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.
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.
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.
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.
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.