A snapshot of the Ramnamis, who for decades have taken on full-body tattoos in protest of prejudice
BEFORE INDIA BANNED CASTE-BASED discrimination, low-caste Hindus were denied entry to temples and forced to use separate wells. More than 100 years ago, those in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh began tattooing their bodies and faces with the name of the God Ram as an act of devotion and defiance. These Ramnamis, followers of the Ramnami Samaj religious movement, did this as a message to higher-caste Indians that God is everywhere, regardless of caste.
Mahettar Ram Tandon, who lives in the village of Jamgahan, is proud of the indelible message he still carries almost five decades after he had the name of Ram tattooed on his entire body. Dressed in a simple white lungi, Tandon told Reuters: “It was my new birth the day I started having the tattoos. The old me had died.” Tandon is now 76, and his purple tattoos have faded over decades under the harsh sun.
Today the tattoos of Ramnamis, who number in the tens of thousands in close to a hundred villages spread across Chhattisgarh state, are usually on a smaller scale. After caste-based discrimination was banned in India in 1955, the lives of many lower-caste Indians have improved, villagers said. As young Ramnamis today often travel to other regions to study and look for work, few get full-body tattoos.
“The young generation just don’t feel good about having tattoos on their whole body,” said Tandon, who has always lived in his village of small mud houses surrounded by fields of grazing cattle, wheat and rice. “That doesn’t mean they don’t follow the faith.”
In the nearby village of Gorba, Punai Bai spent more than two weeks at the age of 18 having her full body tattooed using dye made from mixing soot from a kerosene lamp with water. Now aged 75, Bai, who lives in a one-room house with her son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, said: “God is for everybody, not just for one community.”
Children born into the community were once required to be tattooed somewhere on their body (preferably on the forehead) by the age of two, but that is no longer the case. According to their religious practices, Ramnamis do not drink or smoke, must chant the name “Ram” daily, and are exhorted to treat everyone with equality and respect. Almost every Ramnami household owns a copy of the Ramayana epic, a book on Lord Rama’s life and teachings, along with small statues of Hindu Deities. Most followers’ homes in these villages have “Ram Ram” written in black on the outer and inner walls.
Despite the 1955 legislation, centuries-old feudal attitudes persist in many parts of the country, and low-caste people, or Dalits, still face prejudice. But Tandon is optimistic about the Ramnamis’ relative change in fortunes since those years long ago when he had his body tattooed. “The world is changing, the times are changing,” he told Reuters. “We have all realized that we are all the same.”
For more on the Ramnamis, see the book Rapt in the Name by Ramdas Lamb