All my life I have tried to make sense of Ram. The year I went to college, Lal Krishna Advani was on his 'rath yatra'. A  year before, Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana was beamed into Indian households. I sensed that though Ram lacks the flamboyance of Krishna, or the masculine unpredictability of Shiva, he somehow means something to some. Little did I know then that this ‘some’ might mean a majority and a strange portrayal of this predicable and utterly correct Ram might shift the balance of the Indian political system forever. Over time and with the opening of the economy Ram only got stronger as an icon.

One group of people, however, in a remote corner of Chhattisgarh adopted Ram in the 1930s, much before he became an icon for a strident, homogenised Hindu identity. For the last two years I have been visiting them, documenting their way of life. Faced with a reality of endless discrimination, the Ramnamis—once belonging to the untouchable, Chamar caste—discarded Hinduism altogether. For that matter, they decided that they had no use for religion. They only took the concept of Ram and declared that they understood his message. To make themselves physically identifiable, they tattooed the word ‘Ram’ all over their bodies. They turned agnostics and tried to form a classless society, based on  ‘Ram Rajya’ as articulated by Mahatma Gandhi. They practised birth-control, made use of whatever educational infrastructure was available for their children and did not practise gender discrimination.

Their villages are marked only by white pillars known as “jayastambha” (a pillar of victory), and under them they gather from time to time to sing Ramcharitmanas. Their version differs a bit from that of Tulsidas, because they deleted lines from the original that hinted at class or gender discrimination, and re-wrote them. Their Ramcharitmanas is a social manifesto for them. They sing it from village to village, and this is their sole ritual. Tattooed all over, wrapped in a scarf hand-printed with ‘Ram’ a myriad times, tinkling bells hanging from shoulder—a Ramnami looks like a real messiah in a village crossroad.

What they have achieved in just one generation is phenomenal. A movement initiated by an illiterate community gave birth to the most educated generation in their part of India. In this success story Ram remains only a philosophy and nothing else. It has provided them with a way of life devoid of any dependence on divine intervention. And the new generation is forsaking tattoos. They don’t need them.  They have found, through a lyrical revolution by the generation before, a stronger and more valid identity.

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Ramnamis practise austerity. Even their assembly halls are spare.  A white roof on white pillars inscribed with ‘Ram’ is all that adorns their prayer-room, or ‘bhajan-ghar’. They keep a copy of ‘Ramcharitmanas’ inside, in place of a deity.

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In remote villages of Chhattisgarh a group of people found a means of protest that is different from both ultra-left ideologies and Gandhian activism. They have tamed a god, or the concept of a political god, for the greater common good.

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To Tirth Ram, as to all Ramnamis, home is the true temple. Ramnami homes are exemplary in terms of hygiene and cleanliness. Their home is their refuge. Couples describe themselves as ‘nari-purush’ (man –woman) and they believe in having an equal and combined say. For them there is no better half, as one half is just a shadow of the other.
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As soon as more than two Ramnamis come together, they burst into song. Singing the ‘choupais’ (quartets) of Ramcharitmanas is their lifeline. Being a small and connected society, Ramnamis visit each other frequently, and they socialise by singing together.
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Ramcharitmanas is the core book a Ramnami follows. But the Ramnami version is different from Tulsidas’. In many lines of the original text the Ramnamis sensed that Tuldidas had broken the codes of gender equality, or had given extra merit to the wealthy. The Ramnamis simply struck off those lines and re-wrote them. 
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Bhakti is the eldest of ‘Purna Nakshik’ now. Her husband was a master in tattooing and he himself inscribed his wife with thousand Rams. A widow for the last 20 years, with no children, Bhakti was never in a spot of bother as she was looked after by the extended family of Ramnamis. To her, life is all Ram.

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Erecting a white pillar—with ‘Ram’ written on it—outside a village is the Ramnamis’ way of showing their identity. Irrespective of clan, all villagers take part in this celebration. Donations are collected on the spot and in an hour enough is collected to erect a pillar. All those assembled offer manual labour and the pillar materialises in almost no time.

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Mehtr Ram (left) doesn’t believe in god. He believes in himself, and in his kin. In Ramnami society, everyone is kin. Awadh Ram doesn’t believe in the soul, either. After his only son got a job, he turned his home into a school and started living in his defunct workshop.

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On any occasion the bunch of bells start tinkling and a chorus takes shape. Ramnamis live a life full of love and song.

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The new generation of Ramnamis are not getting tattooed. At one time, the tattoo signalled a political identity, a way of fighting untouchablity. But in just 50 years the Ramnamis have succeeded in transforming their futures through a generation that went to school and college and found a footing in society on their own merit. They have earned their identity through their forefathers’ silent revolt.

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Pandit Ram Das, 90, never went to school, though he can speak and write four languages. The intellectual of the community, he modified Tulsidas’s epic into its Ramnami version entirely by himself. 

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Once in a year the Ramnamis assemble for their annual conference. They call it Bhajan-Mela.  All day long they sing around an open copy of Ramcharitmanas. Believers gather and show their reverence for the book but to no one else.

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In peacock-feather headgear a Ramnami looks distinctive even in his own courtyard.