I am Ramnami

I am Ramnami

Image from India, by Debdatta Chakraborty

The Ramnamis are a community of Hindus in Chhattisgarh, India, who as members of the Dalit caste, were subjected to the now-outlawed custom of “untouchability”.

Untouchability meant near total segregation for Dalits. It restricted their access to public spaces and limited the work they could perform to the dirtiest, most menial labour. To protest their profound discrimination, some members of the Ramnami community tattooed the name of the Hindu god Ram on their faces, arms, legs, or entire bodies. This tattooing was also a way to practice their religion as Dalits were barred from entering temples due to their “untouchable” status. What began over 100 years ago as an act of defiance became a cultural tradition and the Ramnamis continued to tattoo themselves to express their devotion to Ram even as formal discrimination against them was dismantled.

Although Dalits are no longer persecuted as severely as they once were, the inequalities of the caste system persist. Today, full body tattooing is less common with younger members of the Ramnami community, in part to avoid ongoing discrimination.

Debdatta Chakraborty is a photographer from India.