RAMNAMI: WRAPPED WITH FAITH
Article and Images by Tania Chatterjee
Ramnami: wrapped with faith
Fascinated by the people who have tattooed the famous Hindu God’s name “RAM” all over their body, I made an attempt to photo document this diminishing tradition of their body art. “Wrapped with Faith” is a series of images of RANMANI ethnic group, which practices a unique religious practice in remote part of central India.
A sect of low caste people in central India tattooed the name of RAM all over their body to fight the caste based discrimination. It is a unique non-violent movement to fight the discrimination and disagreement of upper caste Hindu religious beliefs and practices. The Ramnami believed that when I cannot go to the God, I will wrap myself with God’s name. God will be all over me all my life. The best part of Ramnami sect is there is no difference of tattoo in terms of gender.
The Ramnami movement started around 1890’s a little more than 100 years. People belonging to the Ramnami Samaj (sect) tattoo the name of Lord RAM over their body. Some just have the name of RAM tattooed on their hand whereas some have their full body tattooed including their genitals.
Ramnami: the NAKHSHIKH
Some ardent believers of Ramnami sect have undertaken a full body tattoo including their genitals. People who have undertaken full body tattoo are called NAKHSHIKH. The word literally means from the toe-nail to the top of their head. The process of full-body tattooing is not done in one-sitting, it takes days even months to undertake the process of tattooing. The process is painful and susceptible to infections which take days to recover thereby delaying the process.
Unfortunately the practice of full body tattoo ended in 1970s. Presently there are only 5/6 aged NAKHSHIKH still alive. The fine art and culture of caste defying tattoo will come to an end with them. This photo documentation is an effort to keep this tradition and their fight in the archives of human history. Both men and women can be a NAKHSHIKH; they are highly respected in the community. Ramnami’s believe “Who needs a temple when we have the name of god written on us?”. Although I did visit a Ramnami temple, it only had a copy of Ramayana.
Ramnami: why RAM
In Hindu religion lord RAM is the embodiment of truth, of morality, the ideal son, the ideal husband, and above all, the ideal righteous king. It is therefore considered that chanting his name protects and enriches the religious virtues of one-self. In RAM-centric traditions of Hinduism, he is considered the Supreme Being. Rama is especially important to Vaishnavism. He is the central figure of the ancient Hindu epic Ramayana, a text historically popular in the South Asian and Southeast Asian cultures.
In central part of India Ram is considered as a key God and worshipped within every household. People even greet each other by the name of god RAM. The Ramnami sect worships the Ramayana; they do not have any idol to worship. Every household of Ramnami sect have a copy of Ramayana. They follow the Ramacharitamanas which retells the Ramayana in a vernacular dialect of Hindi language. It is the most popular and commonly used version in northern and central India. Ramacharitamanas was composed in the 16th century by Tulsidas. The popular text is notable for synthesizing the epic story in a Bhakti movement framework, wherein the original legends and ideas morph in an expression of spiritual bhakti (devotional love) for a personal god. The popularity of RAM as a personal embodiment of devotional love led them to tattoo his name as a form of worship.
There is no specific pattern or design of tattoo. It is the name of RAM all over, it can be done in small fonts or large fonts. The name is written as various form of design. The better the artist the smaller the design, smaller design also mean more pain to the person.
History of Body Art – Tattoo
Tattooing has been practiced across the globe since at least Neolithic times, as evidenced by mummified preserved skin, ancient art and the archaeological record. Although there is no authentic documentation of history of tattooing in India but the art of inking ones skin is popular amongst various tribal cultures; most of these tribal cultures have existed more than 1000 years.
Tribals have tattooed their skin as an identification mark of a specific tribe. Tattoo is also done as a sign of fertility or marriage. Some tribes have even used tattoo to disfigure their faces to make them look less attractive. A mythological belief also existed, that having a tattoo on the child will spare the child from evil spirits. Tattooing your body as a form of worship and fight against caste based discrimination is very unique.
The tattoos are unique because they are caste-defying tattoo of the Ramnami Samaj in Chhattisgarh is a non-violent movement meant. On one hand it brings the believer close to God, so close as if wearing God himself all over. On the other hand it challenged the authority of the higher class who considered themselves as an authoritarian of God. It’s a movement against the upper caste individuals who restricted them from entering temples and other forms of worship.
Hindu religion is divided into caste system and in earlier days the upper caste were rich, powerful and dictated religious terms whereas the low-castes often did menial jobs, were poor and powerless. Forbidden access to religious places and deities; the followers of RAMNAMI sect tattooed their entire body with the name of Lord RAM as an act of devotion to be gript with God’s. It’s a message to higher-caste Hindus that god is omnipresent, regardless of caste, class and gender.
Ramnami: the tattoo making process
The process of tattooing undertaken by the Ramnami in early days used to be extremely painful. It was done by using an ink made from soot and water. The soot for the inking is collected by a special arrangement of burning a kerosene oil lamp under an earthen pot. The ink is stored safely in special containers. Tattooing is done using wooden needles and very few people in their sect knew this art.
The most difficult body parts to tattoo are the head and over joints because the skin is close to bone. Close proximity of skin and bone makes the piercing process difficult. Some members have stated that the initial tattoos were painful and difficult but later the process was overwhelming.
Ramnami: and their lifestyle
The followers of the RAMNAMI sect are not just about the body tattoo. Followers of Ramnami sect never drink alcohol, smoke, and eat non-vegetarian food. They will stay away from any form of intoxication. People of this sect chant the name of “Ram” daily and 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. In the houses of most Ramnami followers the word “RAM – RAM” is written in black ink; the name is written on the outer and inner walls.
Ramnami: the younger generation
Presently RAMNAMI movement is rapidly diminishing. Although it is still prevalent practices that people of this sect come together and chant the Ramayana during specific occasions. The practice of tattoo is no more followed by younger generation nowadays as they perceive it as discrimination. Younger generation attend school, colleges and heading towards cities for job and further studies. They feel that looking different from other sis a form of discrimination. The tattoo will reveal themselves as people from backward class which they don’t want to.
While talking to the younger generation of Ramnami I realised two aspects of human development. One aspect is that in the age of globalisation everyone ones to look same; everyone wants to look fair using skin-bleaching. The other aspect is people still have a stigma with caste based discrimination. People don’t speak it openly but it is strongly prevalent within our social system.
If you are interested to join the RAMNAMI Photography trip, please visit FOTORBIT PHOTOGRAPHY TOURS for further updates. Learn more about Ramnami culture, their festivals and attire. Ramnami tour dates to be announced shortly.
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