Derma Dharma

Companynone
Photographersankar sridhar
PrizeHonorable Mention
Entry Description

More than a century ago, in a more orthodox and casteist India, a group of Dalits (untouchables) did the unthinkable: They rose up against the privileged and priestly class’s decree preventing them from from visiting or entering temples. Their mode of protest was unique. The untouchables tattooed every inch of their skin with the name of the Hindu God Rama, thereby turning their bodies into temples. This act of defiance earned the group of Satnamis the moniker Ramnami (people of Ram), which persists even today. Apart from the name, though, much has changed. In a more accepting and progressive India, buoyed by government schemes, laws and education, the Ramnamis have extracted themselves from penury, finding space in mainstream society. This progress has allowed them the choice of no longer going through the rite of tattooing themselves. But for a community that lived by oral traditions, the sacrifices, the protest, and the fallout

Story

More than a century ago, in a more orthodox and casteist India, a group of Dalits (untouchables) did the unthinkable: They rose up against the privileged and priestly class’s decree preventing them from from visiting or entering temples. Their mode of protest was unique. The untouchables tattooed every inch of their skin with the name of the Hindu God Rama, thereby turning their bodies into temples. This act of defiance earned the group of Satnamis the moniker Ramnami (people of Ram), which persists even today. Apart from the name, though, much has changed. In a more accepting and progressive India, buoyed by government schemes, laws and education, the Ramnamis have extracted themselves from penury, finding space in mainstream society. This progress has allowed them the choice of no longer going through the rite of tattooing themselves. But for a community that lived by oral traditions, the sacrifices, the protest, and the fallout of the defiance, too are being forgotten by the younger generation. Today only 10 people from the older generation who have tattoos from the top of their head to the tip of their toes remain alive. While the elders are thankful the youth do not have to go through what they did, they rue the fact that the lessons in standing up to bullying and for one’s rights might well be lost on a generation after they are gone. Today, the only giveaway of a person being a Ramnami is the clothes they wear during their annual festival Bara BHajan (grand hymn session) — when they don white cloth hand-printed with the name of Rama, along with their peacock feather headgear. But even that is fast vanishing, as the youth move to cities in search of jobs and a better life. As Mehta Ram, a Ramnami elder put it: We are a living memory. Once we are gone, we fear the children will forget what it took us to help them get to where they are in society. And history knows, people who forget their past, may well have to cross paths with it in the future