Inked In The Name Of God: The Ramnamis Of Chhattisgarh

A community in Chhattisgarh rebels against caste discrimination by tattooing Rams name all over their bodies
The way they hug each otherits so beautiful. They believe that God is for everybody, not just for one community, says Bharatbala
The way they hug each otherits so beautiful. They believe that God is for everybody, not just for one community, says BharatbalaVinayak Gopal

The Ramnami Samaj is a movement that came up in what is now central and northern Chhattisgarh in the 19th century as an act of peaceful resistance against the caste system in India that denied many of them entry to temples.

More than 100 years ago, the sect decided to tattoo their bodies and faces with the name of nirgun (unmanifest) Ram to show that Ram, or God, was omnipresent and everywhere.

In 1910, the Ramnami Samaj was taken to court by upper caste Hindu groups over this unique practice, but they won the case and the right to inscribe Ram's name on their bodies, clothing, and living spaces.

In 2020, Mumbai-based filmmaker Bharatbala visited villages in central Chhattisgarh to shoot a short film on the community for his project Virtual Bharat—a series of 1,000 short documentaries exploring Indian history, culture, folklore, art, music, literature, and human stories, which is available on YouTube.

The film is striking, shot in a stark style, echoing the minimalism he found in the lives of the Ramnamis—with interweaving shots of their bodies and faces, their houses and villages. There are lyrical frames of the Ramnamis wearing simple cotton shawls or stoles and lungi, some with a peacock headdress (their attire printed all over with the word Ram), chanting the Ramcharitmanas with bronze ghungroos keeping a beat.

A ramnami with full body tattoos is known as a purnanakshik
A ramnami with full body tattoos is known as a purnanakshikVinayak Gopal

Bharatbala first came across the Ramnamis in the images shot by a French photographer he met in Puducherry, who had visited Chhattisgarh many years ago.

"The Ramnamis know that the divine is within them. What intrigued me was their penance—so beautiful to look at, and yet so painful as a story," said Bharatbala. "The community took shape from a traumatic history of caste discrimination and formulated a unique form of resistance that's a mix of tapasya and devotion—an ultimate act of ahimsa."

The challenge was to shoot all this in a short film.

"It's not a 30-minute film that carries the scope for one to delve deeper. The challenge was to create an impact in under ten minutes and still tell this amazing story. I wanted people to understand and feel they needed to know more about the sect. I did not want to do it like a 'mela' film. I just wanted it to be a simple, human, personal story."

As research and recce, the team first visited some of the villages where the Ramnamis live. The community is spread across several villages in (at least) four districts of Chhattisgarh.

What struck Bharatbala was the starkness and the simplicity of every aspect of their lives.

"There's no idol worship; they wear the bare minimum clothing, they sit together, and repeatedly read or chant Ramcharitmanas. They know every part of it, inside out."

Reciting the Ramcharitmanas is a way of life
Reciting the Ramcharitmanas is a way of lifeVinayak Gopal

The most striking thing for Bharatbala was the tapestry of tattoos, which reflect a spiritual nature. Made with soot from a kerosene lamp and water, the ink is stored in coconut shells. Wooden needles are used to draw the tattoos.

"Getting tattooed is not compulsory. The people we had connected with had all done it out of choice. Some of them got tattooed after marriage. Some got tattooed when they turned 30."

The tattoo designs differ.

"The word is the same—Ram, but if a man is bald, for instance, you will find the tattoos in concentric circles, going all the way down, some have the tattoos in linear stripe-like designs."

"Ram" is also imprinted on the clothes they wear. A wooden block, similar to what is used to make tattoos, is dipped in ink to make prints. For cloth, an extract of babool (acacia) is added to the ink to make it last longer.

"Most of the present generation of Ramnamis do not opt for full-body tattoos; their jobs in towns and cities don't allow them that option. However, for many, just one tattoo of 'Ram' on their hand or arm is enough to connect them to their community and faith."

Of all the people Bharatbala met and interacted with, one woman who appears briefly towards the end of his film remains etched in his memory.

"We had gone to her house to film. The other Ramnamis had been called too. When she saw so many people coming in, she quickly made some rice, vegetables, and dal and served it to us. We hadn't even asked for a meal."

"That, for me, is the essence of being a Ramnami—sewa and penance without question. I felt so much love emanating from her even though we barely spoke. I saw compassion in her eyes and her smile. After the shoot, she stood by my car and said, 'I will remember you every day.' I was speechless."

Related Stories

No stories found.
Outlook Traveller