Over the last century members of the Hindu sect Ramnami Samaj have tattooed the name of their god, Ram, onto their bodies!
The Ramnami Samaj are a low-caste Hindu sect/community in the eastern Indian state of Chhattisgarh and for over 100 years they have been carrying the name of their god on their skin. Translating as “society in the name of Ram” the Ramnami Samaj began tattooing their bodies in the face of discrimination by higher castes as a symbol of both defiance and religious devotion.
A century ago the caste laws of India prohibited the Ramnamis from entering temples and isolated them as a community. To show that castes were meaningless and that god was everywhere the Ramnami Samaj tattooed his name onto their bodies. A permanent reminder that god is omnipresent and always with them. News website Reuters recently featured a story on the Ramnami Samaj and explored the traditions of the full-body tattooing!
"It was my new birth the day I started having the tattoos. The old me had died."
The tattooing of the Ramnami Samaj begins at an early age with every child having to be tattooed at least once before turning two years-old. The tattoo ink is usually made by mixing soot with water!! Every family must also own a copy of the classic Hindu text Ramayana, as well as reciting the name of Ram everyday.
Spread across dozens of villages and four districts of Chhattisgarh the Ramnami Samaj number around 100,000 people but today the younger generations are less tattooed than their elders. Since 1955 the lives of the lower-castes have improved and younger Ramnami Samaj generations commonly travel from the communities to other regions for education and work. As a result they are less inclined to wear the full body tattoos, however some still carry smaller more discreet designs.
"The young generation just don't feel good about having tattoos on their whole body...That doesn't mean they don't follow the faith."
Although the full-body tattoos are not as prominent among the Ramnami Samaj as they once were it is still important and most infants are tattooed, usually on their chest, before the age of two. The change of caste discrimination however has greatly affected the traditions of the Ramnami Samaj but their beliefs of equality have stayed the same...
“The world is changing, the times are changing...We have all realised that we are all same.”
Whether the full-body tattooing of the Ramnami Samaj has a future is an uncertainty but the tradition and history of the practice will surely continue long after the last tattooed elders are gone!