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Sumitra Devi, 70, a follower of Ramnami Samaj has tattooed the name of the Hindu god Ram on her face. (Photo: Reuters)

A Century Old Tattoo Tradition That Defied Discrimination

How a community in Chhattisgarh used tattoos as a mark of protest.

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Tandon is part of the Ramnami Samaj religious movement in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh, one of India’s poorest regions. Denied entry to temples and forced to use separate wells, low-caste Hindus in Chhattisgarh first tattooed their bodies and faces more than 100 years ago as an act of defiance and devotion.

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Ramnamis wrote Ram’s name on their bodies as a message to higher-caste Indians that god was everywhere, regardless of a person’s caste or social standing. The tattoos might have faded over decades but the tradition lives on.

Mostly in their 70s and 80s, the men and women in the village recount how they sometimes spent more than two weeks having their full bodies tattooed. The dye used for tattooing was made from mixing soot from a kerosene lamp with water.

“God is for everybody, not just for one community,” says one of them when enquired about the reasons behind tattooing.

The tattooing of Ramnamis, who number 100,000 or more and live in dozens of villages spread across at least four districts of Chhattisgarh, happens usually on a smaller scale nowadays.

Since the banning of caste-based discrimination in India in 1955, the lives of many lower-caste Indians have improved, villagers said. As young Ramnamis today travel to other regions to study and look for work, they usually avoid full-body tattoos.

Almost every Ramnami household owns a copy of the Ramayana, a book on Lord Rama’s life and teachings, along with small statues of Indian deities. Most followers’ homes in these villages have “Ram Ram” written in black on the outer and inner walls.

Despite the 1955 legislation, low-caste people, or dalits, still face prejudice in every sector from education to employment.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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