goes to the pandal during Puja days, one instinctively thinks of Shanno Bai and the story she told.

Banerjee, driver of a businessman’s car, had another tale to relate. According to him there was a poor dancing girl, who was sitting morosely one Durga Asthami day, shedding tears on her plight as she had no customers and hence no money, for they had all gone to offer worship. Suddenly there was a flash as though of lightning and the goddess stood before her. She placed her hand on the girl’s head and asked her to cheer up for henceforth idol makers would come to her kotha and that of others of her kind so that mud from their courtyards could be used to make her image for veneration. And as luck would have it, the dancing girl was never short of money again.

There may be other stories too (some concerning Akbar’s Rajput wives and of Raja Man Singh worshipping Bhavani along with his aunt, Mariam Zamani, the emperor’s chief queen) but sex workers continue to be ardent devotees of Durga Mai. Like the one whose role was played by Sharmila Tagore, to whose kotha Rajesh Khanna came tipsy-toeing and left fully inebriated to bash up those who came to accuse him of visiting a scarlet woman. Alas, one doesn’t find too many takers among the young for these old tales at the pandals these days!

Now about Ramlila: It began to be celebrated in the Walled City some 350 years ago when Shahjahanabad came into being though Mehrauli and the Purana Quila area may have been the earliest venues. While moving his court to Delhi from Agra, Shah Jahan took care to see that merchants, intellectuals and artisans, including craftsmen of various kinds, also followed his court into the new capital. Among them were Sheikhs, Mirzas, Chaudhuris, Jain, Kahishta, Khatri and Baniya businessmen, but not Punjabi merchants, who came only in the reign of Shah Alam in the 18th century.

However, in their place were Kashmiri Pandits, mostly constituting the intelligentsia. The result of this exodus was that Phulhatti, Seo-ka-Bazar, Kinari Bazar, Kashmiri Bazar, Johri Bazar and Rawatpara (that predates Khari Baoli spice market ) almost became a shadow of their former self. It was through these bazaars that the Ramila procession used to wend its way from Belanganj, on the riverfront facing the Taj Mahal.

Some of these bazaars found their incarnation in Delhi and their names are still there as a reminder. For that matter even Chandni Chowk was originally in the Agra Fort, until Jahanara Begum built a more magnificent and spacious version of it in Delhi. However, to maintain communal harmony the Ramlila processions, which passed through these areas, were later taken out from near the northern wall of Delhi.

In Agra, the main celebration of Dussehra, in which the effigies were burnt, took place at the Ramlila Grounds facing the Agra Fort (as they do even now). But in Delhi the celebration was behind the fort until it was moved to the present site opposite Asaf Ali Road. The change came about during the time of Bahadur Shah Zafar but after 1857 there was a break as the talab or lake covering the area had begun to stink with rotting corpses.

It is recorded that there were communal clashes in the 19th and 20th centuries, including the worst one in 1947, during or before the Ramlila. In 1886 the festival coincided with the Tazia processions, leading to great strife. Katra Neel was attacked and the maximum damage was suffered by the havelis of the rich Lalas.

Side by side with Hindu- Muslim rivalry, which led to the discontinuance of the Id mela in the garden of Maldhar Khan for some years, Hindu-Jain rivalry also came to the surface. In 1877 siding with Lala Rammi Mal, Lt- Gov Egberton allowed the Jain Rathyatra to pass through the thoroughfares. This was objected to by the Hindus. It was only well into the 20th century that the Ramlila as we see it now began to be celebrated at present-day sites.