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 Price - GBP 250
Sadhu Ram turned totally blind while he was six. A purna-nakshik, or a Ramnami inscribed all over his body, Sadhu Ram knew all his life the assurance a common, humanistic social structure provides. He never felt crippled as he is always accompanied by someone from his clan, who just makes Sadhu Ram feel complete. The Ramnami Samaj provided Sadhu with his livelihood, his home, and certainly with his inner sight.
Mehtr Ram Tandon used to earn his living by casting iron utensils in his stone-built workshop. He doesnt need to earn any more as his only son has joined a college to teach computer programming. Mehtr is now turning his workshop into a school where the young ones from his village will take up their first lessons, for free.
In peacock-feather headgear a Ramnami looks distinct even in his own courtyard. Basically a rural mass, they are so different that they feel like people of another and just planet. Through their inner beauty they avoid confrontation in any form, and their co-villagers admit that they are the best neighbors.
As soon as more than 2 Ramnamis come together, they burst into songs. Singing the choupais (quartets) of Rmacharitmanash is their lifeline. Being a very small and connected society, the Ramnamis visit each other frequently, and they practically socialize and come closer by singing together.
On any occasion the bunch of bells start tinkling and a common chorus takes shape. Living a life full of love and song, the Ramnamis are passionate in all romantic senses. For them age is just matured passion, full of insight.
Ramnamis value democracy most and doesnt make any discrimination while selecting members to represent them. Most of the membersbe they men or womenstand apart because of their ability to think more transparently about how to make themselves relevant in an ever changing Indian political perspective.
Divine light can infiltrate even through a village door. In these remote villages of Chattisgarh a group of people found a means of protest that is so different from both ultra-left ideologies and Gandhian activism. They have tamed a God, or the concept of a political God, for a greater common good.
Bhakti is the eldest of Purna Nakshiks now. Her husband was a master in tattooing and he himself inscribed his wife with thousand Rams. A widow for the last 20 years, with no children, Bhakti was never in a spot of bother as she was looked after by an extended family of the Ramnamis. To her, life is all Ram.
Ramnamis believe in a simplistic philosophy of belonging to the very basic social codes. They practice austerity even in the look of their assembly halls. A white ceiling over white pillars inscribed with the concept Ram all over stands for their prayer-room, or bhajan-ghar. They keep a copy of Ramcharitmanash inside, in place of any deity. In appearance, a prayer room is just an extension of the Ramnami himselfphysically, or spiritually.