Photo: Indranil Mukherjee Agence France-Presse Setbai (center) is a member of the Ramnami religious movement.
Aishwarya Kumar – Agence France-Presse to Jaijaipur
January 22, 2024
Far from Ayodhya, in northern India, where the elite celebrated the inauguration of a controversial Hindu temple dedicated to Rama on Monday, much poorer devotees are celebrating the god at their way, by having his name tattooed from head to toe.
Followers of the Ramnami religious movement have long been barred from entering Hindu holy sites because of their low caste. As a sign of defiance, they began tattooing the name of the god Rama on their bodies in Hindi.
These tattooed devotees, including on their faces, gathered on Sunday in the state of Chhattisgarh, in the center of the country, for a Hindu festival. The Indian Prime Minister, for his part, inaugurated with great fanfare on Monday a temple dedicated to the god Rama, built in Ayodhya, in the north of India.
But for the ramnamis, the devotion shown through tattoos is stronger than any building.
“For us, Rama is everywhere, in every particle, every sound,” says Gularam Ramnami, a 52-year-old devotee.
For those who worship at the Ayodhya temple, Rama “is represented by an idol.” But “we have made our bodies a temple.”
Many ramnamis interviewed on Sunday during their festival said they viewed favorably the inauguration of the temple dedicated to Rama, often represented with blue skin, armed with a bow and arrows.
But they also called for caution, recalling the violent history of the site on which it was built.
“Rama never destroyed a mosque, and Allah never destroyed a temple,” notes Gularam. We have always said that we should not hurt anyone, neither by thought, nor by words, nor by actions. »
When the ancestors of the ramnamis were refused entry to the temples more than a century ago, they fought back with a needle and ink made from kerosene lamp residue.
“I have dedicated my body to his name,” says Setbai Ramnami, a devotee wearing a crown of peacock feathers and draped in a white shawl also covered with the name of Rama. “I have never been to a temple. […] I didn’t even offer flowers to an idol of Rama,” explains the septuagenarian from the Dalit caste, formerly known as the untouchables.
In addition to their tattoos, devotees adopt the religious group's name “Ramnami” as their last name, as a sign of total commitment.
It took Setbai a whole day to get her face tattooed, but she says she didn't feel any pain because it was done out of devotion. “A day will come when we will all leave,” she said. It’s good that I immersed myself in devotion […], that’s how I want to die. »
But times are changing for the ramnamis too.
Full-body tattoos are becoming less common, as some young job-seekers limit tattoos to areas of the body they can cover, while saying they respect others strict group rules.
Ramnamis are vegetarians, do not drink alcohol, do not smoke, and grow almost everything they eat.
Unlike most Hindus who choose cremation, ramnamis bury their dead because they do not want Rama's name burned.
While many Dalits and other marginalized groups still face violence and discrimination in India, Ramnamis say their tattoos show their wishes for a god all can worship.
“It doesn’t matter if anyone thinks we belong to a lower caste, we belong to a country where castes and classes don’t matter,” says Gularam. Ramnami is an ideology […], it is not linked to caste or religion,” according to him.