The story of the Ramanami
By Travellin’ Mick
Urban Ink 2009
It is not farfetched to think that the Ramanami might be an ancient cult, going back thousands of years in Hindu history, a remnant of times when Aryan and Dravidic tribes fought over rule of the land. Or maybe it was an old tradition of ethnic minorities, inhabiting jungles and mountains? In actuality, it was none of the above. Considering that there are only a handful of tattooed Rama devotees remaining, the cult is not that ancient after all. It is young enough that there are still Ramanami alive who claim to have personally known the found of the sect.
‘Parasuram was born into a poor untouchable farmers family in the mid 1800s. Even though he always had to work hard in the fields, he taught himself how to read and spent a lot of time reciting the sacred scripts of the Ramayana. He became a devout follower of Lord Rama and even lectured the Vedic scripts to other villagers. When he was already an adult married man, he was unfortunate to be infected with leprosy and decided to renounce his normal existence and become a wandering sadhu, in order not to inconvenience his community and family. Just before he left, he was visited by a wise man, who told him that if his faith in Lord Rama was deep enough, his name would be written on his chest. Parasuram kept awake all night and recited the Ramayana and when first light came in the morning he found that ‘Ramram was tattooed on his chest, and that his terrible disease had disappeared! Parasuram remained a modest family man and never wanted to be a guru, but soon he had a following of diligent students, who started ‘wearing the name of Rama’ on their foreheads. Thus the Ramanami cult was born around 1890.’
Apparently the Rama cult started around 1890 as a tiny local group. Many untouchables at the time were seeking moral support in their tough lives and welcomed a community where they could praise their Lord with out discriminating from higher castes. It is hardly surprising that the Rama cult soon met fierce and sometimes violent opposition, since they according to traditional Hindu belief – ‘polluted’ the name of the Lord by tattooing it onto their ‘dirty’ bodies. Consequently the sect moved even closer together and declared strict rules for their followers. A real Rama devotee has to become vegetarian, cannot take alcohol and – most importantly – has to have ‘Rama’ tattooed on a visible part of the body.
In 1907 a British colonial court declared the Ramanami a religion, which could not be discriminated against. After Parasuram, who always denied formal leadership, had died around 1920, the sect reorganized and grew steadily into the 1960s. An economic crisis in the 1970s changed the situation of the Indian rural population radically. Many landless peasants had to seek scarce paid labour in the cities, a difficult feat for the Rama devotees, who were often ridiculed. Fewer sect members tattooed their children, membership dwindled and tattooing vanished almost entirely. Even though the Rama cult still exists in India, it has become more rare and a lot harder to identify.
Ramanami and their Religious tattoo
The most interesting aspect of the religious tattoos of the Rama cult is that they are gender dependent. Men and women carry identical visible and indelible marks of their belief on their skins; a rare occurrence in ethnic minorities, where tattoos tend to be gender-specific. In the case of the Rama devotees though, the tattoo is the unifying element of an entire community that has been demonized as out-casts and consequently moved closer together. To have the name of Lor Rama tattooed on the body thousand-fold is a clear statement towards higher castes; look, we too are able to worship our God and to have our own identity. We, men and women alike, can even have His name on our skin! The tattoos are the visible symbol of the pride and steeliness of a deeply religious group of Hindus, a mark that conjures the highest respect for the devotion and spirituality of these human beings.
The last tattooist
To find out more about the secret tattoos of the devotees of Lord Rama, we tried to locate the last remaining tattooist of the sect. We were given the name of his hamlet, but not its exact location. Another needle in the haystack!
But I can always rely on my guide ‘ I have a feeling it is here., ‘ Jaspreet Augurs, when we – once again – turn towards a dusty village road. ‘Let’s ask here at this hole-in-the-wall shop.’ We stumble into the semi-darkness of a tiny room, where the bare necessities of Indian life are for sale. A few chicken scurry into open air and an old man jolts awake staring into our faces, disbelieving. I am not sure who got the bigger shock. His eyes penetrated the dim light and form a stark contrast to his dark, fully tattooed face. They are a bright steely blue! What a surprise, especially considering that we have been wondering all week why many Rama devotees had rather African than Indo-European features.
Bhururam introduces himself as a neighbor and best friend of Gangaram, the tattooist we are looking for, and he immediately sends out a boy to fetch him. While we chat with friendly BHururam, two Rama devlotees stride towards us from a distance. It is Gangaram the tattooist and his wife Punaibai, who saved head and heavy tattoos give her a strangely androgynous appearance.
We are overwhelmed: the couple is known to be among the most devoted Rama followers. They both are naksik. Every square inch of their skin is covered with the mantra ‘ramram’. Everything: face, palms, ears, eyelids; they had even tried to tattoo their tongues! It had taken 18 days of hell to finish the tattoos, a challenge only to be concluded by those who are driven by the deepest beliefs in their divine leader. Cult tattoos are never paid for; the tattooists see their task as service for the community.
The last large tattoo that Gangaram did was the murthi (statue) of Janki, a lady in her midforties now, who decided to have her face tattooed about ten years ago. Gangaram personally knows nine Rama devotees with full body tattoos who are still alive, but suspects more individuals outside his own province. Quite a few of those have already reached the winter of their years and the youngest naksik is the current headman of the Rama cult, a man in his fifties. It seems that it won’t be long until the last human beings to totally devote their lives – and bodies – to Lord Rama will soon be a mere memory.