For 100 years, a Hindu sect has used god as warpaint to battle discrimination

For over a 100 years, members of a Hindu sect in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh have been carrying the name of their god, Ram, on their bodies.

The Ramnami Samaj—roughly “society in the name of Ram”—is a community of low-caste Hindus in Chhattisgarh’s hinterlands whose members decided to tattoo their bodies as an act of rebellion against discrimination by the higher castes. The practice dates back to a century when the Ramnamis were subjected to the now outlawed custom of untouchability. Among other discriminatory rituals, they were barred from entering temples.

They permanently imprinted Ram’s name on their bodies so they could spread the message of god’s omnipresence.

Tattooing begins at an early age among the Ramnamis: every child must have it at least once before turning two. Besides, every family must own a copy of the Hindu epic, Ramayana, and chant Ram’s name every day.

A 2014 research paper called “The Ramnami Samaj and social upliftment” (pdf), by Ramdas Lamb, associate professor and undergraduate chair, University of Hawaii at Manoa, the sect has been described as follows:

The Samaj has never sought caste Hindu status, nor, for the most part, even sought caste Hindu validation, but has instead attempted to remain as autonomous as possible. Ramnamis do not frame their relationship with the brahmanical system using the latter’s categories or parameters. Instead, they have opted to establish their own set of values, by the assimilation and expression of those elements they cherish while ignoring those they see as based on prejudice and ignorance.

Today, there are some 100,000 or more Ramnamis, living in dozens of villages in at least four districts of Chhattisgarh.

On Jan. 12, a collection of pictures was published by Reuters, chronicling their day-to-day lives in Jamgahan, Chandlidi, and Gorba villages, among others.

The tradition is dying though. “As young Ramnamis today also travel to other regions to study and look for work, younger generations usually avoid full-body tattoos,” Reuters wrote.