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Late Nights With YouTube

Ramnamis, Tattoos and Rock and Roll

Arun Katiyar Jul 04, 2013
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About 20 years ago I found myself deep within the heart Raipur district, in what today is Chhattisgarh. I spent a week living with a community of monks called the Ramnamis ”“ a sect from a part of India that few have been exposed to. They have been forced to uniquely weave the name of Ram into the very fabric of their lives. For a not-so-unique reason.

The Ramnamis have a single word tattooed all over their bodies, from scalp to toe, on their eyelids and their tongue. Their clothes and the homes of their walls have the name of Ram repeated a million times. When they trudge to the local market, to the home of a neighbour or to work in the fields, they chant the name of Ram. These are the oppressed classless, not permitted by the upper castes to even enter a temple. In a bid to protect themselves, the Ramnamis have created a divine shield. For which man would dare to lift a hand on a soul that has the name of Ram to protect it? Which man would dare bring down a home that had the name of the Lord?

That one week ”“ the sounds of a progressing monsoon mixed with incessant chants across a dull grey skyline, the resolute faces around oil lamps in the night ”“ has stayed with me over the years. It helped me understand helplessness. 

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Twenty years later, I am contemplating a tattoo. I think I need protection. From myself. From the deep desire to briefly hit Ctrl+Alt+Del on a part of me. Don’t you feel burdened by yourself? C’mon, ”˜fess up; out with the truth. You are the royal pain you fear.

Haunting me in the dark, rain hammering away on the window, are the faces of the Ramnamis. Like a lifeline, lyrics from Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP) tumble out, “From the opium of custom to the ledges of extremes/ Don’t believe it till you’ve held it/ Life is seldom what it seems/ But lay your heart upon the table/ And in the shuffling of dreams/ Remember who on earth you are.”

If you haven’t grown up with ELP (in other words, if you are under 50) the video may lead you to believe that ELP were a bunch of pussies. So I’ll leave you to ponder over (Keith) Emerson’s piano playing. Keep smelling salts handy for this one.

Then, I find a most incredible 1 hour 28 minutes of ELP. It has to be amongst the most intense performances etched out by the three ageing rock legends.

You get the drift. You can already see my tat, can’t you? Rock n’ Roll.


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