Chanting in time with Ramnamis (a first account)
I met Punai Bai, 70 a distinguished Ramnami and her family in village of GramGorba. It was in the heart of Chhattisgarh. After months of preparation and a year of conversation with academia who knew about Ramnamis Samaj, I finally met one in Chhattisgarh. I knew it would be a difficult trip to meet the Ramnamis. They were secluded, and few in number. How would I locate them in whole of Chhattisgarh, a state in central India, a question I had asked myself a few times.
The Ramnami movement was born out of a belief and devotion to Lord Ram some hundred years back. As per one story the Ramnamis were not allowed to enter temples to worship Lord Ram. So they started chanting and singing devotional songs to him in their homes following a path of kirtan bhakti. Many of them decided to get themselves tattooed with the belief the lord lies within them and if sought after with a pure mind, will enter their hearts.
The ones with their entire body tattooed (called nakhsikhs) were around hundred in number.
Over the last few years I have made many trips to Chhattisgarh to document them. I love the state. It has a rawness in it that makes the land innocent. And because of its geographical location it is usually out of radar with a few inbound tourists. The landscape is fascinating and the state is quite green. I still have to visit the waterfalls of the state. I last visited Sirpur and it was such a pleasant surprise.
Every trip to Ramnamis has it’s own set of challenges and pleasant surprises. When I first made a trip, evenings were quite difficult to photograph. I do not use flash. And every night there had been a power cut. One of the evenings a few Ramnamis had assembled in a small room to chant. The moment was great and I didn’t want to miss it. So, it was the good old torch with Eveready batteries that came in handy. Besides taking the images, it was great to witness the chanting. On another trips the memories of chanting all night long by Ramnamis during a yearly festival still feel fresh. In reverence and trance the slow movements of feet orchestrated in chants that came from far deeper than mere bodily manifestations.
This year may be the last time I would visit Chhattisgarh with a purpoe of documenting Ramnamis. Some of them have become good friends and we remember each other when we end up meeting. The ones that have further grown old are still around. What is pleasing to know is the next generation still holds on to the beliefs, though they may not tattoo their entire body.
Shared are a few images from the to be published photo essay on Ramnamis.
All images copyrighted.