As the first president of Padumlal Punnalal Chair for Creativity, he was associated with the Department of Culture of the Chhattisgarh government. He was awarded the Statesman award for rural reporting for two consecutive years in 1994 and 1995. He has researched extensively on the Ramnami community and shared his findings in a documentary film, Ram Ram, produced by Films Division of India. In this interview, Jaiswal demystifies the life of the Ramnami community of Chattisgarh, who made their body a canvas for their protest against the caste system.
Following is and edited transcript of the interview conducted by Vishakha Khetrapal on September 26, 2018, at Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh.
Vishakha Khetrapal (VK): Satish ji, can you talk about the origin of the Ramnami movement?
Satish Jaiswal (SJ): The Ramnami movement began as an act of revolt against the caste system in the late nineteenth century. In those days, the so-called ‘lower castes’ were prohibited by the upper castes from even visiting Hindu temples, let alone chanting the name of the gods. This led to the rise of several movements by the lower castes such as the Satnamis and Sadguru [Kabir] panthis. During those times, a group of lower castes in Chhattisgarh started wearing the name of Ram all over their bodies and clothes in protest against the caste system. There is a village named Charpara in Malkharoda tehsil, 118 km from Bilaspur district. It was home to Parsuram Bharadwaj, considered the founder of the samaj [Ramnami society]. It is said that he never went to school but taught himself to read the Ramcharitmanas. According to a legend, Ramnam [the name of Lord Ram] magically appeared on his body and cured him from a serious disease. After that, he practised and preached Ram bhakti, and soon many others joined him and got themselves tattooed.
Not much factual information is available about how the samaj began but officially the first major milestone came in 1912. The district magistrate in Raipur ruled in their favour that they could not be stopped from using the name of Ram. Parsuram and his followers approached the British authorities in Raipur in the year 1910 after repeated attacks on the community for using the name of Ram. But after their victory in court, the number of followers of the community increased multifold. Their protests have, however, always been peaceful as they believe in living in harmony and respecting everyone around them. This was one reason that they did not join in when the Satnamis [a similar low-caste group] entered politics.
VK: What is the significance of the Ramnam tattoo all over their body?
SJ: The Ramnamis cover their entire bodies with tattoos; tatooting is locally known as godna. It [these permanent tattoos] cannot be erased once you have it done on your body. There is a belief that the tattoos remains on the body for a person’s lifetime and follow them to their death. They serve as an identifier for the person in the other world, after he or she dies. The Ramnamis tattoo their entire body, including the tongue, with Ramnam. There are two implied meanings here. The first meaning is that every breath that they take gets laced with Ramnam; as it touches the tongue and every pore of their body is touched by the name of Ram. The second meaning is that Ramnam cannot get contaminated by anything, even saliva on the tongue. Godna started as a protest against the Hindu position that lower castes would contaminate Ramnam.
VK: So why Ram and not any other Hindu god?
SJ: The name of Ram holds a special significance in Hindi-speaking rural India. This could be in part because of the popularity of Ramcharitmanas and the depiction of Ram as an ideal man in the scriptures. If we talk about Chhattisgarh, Ram is all the more important here as various stories in Ramayana, including the tale of Shabri [a Bhili woman who was an ardent devotee of Ram], are geographically based in Chhattisgarh.
VK: What is the approach of the Ramnamis towards Ram worship? Is it similar to that of the Hindus?
SJ: Although they are closely associated with Ramnam and Ramcharitmanas, the Ramnami community has separated itself from the rituals and customs practised by the Hindus. They criticise and alter the verses from Ramcharitmanas wherever they feel it is orthodox, and also add couplets from poets such as Kabir in their reading. However, as a whole they regard it as a sacred text and consider its recital a part of their daily lives. An important thing to note is that the community worships the ‘nirgun’ or unmanifest Ram and not the son of Dasharatha, worshipped by Hindus. This is the reason why the community always uses a double repetition of Ramnam, ‘Ram Ram’, in their bhajans and writings. Unlike the Hindus, the Ramnamis do not practise idol worship as they believe that Ram is omnipresent, as even their bodies are temples covered with Ramnam.
VK: Satish ji, you spoke about the Ramnam tattoo. Is there a prescribed age to get tattooed?
SJ: There is no standard age to get tattooed. Many Ramnamis get tattooed soon after birth. Some get tattooed at the time of their marriage. Also, not everyone tattoos their entire body. Some may just get Ramnam inked on their forehead while others choose to cover their entire body, including the scalp and eyelids. The ones with tattoos all over their body are called sarvang shareer [entire body] or nakhshikh Ramnami. Those with the tattoo on the forehead alone are called shiromani [forehead]. There is no discrimination based on gender and both men and women can get themselves tattooed.
VK: What kind of ink is used for tattooing? Is the same ink used for imprinting Ramnam on the clothes?
SJ: The ink used for tattooing is black, and the process of making it is quite similar to that for making kajal. It is made by burning kerosene oil covered in an earthen pot and the soot is collected thereafter. The tattooing is done with two needles by designated people from the Ramnami community.
The ink used for tattooing on cloth is similar except for certain plant additives, such as extracts from banana leaves and the bark of babool, which are added to increase longevity.
VK: How do the Ramnamis express themselves socially? Do they celebrate any festival?
SJ: Ramnamis mark all the occasions in their lives with the recitation of Ramnam—be it birth of a child or the marriage or death of a family member. Their festivals are all connected with Ramnam; this includes Bada Bhajan Mela, the biggest festival of the Ramnamis, where the community comes together to chant the name of Ram. This bhajan mela is held on Shukla Ekadashi [the 11th lunar day] of the Pausha month of the Hindu calendar, which coincides with January of the Gregorian Calendar.
The Ramnamis also organise bhajans during Navratri, which is a biannual event. That apart, a bhajan mela is held in the town of Shivrinarayan in Chhattisgarh during Maghi Purnima [full moon day in the month of Magh, in January or February].
VK: Can you tell us more about the Bada Bhajan Mela?
SJ: The Bada Bhajan Mela is the biggest annual gathering of the community and the preparation for the mela starts almost a year in advance. There are two governing bodies for the mela—the Ramnami Sadasya Council, which has an elected president and a secretary, and the sub-committee for the mela, known as Prabandhan Samiti, which is nominated by the village hosting the mela. The important thing to note here is that the sub-committee members are limited not only to the samaj but open to everyone in the village irrespective of their religion or caste.
Each year the mela is held at a different village, alternatively on the east and west bank of the river Mahanadi. This is an example of social justice practised by them, by giving equal opportunities to all the villages to participate. The selection process is also quite interesting. The village which sends the maximum number of coconuts along with the application is chosen as the host.
Barring a few exceptions, no village has been allowed to host the mela more than once. The purpose is to give a fair chance to every village to host and also participate in the mela. A pillar locally called jait khambh [victory pole] is erected at the mela site, indicating that a mela has been held at this village. The khambh also serves as the focal point of all the activities of the mela.
The mela goes on for three days with Ramnam bhajans held daily, till night. Everyone wears their traditional clothes covered with Ramnam, ties brass ghungroos [musical anklets worn by Indian dancers] on their hands or feet, and sings bhajans together. The Ramnamis dance in circles; under the dim light of kerosene lamps, the chanting of Ramnam and the sound of ghungroos create an intended hallucination.
The mela brings together Ramnamis from different villages on one platform, demonstrating their emphasis on community living. Common meals are made on earth ovens dug at the site where khichdi is cooked for the entire gathering. All issues that need community intervention are discussed and resolved during the mela. It is also an occasion when many community members get tattooed.
VK: I have also heard about community marriages during the mela. Can you tell us about them?
SJ: These are marriages that defy conventions. For instance, the Ramnami marriages do not involve dowry. The couple is charged a nominal amount to participate in the community marriage. The ceremony is officiated by a senior member of the community, not requiring any priests. The couple takes vows around the jait khambh. They promise to follow certain principles of the Ramnami Samaj, including daily recital of Ramnam.
VK: Is there any formal hierarchy established in the community and if there is, is the tattoo indicative of that?
SJ: The community practices hierarchy at two levels—a more formal organisational hierarchy and an informal spiritual hierarchy. After the samaj was recognised by the Raipur magistrate, they were required to have a formally elected body. It has an elected president and secretary. However, the Ramnamis iterate that the elected body is there only to facilitate organisational matters, such as planning of mela, and hold no superiority over the rest of the community. The elected body has now split into two independent bodies, Akhil Bhartiya Ramnami Mahasabha and Chhattisgarh Ramnami Sabha. There is also an informal hierarchy where those who have their entire body tattooed and practice all the niyam [rules] of the samaj are given more respect and, as a mark of their status, wear the mukut [headgear] made with peacock feathers.
VK: In which areas of Chhattisgarh is the Ramnami community found and what are their economic engagements?
SJ: Geographically speaking, the community primarily resides in the villages along the banks of the river Mahanadi, in the districts of Raipur, Bilaspur, Janjgir-Champa and Raigarh. They have never gone too far from the river. They have been associated with agriculture and are known to till their own land, however small it might be. Some also work as labourers. However, with the spread of education, the samaj is witnessing a shift. The younger generation is opting for higher studies and entering government jobs and local businesses. Many of them are now moving out of villages to the industrial cities of Korba and Bhilai for work.
VK: What other changes is the samaj currently witnessing?
SJ: It is important for us to understand that the Ramnami samaj has been around for 114 years after it was formally recognised and has more or less achieved the goal for which it was created. The Ramnamis had Ramnam tattooed all over their bodies as a means of protest against the caste system but as the caste system is becoming less pervasive, the movement is also inching towards its end.
Education and modern lifestyle have a role in this as well. The present generation of Ramnamis do not want to stick out with the tattoos on their body. As they are moving out for work and jobs, they find the tattoos an obstacle in integrating with the outside world. As a compromise, many have started getting Ramnam written on the parts of their body that are covered, although this practice is also declining as the younger generation assimilates cultural influences from their surroundings and the media. Although they still follow the other practices of the samaj, including devotion to Ram, they refrain from getting tattooed. This is not surprising as the movement has already achieved the purpose it had set out to fulfill.