Devotion, defiance and full-body tattoos

22 May 2016

In Hindu orthodoxy, the people of the village we find ourselves in are the lowest of the low. They are Dalit untouchables, nearly all of them, held to be irredeemably polluted by their actions in a past life and doomed by birth to be not only the lowest of Indian castes but entirely outside the four-tiered Hindu caste system.

To be born a Dalit was to face lifelong exclusion from mainstream Indian social life, and to endure disgust, physical segregation, abuse and often deadly violence. Every aspect of their lives was constrained by their alleged low birth: where they were allowed to live, to travel or to sit; who they could or could not offer water to, eat with, or marry. They were even barred from the temples of their own religion.

In the 1890s, some groups of low-caste and no-caste Hindus in this eastern part of India started to tattoo their bodies with the name of their Hindu god, Ram. Not just an arm here or a forehead there — very often the holy name of Ram was tattooed slowly, painfully and systematically over every inch of their bodies… head to toe, genitals and in one case we know of, even tongue and eyes. This tattooed group became the Ramnami Samaj — ‘the society in the name of Ram’ — and their existence stood as a statement, a proud act of rebellion, against the abominable status quo.

With God’s name repetitively and permanently imprinted on their bodies, the Ramnami defiantly proclaimed that God was omnipresent and accessible to all; that faith — not ritual, caste or physical appearance — was all that mattered. For one who chants Ramnam and carries his name so boldly, their message went, no other observance was necessary.

Despite decisive laws outlawing the practice of untouchability, strong protections against discrimination and decades of bold affirmative action by successive governments, India’s 167 million Dalits continue to be one of the nation’s most disadvantaged groups. Caste prejudices are burned deep into the DNA of many Hindus and although the lives of ‘low-caste’ Hindus have improved over the years, even the Dalit success stories, the PhDs and teachers, can encounter discrimination.

Ramnami tradition calls for children to bear a tattoo somewhere on their body, preferably on their chest, by the time they’re two years old. It’s a painful process involving needles, paraffin and soot, that both males and females can undergo.

As we talk with the Ramnami families, visit their homes and receive their permission to take photographs, we learn that the practice has faded since its heyday in the 1970s. The Ramnami today number around 100,000 and while their younger generations may still carry the faith they’re increasingly unlikely to carry full-body tattoos in today’s opportunity-filled and highly mobile India.

As for the nakhshikhs — the inevitably elderly Ramnami bearing head-to-toe tattoos — literally only a handful remain alive. Which is why Travelshooters Shoot Director Sridhar has been working in these backwater villages as part of his commitment as an ethnographer and photographer, documenting rare groups and vanishing ways of life.

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