How the Ramnamis of Chhattisgarh Protest Against Caste Discrimination With Body Tattoos

The Ramnami Samaj is a community of Dalits from Chhattisgarh. It’s a Hindu sect founded by Parsuram in the 1890s that worships the deity Ram.

The community displaced the temple from the cosmogenical centre of the orthodox Hindu universe and placed the body in the sanctum sanctorum.

Their ‘Ram Ram’ tattoos are a brilliant idea directed at the inhuman edifice of caste discrimination – bold, visual, combining a declaration of spiritual intent while simultaneously creating a radical new path to redemption.

Perhaps, this is how it happened:

In the late 19th century, British India, in a village called Charpara, around 120 kilometers from Bilaspur district in what is now Chhattisgarh, Parsuram Bharadwaj, a Dalit man, feels a powerful urge to have a darshan of Ram in the nearby temple.

However, at the temple entrance he is stopped by the priest, or perhaps by some other ‘upper’ caste worshipers, and is not allowed into the temple.

Rambhagat Sarkela is a purnanakshik – one with a full body tattoo. The number of such tattooed individuals has dwindled in recent years from over 10 lakh to around 20,000. Photo: Asha Thadani


Setbai is one of the only five women who have strictly adhered to the monastic norms of the Ramnamis. She has a shaven head, and though married, does not wear sindoor or a mangalsutra. The Ramnamis look down upon dowry. Like all ‘Tyagi’ Ramnamis, she does not share any physical intimacy with her husband. Photo: Asha Thadani

As he returns home his heart is ablaze with anguish over the injustice at the temple. And in defiance of social norms at the time, he gets the name of Lord Rama tattooed all over his body, from head to toe.

This is the historical version of the story. But as often happens in India, there is another, more magical origin story of the Ramnami sect: the same Parsuram, stricken with a deadly disease (leprosy is mentioned in some narratives), retreats into the life of a mendicant.

In the forest, while meditating and chanting the name of Lord Rama, he meets a sadhu who encourages his penance. Overnight, miraculously, the disease vanishes and the words ‘Ram Ram’ appear on his body.

Katkaram Arjuni, blind since the age of three, has memorised the ‘Ramayan’, ‘Sukhsagar’, ‘Vishramsagar’, ‘Kabir Bijak’ as well as ‘Tulsidas’, merely by listening to the recitations. Ramnamis do not believe in idol worship. Photo: Asha Thadani

Punabai Gorba, once a landowner, now owns cattle. She keeps only cows for milk and dung. She does not rear chicken or goats as she’s a vegetarian. Punabai gave up all her land and three children to dedicate her life to Bhakti and Bhajans. Photo: Asha Thadani

Thiharuram Chandalidi is a designated tattooist and is also a herbal healer, who prepares medicines for both humans and animals. He wears the peacock feather in his mukut (crown) that marks the Bhajan Melas of the Ramnami Samaj. Photo: Asha Thadani

Whichever story one chooses to believe, by tattooing the name of god on every inch of his skin, Parsuram hammered his tattoo chisel into the ideological crack in Hindu orthodoxy.

Firtin wears the trademark shawl with the block printed inscription ‘Ram Ram’. By tattooing the name of Ram twice, the Ramnamis distinguish be-tween the conventional orthodox Hinduism and the formless divine that they worship as the ‘One True God.’ Photo: Asha Thadani


The ink for the tattoo is made from the soot collected from burning kerosene oil in an earthen pot. The tattooing itself is done manually by senior Ramnamis who are expert tattooists, using two wooden needles. Photo: Asha Thadani

The group’s turning point came in 1912 when they were persecuted by the ‘upper’ castes for “desecrating” in the name of Ram, following which Parsuram and his followers had appealed to the British authorities in Raipur.

The district magistrate ruled in their favour saying that the name ‘Ram’ cannot be the exclusive property of any particular group. After the verdict, their numbers grew significantly.

Like Buddhism and the Kabir Panthis, the Ramnamis place enormous emphasis on community and equality between the sexes. Suhawabai Kapridi wears ghungroos that play a central role in the dances and the dusk to dawn bhajans of the Ramnamis. Photo: Asha Thadani

All Ramnamis have the ‘Ram Ram’ inscription on the walls of their homes. Like many Ramnamis, Mahetrram Jamgahan moved from farming to metal work and construction. He is a karigar, a stone mason who now earns a living building homes for the community. Photo: Asha Thadani

As the 21st century careens through its early decades, splintering and fracturing old truths every few years, tattooing among the Ramnami Samaj continues to shrink dramatically. The younger generation is finding it difficult to adorn their bodies with visible tattoos for fear of caste-based discrimination as they seek employment in urban centres.

At best, there may be a discreet ‘Ram Ram’ tattoo hidden beneath a shirt.

Asha Thadani is a Bengaluru-based photographic artist. Ramesh Ramanathan is a Kodaikanal-based writer.

This article was first published on The Wire.