The first few days are the hardest. The needle stings, as it digs into the skin, and pain and swelling follow. Janaki Bai Soni, in her late 40s, recalls the first month of getting the god’s name tattooed all across her face, and her wrists:“I was only 20, but I knew I had to get this done. The tattoos made my mouth swell so bad, I could barely eat, or smile. I had to take water with a spoon. Those who get the tattoo all over their body sit for hours at a stretch, and it hurts so much,” she says, sitting in her house in the Sarangarh village of north Chhattisgarh.
For many such as Janaki, members of the Ramnami samaj-- a socio-religious movement of the lower castes in central and northern Chhattisgarh, in which followers practice chanting the name of Ram and tattoo different portions of their body – faith has had its own demands. And driven by “bhakti” (devotion) for the god, many such as Janaki claim they have endured. While Janaki had her face and wrists tattooed a few decades ago, other members of the samaj (community) have either different portions of their body (the forehead, in many cases), or their entire body tattooed. The god, they claim, cannot be seen, but exists “within the self”.
Watch: The Ramnamis of Chhattisgarh
While most of the Ramnamis invoke “faith” and “devotion” as their primary motivation, the genesis of the tattoo practice, and the singing of Ram bhajans (drawn from Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas), lies in the subversive movements by lower castes against discrimination and caste-based hierarchies in central India, in the late nineteenth century. According to Professor Ramdas Lamb, who has done a comprehensive study on the subject, the Ramnamis are followers of Parasuram, a low-caste farm labourer in Chhattisgarh, who left his village for the forest, soon after he was detected of leprosy.
In the forest, Parasuram met a monk, who prescribed chanting ‘Ram’ to cure himself of the disease. Parasuram was cured overnight, and gradually, the cult of the Ramnamis started to take shape under his leadership. The Ramnami community, however, was really an offshoot of the region’s Satnami movement, claims Professor Ramdas, of the Department of Religion at University of Hawaii, Manoa.
The Satnami samaj, he says, was a powerful low caste movement that posed a big challenge to the orthodox religious tradition and existing caste hierarchy of the time. Parasuram, however, disagreed with the political aspirations of the Satnamis -- the latter were aligning themselves with the Indian National Congress and the freedom struggle to gain benefits for their caste, a feat which they managed, eventually, at least in a legal change in their name.
Parasuram, however, advocated that the alternative of a “spiritual” rather than the “social elevation” approach to combat discrimination, writes Professor Ramdas, in a paper on the subject. Ramdas argues that Parasuram advocated that his followers should accept their caste status as the will of god, and devote themselves to chanting his name and shlokas from Tulsidas’ Ramayana.
By the early 1920s, when Parasuram died, there were nearly 20,000 tattooed devotees and at least twice the number of those who don’t have the tattoos, but are members of the community.
However, going by the accounts of a few Ramnamis that HT met in the villages of Chhattisgarh, the numbers of the tattooed devotees is on the decline. Those surviving concede that they are probably the last adherents of the practice of tattooing. However, the numbers of those who don’t have the tattoo is on the rise. “Now, no one prevents lower castes like us from entering temples. So things have changed in many ways, and the tattooed devotee is not common. But the popularity of Ram bhajans has increased. There must be lakhs of devotees now. You should see the numbers who come for the bhajans at our annual event,” claims Mahettar Ram Tandon, 73, a member of the Akhil Bhartiya Ramnami Mahasabha, and a resident of the village of Jamgahan, a few hours away from the city of Raipur.
The continuing tradition of organising an annual bhajan mela that Mahettar Ram invokes to validate the strength of his community is perhaps one of the few ways in which the Ramnamis are holding on their religious identity. The annual show receives state patronage and is an important event in the villages’ cultural calendar, locals say. “Everybody comes. The Chief Minister himself inaugurates the show. It’s a devotional fair, so the children have a good time too,” says Devram Banaj, a resident of Sarangarh village, who is in his 80s. Devram and his wife Phulmat say they are invited at the annual show to perform, an event for which they ready themselves with special cotton drapes with the Ram written on it, as well as their customary peacock feather crown, which the Ramnami men wear.
But beyond the cultural gala -- or, when photo journalists come calling -- the families of the Ramnamis (and some followers too) see little relevance of their “conspicuous” identity. Most Ramnamis feel that though the more obvious forms of discrimination -- such as barring entry in temples -- have ceased to exist in villages, the religious movement has not been able to effect any change in their material conditions. Some say that the Mahasabha maintains a fund for few development projects in the village, it’s hardly something that the families are banking on.
Devram and Janaki say they are small landholders, and making ends meet is hard. Devram’s two sons, for instance, have travelled as far as Punjab for work. Jaliram Banaj, the couple’s 40-year-old son, says that unlike his parents, he and his brother never wanted to get the tattoos because “no one would give you work if you had this on your face.”
For Janaki, who lives with her husband and has no children, however, being a Ramnami goes beyond mere religious identity, or a scribble on the walls of her house. It is now a matter of livelihood. “People respect us because we sing devotional songs. They invite us to perform at community events and pay for the journey. Devotees might also offer money or food. It is their devotion for Ram. Our land is too small. But it is Ram who keeps me going.”