The Ramnamis

In India, the concept of the God Ram has always been political. In Ramcharitmanash—biography of Ram written in verse by the medieval poet, Tulsidas—Ram had been drawn as an individual who stands for virtues valuable to Indian civil code, and as a ruler He was depicted as the last word for able and kind governance. Because of the beauty and simplicity of Tulsidas’s verse, India’s mostly illiterate mass—who belonged to the lowest strata as per the 4-tiered Aryan concept of social division—took Ram in soul. Mahatma Gandhi first noticed that majority of Indians know by heart Ram’s messages, and to them a perfect society is what Ram guaranteed to His subjects. Gandhi immediately took the clue and, to eradicate untouchability, preached that after independence India will attain ‘Ramrajya’ (kingdom of Ram) where there will be no discrimination among subjects. Gandhi was able to hit the bull’s eye and he got himself accepted as another Saint by the Indian downtrodden. But after independence, and particularly after Gandhi’s assassination, those people found that for them things are not going to change for the better. Almost all of them accepted it lying down, but one group of merely 3000 people inside the forested land of the then Madhya Pradesh (now Chattisgarh) revolted. They discarded Hinduism altogether and sought refuge in a physical concept of Ram. They claimed that they are making Ram a captive inside their very existence and to stress on that point they tattooed the name of Ram all over their bodies. They rejected all rituals, all idols, and their own religious ambition is only to be able to recite Ramcharitmanas word by word. Their philosophy is what Gandhi aspired to teach Indians—gender equality, class eradication, education for all. Known as ‘Ramnami’ sect, these people brought in a silent revolution, and significantly they followed in every sense Gandhi’s lesson of non-violence. In 1950s, the first lot of about 30 Ramnamis got tattooed all over. Over time the number never reached more than 200. Of these tattooed believers who were inscripted all over, only 5 are alive now. And, to mark victory for them, their future generation usually has gone through Universities and has found a strong footing in a modern world. They don’t need to get tattooed to show off their identity any more. After these 5 still living, there will be no tattooed Ramnamis in India. And just there they have won the game. Of the 5 living Ramnamis who are tattooed all over, I could manage to meet them all. Emaciated by age and more by a life-long fight to ensure basic human rights, these 5-- revered among the Ramnamis as 'Purna Nakshiks' (which means carrying the name of Ram all over)-- are certainly the greatest individuals I can ever hope to come along. I was looking for a glint of something revolting in them, and I think that I could sense it whenever I came near to them. Probably it's the directness of their glances, or something else hidden in their noble postures. The Ramnamis once were confined to the densely forested areas in rural Chattisgarh, and all the 'nakshiks' I came to know eventually still stay there. But their present generation has got scattered all over India. Frequently during my search for Ramnanis I came across a computer engineer, a teacher of physics at a prime Indian University, or a lawyer practicing at a High Court. Story and images by - Joydip Mitra