Low-caste Hindus in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh first began tattooing their bodies and faces more than 100 years ago as an act of devotion and defiance after being denied entry to temples and forced to use separate wells. Ramnamis, as followers of the Ramnami Samaj religious movement are called, first wrote the Hindu god Ram's name on their bodies as a message to higher-caste Indians that god is everywhere, regardless of caste.

Ramnami Samaj
Chanda Ram, 72, who has tattooed the name of the Hindu god Ram on his face and head, poses for a picture inside his house in the village of ChaporaAdnan Abidi/Reuters
Ramnami Samaj
A close-up of Sumitra Devi's tattooed faceAdnan Abidi/Reuters
Ramnami Samaj
Jhingur Ram, 76, a follower of Ramnami Samaj, poses for a picture outside his house in the village of Chandai, in the state of ChhattisgarhAdnan Abidi/Reuters
Ramnami Samaj
The hand and forearm of Kartik Ram Sadhu, 67, a follower of Ramnami SamajAdnan Abidi/Reuters

Mahettar Ram Tandon, who lives in the village of Jamgahan, is proud of the indelible message he carries almost five decades after he had the name of Ram tattooed on his entire body. Dressed in a simple white lungi and wearing a peacock feather hat called a "mukut", Tandon told Reuters: "It was my new birth the day I started having the tattoos. The old me had died." Now 76, Tandon's purple tattoos have faded over decades under the harsh sun.

Ramnami Samaj
Mahettar Ram Tandon stands outside his house in the village of JamgahaAdnan Abidi/Reuters
Ramnami Samaj
Mahettar Ram Tandon, 76, a follower of Ramnami Samaj, who has tattooed the name of the Hindu god Ram on his full body, poses for a picture inside his house in the village of Jamgahan, in the eastern Indian state of ChhattisgarhAdnan Abidi/Reuters

Nowadays the tattoos of Ramnamis, who number 100,000 or more in dozens of villages spread across Chhattisgarh state, are usually on a smaller scale. After caste-based discrimination was banned in India in 1955, the lives of many lower-caste Indians have improved, villagers said. As young Ramnamis today also travel to other regions to study and look for work, younger generations usually avoid full-body tattoos.

"The young generation just don't feel good about having tattoos on their whole body," said Tandon, who has always lived in his village of small mud houses surrounded by fields of grazing cattle, wheat and rice. "That doesn't mean they don't follow the faith."

Ramnami Samaj
Mahettar Ram Tandon, 76, watches a religious film on a computer with his wife and son inside his house in the village of JamgahanAdnan Abidi/Reuters

In the nearby village of Gorba, Punai Bai spent more than two weeks aged 18 having her full body tattooed using dye made from mixing soot from a kerosene lamp with water. Now aged 75, Bai, who lives in a one-room house with her son, daughter-in law and two grandchildren, said: "God is for everybody, not just for one community."

Ramnami Samaj
Punai Bai, 75, poses for a picture outside her house in the village of GorbaAdnan Abidi/Reuters
Ramnami Samaj
Punai Bai, 75, who has tattooed the name of the Hindu god Ram on her full body, poses for a picture outside her house in the village of GorbaAdnan Abidi/Reuters

Children born in the community are still required to be tattooed anywhere on their body, preferably on their chest, at least once by the age of two. According to their religious practices, Ramnamis do not drink or smoke, must chant the name "Ram" daily, and are exhorted to treat everybody with equality and respect. Almost every Ramnami household owns a copy of the Ramayana epic, a book on Lord Rama's life and teachings, along with small statues of Indian deities. Most followers' homes in these villages have "Ram Ram" written in black on the outer and inner walls.

Ramnami Samaj
Dhani Ram, 52, stands outside his house at the village of ChandlidiAdnan Abidi/Reuters
Ramnami Samaj
A picture of a Hindu deity and the holy book Ramayana are seen inside the house of a Ramnami Samaj follower in the village of ChandlidiAdnan Abidi/Reuters
Ramnami Samaj
Sumitra Devi, 70, who has tattooed the name of the Hindu god Ram on her face, poses for a picture outside her house in the village of Chapora, in the state of ChhattisgarhAdnan Abidi/Reuters
Ramnami Samaj
Kartik Ram Sadhu, a 67-year-old visually-impaired follower of Ramnami Samaj who has tattooed the name of the Hindu god Ram on his body, bathes in a pond in the village of Arjuni, in the state of ChhattisgarhAdnan Abidi/Reuters
Ramnami Samaj
Phirtin Bai, 61, who has tattooed the name of the Hindu god Ram on her entire face, poses in the village of ChandlidiAdnan Abidi/Reuters
Ramnami Samaj
Tiharu Ram, 70, and his wife Phirtin Bai, 61, pose for a picture outside their house in the village of Chandlidi, in the state of ChhattisgarhAdnan Abidi/Reuters
Ramnami Samaj
Tiharu Ram, 70, who has tattooed the name of the Hindu god Ram on his face, poses for a picture outside his house in the village of Chandlidi, in the eastern state of ChhattisgarhAdnan Abidi/Reuters
Ramnami Samaj
An elderly woman walks past followers of Ramnami Samaj in the village of Arjuni, in the eastern state of ChhattisgarhAdnan Abidi/Reuters

Despite the 1955 legislation, centuries-old feudal attitudes persist in many parts of the country and low-caste people, or Dalits, still face prejudice in every sector from education to employment. Tandon is optimistic about the Ramnamis' relative change in fortunes since he had his body tattooed all those years ago. "The world is changing, the times are changing," he told Reuters. "We have all realised that we are all same."