IN THE NAME OF RAM

For 100 years, a Hindu sect has used god as warpaint to battle discrimination

Quartz india
Quartz india

For over a 100 years, members of a Hindu sect in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh have been carrying the name of their god, Ram, on their bodies.

The Ramnami Samaj—roughly “society in the name of Ram”is a community of low-caste Hindus in Chhattisgarh’s hinterlands whose members decided to tattoo their bodies as an act of rebellion against discrimination by the higher castes. The practice dates back to a century when the Ramnamis were subjected to the now outlawed custom of untouchability. Among other discriminatory rituals, they were barred from entering temples.

They permanently imprinted Ram’s name on their bodies so they could spread the message of god’s omnipresence.

Tattooing begins at an early age among the Ramnamis: every child must have it at least once before turning two. Besides, every family must own a copy of the Hindu epic, Ramayana, and chant Ram’s name every day.

A 2014 research paper called “The Ramnami Samaj and social upliftment” (pdf), by Ramdas Lamb, associate professor and undergraduate chair, University of Hawaii at Manoa, the sect has been described as follows:

The Samaj has never sought caste Hindu status, nor, for the most part, even sought caste Hindu validation, but has instead attempted to remain as autonomous as possible. Ramnamis do not frame their relationship with the brahmanical system using the latter’s categories or parameters. Instead, they have opted to establish their own set of values, by the assimilation and expression of those elements they cherish while ignoring those they see as based on prejudice and ignorance.

Today, there are some 100,000 or more Ramnamis, living in dozens of villages in at least four districts of Chhattisgarh.

On Jan. 12, a collection of pictures was published by Reuters, chronicling their day-to-day lives in Jamgahan, Chandlidi, and Gorba villages, among others.

The tradition is dying though. “As young Ramnamis today also travel to other regions to study and look for work, younger generations usually avoid full-body tattoos,” Reuters wrote.

Visually-impaired Kartik Ram Sadhu, 67, a follower of Ramnami Samaj, and who has tattooed the name of the Hindu god Ram on his body, bathes in a pond in the village of Arjuni, in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh, India, November 15, 2015. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Visually impaired Kartik Ram Sadhu, 67, bathes in a pond in the village of Arjuni, in Chhattisgarh. (Reuters/Adnan Abidi)
Jhingur Ram, 76, a follower of Ramnami Samaj, who has tattooed the name of the Hindu god Ram on his entire body, sits outside his house in the village of Chandai, in the eastern Indian state of Chhattisgarh, India, November 15, 2015. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Jhingur Ram, 76, outside his house in the village of Chandai. (Reuters/Adnan Abidi)
Tiharu Ram, 70, and his wife Phirtin Bai, 61, (R) followers of Ramnami Samaj, who have tattooed the name of the Hindu god Ram on their faces, pose for a picture outside their house in the village of Chandlidi, in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh, India, November 16, 2015. Ramnamis wrote the Hindu god Ram's name on their bodies as a message to higher-caste Indians that god was everywhere, regardless of a person's caste or social standing. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Tiharu Ram, 70, and his wife Phirtin Bai, 61, (right) stand outside their house in the village of Chandlidi. (Reuters/Adnan Abidi)
Jhingur Ram, 76, a follower of Ramnami Samaj, who has tattooed the name of the Hindu god Ram on his entire body, poses for a picture outside his house in the village of Chandai, in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh, India, November 15, 2015. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Jhingur Ram, 76, in the village of Chandai. (Reuters/Adnan Abidi)
Dhani Ram, 52, a follower of Ramnami Samaj, who has tattooed the name of the Hindu god Ram on his entire face, stands outside his house at the village of Chandlidi, in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh, India, November 16, 2015. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Dhani Ram, 52, stands outside his house at the village of Chandlidi. (Reuters/Adnan Abidi)
Chanda Ram, 72, a follower of Ramnami Samaj, who has tattooed the name of the Hindu god Ram on his entire face and head, poses for a picture inside his house in the village of Chapora, in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh, India, November 15, 2015. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Chanda Ram, 72, sits inside his house in the village of Chapora. (Reuters/Adnan Abidi)
Punai Bai, 75, a follower of Ramnami Samaj, who has tattooed the name of the Hindu god Ram on her entire body, poses for a picture outside her house in the village of Gorba, in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh, India, November 15, 2015. Denied entry to temples and forced to use separate wells, low-caste Hindus in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh first tattooed their bodies and faces more than 100 years ago as an act of defiance and devotion. Ramnamis wrote the Hindu god Ram's name on their bodies as a message to higher-caste Indians that god was everywhere, regardless of a person's caste or social standing. While discrimination on class grounds has lessened and most young Ramnamis today avoid full-body tattoos, elderly devotees are still proud of the indelible message their bodies have carried for decades. 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. “God is for everybody, not just for one community,� said Bai, who lives in a one-room house with her son, daughter-in law and two grandchildren. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi PICTURE 22 OF 31 - SEARCH "RAMNAMI" FOR ALL IMAGES
Punai Bai, 75, poses for a picture outside her house in the village of Gorba. (Reuters/Adnan Abidi)
Chanda Ram, 72, a follower of Ramnami Samaj, who has tattooed the name of the Hindu god Ram on his entire face and head, poses for a picture inside his house in the village of Chapora, in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh, India, November 15, 2015. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Chanda Ram, 72, poses for a picture inside his house in the village of Chapora. (Reuters/Adnan Abidi)
Phirtin Bai, 61, a follower of Ramnami Samaj, who has tattooed the name of the Hindu god Ram on her entire face, poses for a picture outside her house in the village of Chandlidi, in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh, India, November 16, 2015. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Phirtin Bai, 61, poses for a picture outside her house in the village of Chandlidi. (Reuters/Adnan Abidi)
An elderly woman walks past the followers of Ramnami Samaj in the village of Arjuni, in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh, India, November 14, 2015. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
An elderly woman walks past the followers of Ramnami Samaj in the village of Arjuni, in Chhattisgarh. (Reuters/Adnan Abidi)
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