Over time, modernism has majorly changed the essence of tattooing; for some of us it’s purely aesthetic, for others it’s a personal project, a mark of a more contemporary urban identity perhaps than opposed a cultural one. But if you dig deeper into the tradition, you’ll find that in most parts of the world, tattooing is a practice that holds myriad forms of significance depending on where you lived and what era you lived in. In India too, the art of tattooing has existed for hundreds of years, and thousands of people - almost exclusively tribal people as far as history goes - have had ink permanently mark their skin for various reasons ranging from beautification and a representation of the different stages of womanhood, to a proud badge worn by warriors, some as protectors in the afterlife and it’s even believed to cure certain physical ailments. But where did it all begin and what were its functions linked to, really?
Born in myth, nourished by tradition
The origin of tattooing or godna, as it’s called in Hindi, has several myths surrounding it, with no hard facts to date its creation. A prevailing story in the Gond tribes, spread across central India, is one regarding Lord Shiva. He once hosted a feast and invited all the Gods. A Gond God was among the attendees. The Goddesses we sitting together in a separate group; when the Gond God went to fetch his wife, he couldn’t recognise her in the seated female party. Mistaking Parvati for his wife, he put his arm around her, startling and shocking her. Shiva laughed it off as a mistake but Parvati was furious and hence, commanded that the tribal women wear specific tattoo marks to distinguish themselves from others. This myth is among several others that are believed by tribal people, and have since become part of their customs.
Tattoos as a means to ‘disfigure’ women
The function of a tattoo as a caste-marker exists in other tribes as well. The Dhanuks of Bihar, traditionally considered as belonging to the low caste community, used tattoos as a form of protection for women against the wandering eye of upper caste men. They believe tattooing disfigured women, making them undesirable for sexual predators. In many rural communities, women were made to be in purdah, where their faces would be hidden. Therefore, women tattooed the few visible parts of their bodies as a (silent) public declaration of their inferior caste.
Tattoos as a sign of devotion and protest
Originating in Chhattisgarh, the ‘Ramnami Samaj’ is a low caste movement of the ‘untouchables’ that arose to challenge social and religious restrictions imposed by the upper caste Brahmins, which denied them access to religious knowledge and temples.
The members of the Ramnami community, who call themselves Ramupasaks, began their journey during the Hindu reformist movement of the 19th Century. The origin of the Ramnami customs isn’t set in stone; a community of mostly illiterate people, they followed an oral tradition to pass down their beliefs and practices. Some say that the Ramnamis would tattoo the name of Lord Ram on every possible part of the body, even their eyelids, tongue and inside of their lips, to ward off physical attacks from angry Brahmins who were aggravated by the self initiation of the ‘polluted’ low caste into their holy religion. The Brahmins couldn’t defile and disrespect the name of their Lord.
Others draw the tattooing tradition back to Parasurama, the man who is said to be the founder of the movement. Afflicted by what he believed to be leprosy, the ‘untouchable’ man separated himself from his family and the community, fearing infecting the rest, and relocated deep into a forest. Even though he wasn’t formally allowed access to the religious practice, he was still a devoted Hindu. It is said, and believed, that he cured himself of leprosy when he etched Rams name onto his body.
The nakhshikh, as they are called, are the ones who have spent long and painful hours covering themselves from head to toe with Ram tattoos in Sanskrit. “Parasu Ram, who founded the Ramnami movement, wanted to pave a way of devotion to Ram for untouchables who weren’t allowed to enter temples by the upper castes, who treated them as dirty and inferior. He encouraged them to chant the Ramcharitamanas, get tattooed, and wear a special shawl – the Ram odhni – with ‘Ram’ inscribed all over,” explains Parsai Ram, a member of the Ramnami community in an interview with DNA India.
All generations of Ramnamis still come together at the ‘Bade Bhajan Ka Mela,’ an annual celebration that takes place on the banks of the River Mahanadi, in December-January. They pray, read from a copy of the Ramayan, sing Ram bhajans and dance to the praises of Ram. Those who don’t have the Ram tattoos on them, wrap themselves in the Ram odhnis. The Ramnamis are gentle folk, maintaining neither temple nor any idols. It’s understood and accepted by all members that there is no obligation for the younger generation to become devotees like them, and follow their practices, including the tattoos. These visible symbols of devotion is now seen as an obstacle; what was once done with pride to stand out and make a point, is now considered standing out in a manner that will hinder their life. Many younger Ramnamis have little to no tattoos. In 1910, the Ramnamis appealed to the British court for protection from the violence of the Brahmins. Two years later, a British judge ruled in their favour and since then, several more laws and programs for the upliftment of the Dalits have been implemented.
Though things have changed superficially, and the caste system has been legally abolished technically, it’s practices and prejudices very much exist in numerous communities across the country. Over the years, with globalisation and the growing influence of Western culture on the youth, the Ramnami culture and traditions are slowly being lost; with many of the younger generations not even knowing the past struggles, their community’s origin, heritage and customs. Tattooing too has diminished greatly as a marker of one’s caste, yet for the elders of these communities, it remains a very real reminder of the segregation that does exist in Indian society, however veiled it is.