The Ramnami community of Chhattisgarh is a low-caste religious movement whose followers tattoo their bodies, including in some cases eyelids, with the name of Lord Ram. The movement, which is more than a century old, started as an act of peaceful resistance against the practice of untouchability in India. Not allowed to enter temples and worship Hindu gods, the Ramnamis covered their bodies, from head to toe, with the name of Nirgun (unmanifest) Ram and made the recital of Tulsidas’s epic poem Ramcharitmanas part of their daily lives. Through this, they wanted to demonstrate that God is omnipresent and accessible to everyone.
The name of Ram has its presence in every aspect of the life of a Ramnami. From their houses to their clothes to their own bodies, everything has Ramnam imprinted on it. Tattooing, or godna as it as known in the local language, has long been a form of bodily adornment in Chhattisgarh, but non-tribal males in the region rarely ever had tattoos, and there is no record of a deity’s name ever being a part of tattoo designs. It was possibly the first time that it was practiced by non-tribals at such a scale.
The Beginning of Ramnami Samaj
The nineteenth century in Central India saw the uprising of various socioreligious movements that primarily challenged the existing political and religious structures. One of the earliest movements was Kabirpanthi, whose followers practised the tradition of nirgun worship. It was followed by the Satnami movement started by Guru Ghasidas. The movement rejected the caste hierarchy and restrictions imposed on low-caste Hindus, hence oppressed caste groups identified with it.
Many historians consider the Ramnami Samaj (society) an offshoot of the Satnami movement. According to a popular legend, it was started by Parsuram Bhardwaj, the son of a low-caste sharecropper. He was born in Charpara village in the Janjgir-Champa district of Chhattisgarh in the mid-nineteenth century. As a child, he was greatly inspired by the stories of Ramayana. He started working with his father as a farm labourer at an early age and was married by the age of 12. Parsuram taught himself to read and write so as to understand the stories in Ramayana and decipher their meanings.
According to a local legend, Parsuram contracted leprosy and, due to the social stigma attached to leprosy, he decided to live the life of a renunciant. During this time, he met a sadhu (sage), who blessed him and asked him to continue reading Ramayana. The next morning, Parsuram discovered that all the signs of his illness had disappeared from his body and instead the word ‘Ram-Ram’ appeared in the form of a tattoo on his chest. This was seen as a miracle and the villagers began to see him as a blessed man. From then on, he started preaching Ramayana and the importance of uttering Ramnam (Ram’s name). People started considering his house a sacred site and paid regular visits. Initially, four people got ‘Ram-Ram’ tattooed on their forehead as a symbol of their devotion, and by the end of the year, two dozen people.
Parasuram set forth a philosophical approach to life that integrated devotion and the practice of community service and social justice. Unlike the Satnami leaders, who had become politically active in hope of elevating their caste status, Parsuram taught his followers to seek spiritual elevation instead. As his words spread, the number of followers—the number of Ramnamis with the Ramnam tattoo—rose.
The use of Ramnam tattoo by the lower castes angered a section of people and there were frequent attacks on the community, who then approached the British officials in Raipur for protection. The defendants claimed that the name ‘Ram’ could be used only by upper castes; however, the judge refused their plea saying that Ram is the name of a god and could be used by anyone. This was seen as a huge victory for the Ramnami community as the judgement furthered its growth.
The Ramnami Identity
The tattoo adorning Ramnamis includes multiple occurrences of Ram’s name. Gularam Ramnami, the current secretary of Akhil Bhartiya Ramnami Mahasabha (one of the registered organisations representing the Ramnami Samaj) explains that the imprint of Ramnam on their bodies does not refer to Lord Ram, son of King Dashrath from the Hindu epic Ramayana, but to a nirgun god. The Ramnamis, therefore, never use the word Ram but a double repetition of Ram (Ram Ram) to mark the difference.
There is no specific age to get tattooed; majority of the community members get tattooed at childhood or before marriage, usually by the age of 12 or 13. The ink for the tattoo is prepared with locally sourced ingredients. A Ramnami woman, Shanti Bai, 52, explains the process of preparing the ink:
Kerosene oil is burnt in a lamp under an earthen pot, and the soot is collected on the inside walls of the pot, which is then used as ink for the tattoo. The ink is stored in coconut shell to prevent contamination. Wooden needles are used to draw the tattoo on the body; designated people in the community perform the job of inking.
Set Bai, 69, says: 'I got tattooed after I got married. It was extremely painful but once the process started, I felt like I wanted to tattoo my whole body and hence was ready to endure the pain. I am happy to have tattooed my body with the name of my god.'
Not everyone in the community has tattoos all over their body. Some have only their chest tattooed while a few have it on their whole body, including their eyelids. This difference has led to the establishment of a ‘cultural hierarchy’ in the community. Ramnamis with their whole bodies tattooed are called nakhshikh (literally, head to toe). Those with tattoos only on their forehead are called shiromani (forehead). Those with tattoos on their face are called badan (body). Some Ramnamis do not have tattoos on their bodies but retain other elements (clothes, daily bhajan, vegetarianism, etc.) of their Ramnami identity. The number of tattooed Ramnamis is decreasing at a rapid pace in the present times.
Ramnamis traditionally wear white-coloured attire. The odhni (a long cotton stole wrapped around the body) is worn by both men and women of the community while alfi (a shirt-like garment) is mostly reserved for men. Ramnam is imprinted on the cloth with a wooden block dipped in ink. The ink used for cloth is similar to the one used for tattoo, the only difference is that babool (acacia) extract is added to the ink to make it long-lasting for use on cloth.
The Tradition of Ram Bhajan
Followers of Ramnami Samaj do not believe in idol worship. Instead, they pray by reciting verses from the Ramcharitmanas, the sacred Hindu book about Lord Ram. In spite of this close affiliation with Ramcharitmanas and Ramnam, the Ramnami Samaj has carved its distinct path to approach Hinduism. Although they treat Ramcharitmanas as a sacred text, they openly criticise the parts that are orthodox, including parts which talk about caste. They use the text freely, omitting parts that they do not find appropriate, and replacing them with verses and couplets from other texts, including couplets of Kabir. When they are performing bhajan, they place the physical text in front of them and treat it as sacred. At other times, it is handled as any other book.
Ramsilha, 65, a samaj member, describes the essence of their belief in a couplet:
Maans maans sab ek hain,
Kya harin, kya gai
All living beings are equal,
be it deer or cow
Ramnamis use bronze ghungroos (anklet bells) as the only musical instrument during the recital of the Manas. Ghungroos are among the few possessions of a Ramnami and form part of their traditional attire. They are carried on the shoulders and worn on the hands while reciting bhajans. Sometimes ghungroos are worn on the feet, especially for dancing to the Ram bhajan. Satish Jaiswal, a senior journalist and an expert on Ramnami Samaj, points out that bhajan gatherings normally begin at night and carry on till early morning. The sound of the ghungroo as the sole musical instrument at night is intended to create a transcendental effect.
Annual Bhajan Mela
The Bada Bhajan Mela is an annual three-day event started by the founder of the Ramnami Samaj, almost a hundred years ago. The mela was started to provide an opportunity to the samaj followers from different villages to meet and get to know each other. It also provided a platform for chanting Ramnam together and for discussing issues that mattered to the samaj.
The mela is held every year on Paush-Shukla-Ekadashi as per the Hindu calendar, which coincides with the months of January and February of the Julian calendar. What is unique about the mela is that every year it is hosted in a new village and, apart from a few exceptions, the mela has never been held twice in the same village. The Ramnamis believe that there are two reasons for this: first, Parsuram felt that in this way people living in far-off villages would also get an opportunity to attend the mela, and second, followers from the host village could ensure that everyone was fed and taken care of, and the economic burden was equally distributed among the different villages.
A pillar known as jait-khambh is erected in the host village to indicate that a mela has been held in the village. Villagers repaint the pillar once a year and hoist a Ramnami flag there either once a year or at any other convenient interval. Every year scores of villages apply to host the mela. The village which sends the maximum number of coconuts along with the application wins.
The host village starts amassing food grain and other essentials well in advance of the mela. A benefit of this arrangement was that the host village also started loaning out these materials to drought-struck villages, serving as a food bank. This practice was also adopted by people from other communities, and, on various occasions, they also approached the samaj to get food material, a request that was duly acknowledged whenever possible. This display of solidarity and helping attitude attracted many more members and brought a heightened sense of respect for the Ramnami Samaj.
The mela brings not only spiritual but economic benefits to the host village. The host village gets to control the stalls set up during the mela and earn some profits. The mela has a variety of stalls, from food items and daily needs to local games. A community kitchen is set up by digging a huge hole in the ground, and used to cook large amounts of khichdi (lentils and rice cooked together), which is then distributed among the attendees. The focal point of the mela, however, is the Ram bhajan.
Festivals and Marriage in the Community
Apart from the Bada Bhajan Mela, there are special bhajan gatherings on three other occasions in the year—during Chaitra Navratri (nine-day Hindu festival that celebrates the nine incarnations of Goddess Durga, in March or April as per Gregorian Calendar) in Udkakan village, and Sharad Navratri (nine-day festival held in September or October as per Gregorian calendar) and Maghi Purnima (Full moon night during the Gregorian Calendar month of January or February) in Shivrinarayan village.
Marriages generally are a huge financial burden for the families. To help reduce the burden, the community started performing marriages during the mela. The ceremony involves a basic set of rituals, including the chanting of Ramnam. All those who participate in these weddings are asked to take a vow to neither ask for nor accept dowry. These days, with increased exposure to mainstream media, the popularity of these no-frills marriages has been on the decline.
Political Structure of the Samaj
Parsuram did not want the status of a leader for himself. Hence, the samaj did not have any formal hierarchical structure. However, in 1960, the samaj was inducted as a government- sanctioned organisation. To fulfil the legal requirements, one of the learned elders was chosen as the adhyaksh (chairman). Even though the samaj became a formal organisation, the scope of the leaders was limited to performing organisational duties and they were never seen as spiritual leaders. The samaj members continue to follow Parsuram’s advice of not having a complex set of rules and regulations for the samaj. The leaders take care of day-to-day activities of the samaj, plan the annual mela, and work on resolution of issues, if any. The samaj believes in community solidarity and also continues to live in harmony with people belonging to other communities, including upper-caste Hindus.
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