Article © Lars Krutak. Originally published 2009 on www.vanishingtattoo.com. Revised May 2022. **Recent Media coverage HERE.
TOP PHOTO: The sun is an important tattoo motif for the Baigas of Madhya Pradesh because it depicts the source of life. This patterns finds a strategic placement on the knees and sometimes the chest due to the contours of the body. Photograph © Shatabdi Chakrabarti.
FOR HUNDREDS IF NOT THOUSANDS OF YEARS, India has maintained a rich cultural heritage of tattooing tradition spanning the entire length and breadth of the country. From the dense, rain-soaked mountain forests of Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland in the northeast to the dry deserts of Kutch in Gujarat on the Pakistan border in the far west, tattoos not only served to beautify the human body but to also carry it into the afterlife.
Although the diversity of tattooing cultures in India is great, the literature on the subject is surprisingly rare outside of obscure university and governmental reports, not to mention early 20th century census pamphlets buried in dusty archives and museum libraries. Aside from these issues of access, the contemporary ethnographic record on tattooing is relatively sparse itself. This can be attributed to the fact that most of India’s tattooed tribes have dwelled in remote hinterlands until recently and have long been suppressed, forgotten, and/or discriminated against for their refusal to discard “primitive” tribal practices like tattooing that seemed uncivilized and unimportant in comparison to more urban, modern, and sophisticated cultural lifestyles in the cities. As one writer put it, “indigenous people are aware that tattoos identity them as tribal, and hence they are seen as inferior.”
Nevertheless, I have managed to dig-up many of the old sources. I have also had the opportunity to learn about tattooing from several Naga informants on recent trips to their homelands. What follows is a modest encyclopedic survey of traditional tattooing practices in India past and present.
Tattoo (godna, Hindi) in India is considered to be an ancient custom, but just how old it is remains a mystery. One clue to its apparent antiquity may be found in comparing petroglyph designs of labyrinths to tattoos of similar design. For example, a recently discovered rock art site tentatively dated to 2500 B.C. on a riverbank at Pansaimol, Goa portrays a labyrinth cut into a stone. Another labyrinth dated to 1000 B.C. inscribed on a dolmen shrine at Padugla in the Nilgiri Hills reveals a similar configuration.
In South India, magical devices called kolam resemble these labyrinths (Figs. 3 & 4). Traditionally, they were created to serve two magical functions. First they are associated with the protective, fertile, and auspicious cobra deity (naga) and secondly they have an apotropaic function, repelling or ensnaring demons. Kolam are made by women who draw the designs freehand in lime, rice-powder, or some other substance that
trickles between their fingers like sand. The designs are made at dawn, especially during the time of year when it is believed that there are many demons and spirits about. Kolam are sinuous, symmetrical figures seeming to consist of a single line, pursuing a complex maze or path between rows and columns of dots. They are typically placed near the threshold of the family home to provide its inhabitants with protection and prosperity.
COMMON TATTOO DESIGNS AMONG WOMEN
Throughout India, tattoos are connected with magical ideas. From a 1902 article entitled “Notes on Female Tattoo Designs in India,” which I paraphrase at length below, it was reported that a black dot symbolizing a mole on the forehead or chin was believed to protect the bearer from the Evil Eye (see Fig. 1.). The mole or tattooed dot was also considered an emblem of Chandani, corresponding to Venus, whose approach to the Moon, a personified male, is a natural phenomenon held to represent the meeting of a loving pair. The Moon is called Raktipati or Taraganapati, “King of the Night,” “Husband of the Stars.”
Rohini is his favorite wife, and she is represented thus •, while a crescent shows the Moon. A dot between the horns of the crescent represents the face of the Moon, which is often, however, drawn like the human face in profile with another dot below it to represent his loving consort. It is an emblem of conjugal happiness (see Fig. 2).
A line between the eyebrows represents the red powder or the ashes applied to that spot as a protection from all evils (see Fig. 3). It is called angara, or vibhuti.
The Panch or five Pandavas (see Fig. 4) who lived in conjugal happiness – without disagreement – with one wife, represents domestic harmony among brothers. This tattoo consists of four dots in a square penetrated by one dot in the middle.
The nine planets or grahs (see Fig. 5) are supposed to have great influence over the destinies of mortals; and as a charm against occasional evil influence a ring is worn containing the nine gems, such as diamond, ruby, coral, topaz, pearl, emerald, sapphire, cat’s-eye and gomed or Burmese ruby. The ring is represented in the tattoo mark, eight dots in a circle with one in the middle.
This eight-sided figure with a circle in the middle represents the lotus (called phul in the tattoo mark) which is the seat or pedestal of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. It also represents the whole universe, and is drawn in different ways (see Fig. 6).
Triangles are the mystic representations of the female power yoni. Compare Sudrakamalakara’s Rules of Worship for the Sudras. When a Brahmin performs a religious ceremony in the house of a Sudra he draws a triangle in water on the ground and not a swastika or a square, as he would in the house of one of the “twice-borns.” This triangle is called yoni in the text mentioned above.
This is the emblem of the fish. But what is a “fish” and why is it lucky? Originally it represented the female power, the yoni.
Formerly, the profession or caste of an individual was very often indicated by tattoo marks. Thus, ateran or uteran (spindle) were once tattooed on nomadic women of the spinning castes (see Fig. 8A), but now (ca. 1900) they are itinerant mat or rope-makers.
The milkmaids of Krishna were represented by this tattoo (see Fig. 8B), and the emblems delineated that the woman who possessed them was a milkmaid, Ahir or Goval by caste. It should be noted that the number of maids shown is always five. The mystic sign A (see below) shows the eight directions, while B shows eight points of the compass produced by placing two squares, one above the other, with their planes crossing each other – the squares representing Heaven and Earth.
The tattoo mark known as Kanhayya’s mukat or crown is shown below. It was also referred to as “Krishna’s Crown.” Around 1900, there was no mistaking the caste of the woman using it. Although the design was called mukat or “crown” only, it is the throne – the peacock throne (mayur) of Krishna or Kanhayya. He is seated in the center, with a crown over his head; to the left is his crowned wife, Rukmini, and to the right his brother, Balaram. The women who bear this emblem on their arms are Rajputs. Their great ambition, a brave husband, a warrior on horse-back, is also portrayed.
The camel as a beast or burden was a very useful animal to caravans. The Kasars, traders of copper and brass pots at Nasik, have two camels on the pedestal of their goddess. Women with these marks will be found to be Banjaras by caste, the dotted and linear delineation distinguishing one tribe from another. Those with the dotted lines will possibly be northerners and those with the heavy linear designs the southerners. Of course, the Rabaris of Kutch in Gujarat also tattoo symbols of the camel and they are nomadic traders (see section on Gujarat below).
Another early article (1902) entitled “Note on Female Tattooing in the Panjab [Punjab]” region reported that the madhavi (churn), the ateran (spindle), the camel, the needle, the sieve, and the warrior on horse-back clearly denoted the castes of the women using them; but as most of these designs had not been grouped according to castes, today it is difficult to discuss the question of identification fully. However, it will be no surprise to find that the women are respectively: milk-maids, spinners, traders or members of caravans, cobblers, farmers, and Rajputs. These marks are the survivals of “obsolete totems”, even if they be not now recognized as such.
The lotus, peacock, fish, triangle, and swastika are signs of luck, and if tattooed on the left arms they are much more so. The chakra (wheel), the stars, the pauchi and “Sita’s kitchen” are protective charms. Sita was protected by the enchanted circle (taboo) drawn around her gumpha (hut, kitchen), and she was enjoined not to leave the latter during her protector’s absence. She disobeyed the order out of charity towards Ravana, who was disguised as an ascetic and was thus carried off by him.
The practice of tattooing a scorpion, a cobra, a bee or a spider has its origin in sympathetic magic, which is supposed to protect people so marked. The parrot is a love-bird, and has special value as a charm. But the spider deserves special mention, as it is credited with the power of curing leprosy.
Other ethnic groups in India also believe in the “medicinal” significance of tattooing. Mal Paharia women of Jharkhand confirmed that tattooing kept the bodily organs healthy and helps them to function properly. Muslim Maler women living in the Punjab were confident that tattoo marks placed on the forehead promoted safe delivery during childbirth.
The Dhelki Kharia of Jharkhand also had a rich tattooing tradition. When a girl was old enough to walk, she was tattooed. In some cases the tattooing was delayed until the tenth or eleventh year, but in any case it must be completed before the girl was married. An omission to do so was regarded as a social and religious offense, and had to be atoned for by the sacrifice of a white fowl to Ponomosor (the Supreme Being and Creator) and drinking a few drops of its sacrificial blood. Malar or wandering Dhokar woman were the tattoo artists and they used a three-pronged iron instrument to produce the tattoo markings. The tattoo pigment was made of soot, preferably of charred behloa (Semicarpus anacardium) wood. Mother’s milk was mixed into the soot. After the operation, the tattooist smeared the puncture with turmeric paste diluted in water. The tattooing was performed outside of the house, and after the operation the tattooed girl was not permitted to enter the house until she had been anointed with turmeric and oil all over her body and then bathed. The touch of a Dhokar or Maler woman is believed to cause ceremonial pollution and requires lustration with turmeric and water.
As for the origin of the practice, some old Kharias of the Ranchi District recounted the following tradition: “In the course of their migrations, before they had reached their present habitat, the Kharias had encamped at the junction of two rivers and hoisted their flags there. While they were crossing the river in canoes or boats, an alien enemy took some of their men as captives, but they could not capture the Kharia flag because the women-folk thrice repulsed them. It was in memory of that sad event that their women began making tattoo marks on their foreheads in the form of flags.”
Notwithstanding there is a common belief across India that tattoo marks migrate to Heaven with “the little entire man or woman (soul)” inside the mortal frame. In other words, it is believed that if there is anything that survives after death it is the tattoo marks, because the soul is identified by them.
Around 1900, Korathi (Gypsy) women tattooed both sexes through a form of pricking. Sometimes they inked intricate kolam designs on their clients or other motifs to aid in beautification.
Korathi artists were nomadic and roamed about the country in every direction. Their fees consisted of rice, plantains, betel leaves and nuts, and sometimes they were enhanced by a present of cash.
The artist generally pronounced a benediction for the welfare of the individual to be tattooed, and then she began the operation. While plying her client’s skin, she chanted nursery rhymes or sang Gopika Gita songs with the object of making the person undergoing the operation disregard the pain. One example of a Korathi tattoo song sung during the operation follows:
Stay, darling stay – ’tis only for an hour,
And you will be the fairest of the fair,
Your lotus eyes can soothe the savage beast,
Your lips are like the newly blossomed rose,
Your teeth, they shine like pearls; but where are they
Before the beauties of the handwork.
Stay, darling stay – ’tis only for an hour,
And you will be the fairest of the fair,
I’ve left my home, all day long I toil,
So to adorn the maiden of the land,
That erring husbands may return to them,
Such are the beauties of my handwork.
Stay, darling stay – ’tis only for an hour,
And you will be the fairest of the world,
In the days of old, fair Sita laid her head,
Upon the lap of one of our clan,
When with her lord she wandered in the wild,
And like emerald shone her beauteous arms.
Stay, darling stay – ’tis only for an hour,
And you will be the fairest of the fair,
And often in the wilds, so it is said,
She also of the Pandus went in quest,
Of one of us, but found not even one,
And sighed, she was not her sister’s blest.
Stay, darling stay – ’tis only for an hour,
And you will be the fairest of the fair,
My work is done, rejoice, for you will be,
The fairest of your sisters in the land,
Rejoice for ever more, among them you,
Will shine as doth Moon among the stars.
The pricking instrument usually consisted of three or more needles tied together with a thread. The pattern was selected from a bundle of drawings, and was first traced on the skin with a small pointed stick, dipped in the prepared ink that was pricked in with the needles. The part of the skin to be tattooed was washed in cold water, and a coat of ink rubbed over the surface. To allay the pain, a little coconut oil was applied to the wound. A small quantity of turmeric powder was also added to brighten the color and to prevent swelling. It was said that some of the pigments used in tattoo were known to the ancient doctors of India, and this led to the suggestion that the custom had been recorded of persons tattooed on their chests and shoulders with the object of getting rid of pain – usually rheumatism.
A variety of pigments were utilized: 1) Betel-leaf juice is smeared over a new tile which is exposed to the flame of a castor oil lamp to cause the soot to deposit thereon. The soot is then mixed with cow’s milk or women’s breast milk; 2) Human milk is mixed with the soot adhering to the bottom of an earthen frying pan; 3) the juice of Dolichos lablab l. is spread over the convex surface of a new tile, then turmeric powder is sprinkled over it. The tile is held over the flame of a gingelly or castor oil lamp to form soot, which is then scraped with a twig and kept in a small earthen vessel ready to be used, at any moment, with a little water added to it.
Tattoo clients believed that their marks acted as a passport for the forgiveness of sins and admission to heaven. The absence of tattoo marks was believed to invoke the displeasure and condemnation of Yama, the god of death. Some forms of tattooing were also believed to act as talismans and to bring riches to those who bore them. And in some regions of Mysore it was also reported that Hindu women who were not tattooed with certain designs were considered unclean; they were prohibited from touching corn spread upon the threshing floor or to serve at dinner.
Tattoos from Nature
According to other Hindu traditions recorded around 1910, Vishnu is said to have tattooed the hand of Lakshmi with the figure of his weapons, and with that of the Sun, Moon and Tulsi plant (Ocimum sanctum) as a protection for her during his wars with demons. It was told that he promised to protect those who wore the same marks from all evil influences. Moreover, Lord Krishna was in the habit of tattooing his four totems, the sankh (“conch”), the chakra (“wheel”), gada (“mace”), and padma (“lotus”) on the faces and limbs of his wives. The priests of the ancient city of Dwaraka placed some of these marks on the arms of the pilgrims to Krishna’s shrine.
Another tradition attributed to tattooing is to Sita, the wife of Rama. The alleged reason is the belief that tattooing had its origin in the fear of enemy abduction of the Indigenous women of India. The tribal marks among the crude drawings would help them in identification and included ornaments, religious drawings, charms and symbols.
Of course, there are still more tattooed referents to the Hindu pantheon and sympathetic magic. A dot on the forehead is a symbol of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. A tattoo of Sita is the emblem of chastity. The figure of a peacock indicates royalty. The fish is the symbol of fertility and good luck, and the comb is a symbol of happy married life. It was also recorded that individuals who worshipped Ganesh and who were about to be tattooed practiced the following ritual: “They stick green grass into a ball of cow-dung to represent the god Vinayaka [Ganesh], burn frankincense and offer coconuts into a fire, as this is supposed to avert the effect of the Evil Eye.”
Like their counterparts in Mysore, the tattoo artists of Madras were always women who traveled the countryside in search of clients. They departed Madras during the harvest season and made professional visits to the neighboring districts, traveling as far as Pondicherry in the south and Cuddapah in the north. Their clients included Brahmin women, other Hindus, Paraiyas, and Tamil Muslims. The patterns ranged from a dot or straight line to complex geometrical designs. Sometimes motifs from the domain of nature were given including scorpions, birds, fishes, and flowers like the lotus – some of which are symbols of luck. Among women, many parts of the body were selected for tattooing including the arms, forelegs, forehead, cheeks, and chin.
Occasionally, in cases of muscular pain or other disorders, the tattoo “operation” was performed as a remedial agent over the shoulder joint, or on the thigh, or other parts of the body. One report noted the case of a Bedar man in the Bellary district who had dislocated his shoulder and had been tattooed with the figure of Hanuman to relieve the pain. Hanuman is the monkey king and ally of Rama in the Hindu epic Ramayana.
A legend runs to the effect that many years ago, a Paraiya woman wished her upper arms and chest to be tattooed in the form of a bodice. The operation was successfully performed until the region of the heart was reached. Unfortunately, the tattoo needles punctured the vulnerable organ and the woman died, and since that time has arisen a superstitious objection to tattooing of the breasts.
Tamil Kolam Tattoo
According to a 1906 report, the Tamil equivalent of tattooing was called pachai kuthikiridu, or pricking with green. Traveling Korava women who were also fortune tellers were the tattooists and their ink was prepared in the following manner. Turmeric powder and the leaves of Sesbania grandiflora were ground together in a mortar or on a grinding stone. The mixture was spread on a thin cloth, and rolled up in the form of a wick, which was then placed in an open lamp charged with castor oil. The wick was lit, and the lamp covered with an earthen pot upon which the lampblack was deposited. This soot is scraped off, and mixed with mother’s milk or water. The pricking instrument was comprised of three or four more sewing needles fastened together with thread.
Tattoo patterns were selected from a bundle of drawings on paper which were created by the artist. She first traced the desired motif on the skin with a blunt stick dipped in the prepared ink, and then proceeded to prick-in the tattoo. Once completed, the tattoo was washed with cold water, and a coat of pigment rubbed over the surface of the design. To decrease the pain, an unidentified oil was applied to the wound and a small quantity of turmeric powder was rubbed-in to brighten the color and prevent additional swelling.
Korava artists were able to execute complicated patterns with considerable dexterity. Because most of them were illiterate, they were unable to tattoo initials or names unless they were first drawn for them. That being said, they were also reported to have the ability to tattoo any pattern, no matter the complexity, provided that it was illustrated for them. Even as early as 1910, it was documented that intricate Burmese patterns were being copied by Korava tattooists in Madras.
Around 1910, the tattooer’s fee reportedly ranged from a 1/4 anna (e.g., one anna is equivalent to 1/16 of a rupee today) for a dot or line to twelve annas for a complex design. In rural villages payment appears to have been made in-kind, and a present of rice to be the usual remuneration.
One hundred years ago in Mandla, it was reported that both male and female Khonds were heavily tattooed, though the custom among men was already dying out. Baiga men also wore markings consisting of chandrama (moon) on the back of the hand and bichhu (scorpion) on the forearm. Sometimes they also tattooed themselves on painful areas of the body in an attempt to cure rheumatism.
A Khond or Bhumia girl was first tattooed when she was just a few years old: on the forehead and temples, and on the right cheek. The pattern is the same for both tribes. On the forehead just above the nose is the figure of the hearth tattooed in the form of a horseshoe. The open sides
points downwards and a dot appears on each side of it; one dot is also marked below. This tattoo mark is called chulwa (“the hearth”) and is a symbol of the girl’s future household duties. The tattoo marks on the temples and on the right cheek (dipa) consist of several lines and dots. They are applied at the same time or a little later. When a girl reaches puberty, she is tattooed on the arms, chest and shoulders. If she receives
these marks after marriage, her parents are responsible for payment. Later, just before or after marriage, she may also be tattooed on the back of her legs and on her thighs. Not all women displayed equal amounts of tattooing because by local standards it was an expensive practice and only the “wealthy” could afford extensive tattooing.
Among the Baigas, tattoos are applied by professional tattooers (badnin) of the Badna caste called Godnaharin. Today, they continue to ply their client’s bodies at fairs and weekly bazaars. Pigments included a mixture of the juice of the bhilawan tree (Semicarpus anacardium) or a concoction of the cast and burnt skin of a snake (the domi is preferred) mixed with black til (Sesame indicum) and some ramtilla (Guzotia abyssinica) oil. The skin is pricked with a needle and additional juice rubbed into the wound. Nowadays, tattooists use electric machines operated by dry cell batteries. After the design is completed, it is washed with cow-dung water or soap-nut liquid. The soap-nut water provides a cooling effect and decreases the pain. Soap-nuts are also strung on a thread and placed around the necks of small children in the belief that this device helps them cut their teeth and protects them from evil spirits.
The traditional pricking process was extremely painful and one elder commented long ago that “we don’t give them any drugs. It hurts for seven or eight days and swells up. Then it gets right, and they find they have something that no one will ever take away from them.” When a girl screams during her tattoo session, the old women laugh at her and say, “If you cannot bear godan (tattooing), how will you endure chodan (intercourse)?” It is said that tattooing should not commence during the monsoon season because of increased danger of infection.
For the Baiga women themselves, their tattoos are considered to be a form of sexual expression and a powerful sexual stimulant. A Baiga man once said, “When she is well tattooed, then our sinful eyes declare her beautiful. A light-colored girl needs it; how lovely she looks when she wears bangles that match the line of tattooing!”
When a Baiga woman was asked about the significance of her tattoos around 1935, she replied “Desire!” “If you buy bangles, they will break. But if you are tattooed, it will last forever.” Another said they are like “a jacket that can never be taken off. These marks are the only things that are certain to go with us to the grave and beyond it.” Of course, there is a Baiga belief that a woman’s tattoos can be sold after death. On the back appears the figure dhandha which is comprised of six dots joined together by lines. One elder stated, “after death Bhagavan [the Supreme Being] takes everything from us, but if there is one dhandha he can’t solve it [it’s like a riddle], then he has to put that mark on the child into whose body the jīv [soul] would be reincarnated.”
Interestingly, Baiga men were traditionally forbidden from witnessing the tattooing operation. And tattooed girls or women had to undergo a two-day period of seclusion whereupon they were covered with turmeric and oil and then bathed. If a man witnessed the rite, or if a Baiga girl failed to receive her markings, it was believed that Bhagavan, their Supreme Deity, would dig holes all over the woman’s body with an iron bar after death.
Baiga women interviewed in the 1990s said that their tattoos also prevented arthritis, made them immune to weather changes, poisonous substances would never affect them, and that their tattoos increased their ability to fight blood-related disorders.
Baiga Forehead Markings
According to tradition, when a Baiga girl reached about eight years of age she received a “V” mark tattooed in the center of her forehead. Apart from this design, three dots and a vertical and horizontal line were also tattooed. The tattooist is given some turmeric, salt, chili and a coin wrapped in the leaves of mahlol which are then placed in a supa. She blesses the girl and is paid a sum (twenty rupees in 1999). Other Baiga tattoo motifs included peacocks or a dauri (basket) on the breast, and the turmeric root (haldi-gāth) on the arm; these are given when the girl reaches puberty. At or after marriage, various patterns (jhophari) were next pricked on the back of the hand and lines of dots (palāni or kajeri) on the thighs. On the knee was placed the phulia motif that resembles a flower, and on the back are flies, men, the sakri or magic chain, and the dhandha designs. On the legs are fish-bones and chakmak (steel).
Around 1930, forehead tattoos cost one anna, four annas for each arm, and four more for the breast markings. Thigh markings cost eight annas, legs four, and five annas for the back. In the 1990s, the expenses associated with marking the entire body approached one hundred rupees.
Amongst the Muria Khonds, women were tattooed by female relatives or by other women. In some districts, however, Muria women were tattooed by wandering Ojha women who plied their skins. Tattoo ink was prepared from charcoal dust and pounded incense mixed with til or mahua oil. The mixture is placed in a broken shard of pottery, covered, and burnt over a lamp or small fire. A shell is used to scrap the deposit and the ink is stored in a small pot or coconut shell. The tattooist manufactures a “pen” of bamboo and draws the desired pattern on the skin. Just before she begins to prick her client with a needle instrument she calls out the names of the Seven Sisters of Bara Deo – their Supreme Protector. And during the tattooing she may sing one or more songs like this one:
“Listen to our prayer. Yours is the promise we made that day. Let the burning of the needles cease.”
Once the tattooing has been completed, the artist receives from her client’s relatives a payment of rice, haldi (turmeric), oil, chilies and salt. This she waves about the girl she has tattooed. Sometimes, she holds the needles and turmeric in her right hand, grabs hold of the first fingers of the person she has just tattooed in her left and with the right makes three passes around her client’s body. This ritual action, as well as the tattooist’s offering of a small portion of her payment to the Seven Sisters, is supposed to “cool” the tattoo marks.
To this day, tattooing is still very common among Khond (also Ghond) women and they are tattooed over a large part of the body. The legs of Khond women are completely marked with sets of parallel lines. These are called ghats or “steps.” Sometimes interspersed at intervals is another figure called sankal or “chain”. One early 20th century writer stated that perhaps “the idea is to make the legs strong for climbing.”
As in other regions of India, tattooing amongst the Khonds, Bhumia, and Baiga seems to have been originally a magical means of protecting the body against real and spiritual dangers, much in the same manner as the wearing of talismans. It was also supported that people were tattooed with images of their “totem” in order to better identify themselves with it.
The following account was taken from a Baiga priest ca. 1915 who frequented a popular shrine in Mandla. His wife was a tattooer of both Baigas and Khonds, and the magical intent of tattooing is clearly brought out:
“On the sole of the right foot is a triangular device that represents the earth and will have the effect of preventing the woman’s foot from being bruised and cut when she walks about barefoot. On the sole of the left foot an oval tattoo is seen. It is meant to be in the shape of a foot, and is called “Padam Sen Deo” or “Foot-God.”
“This deity is represented by stones marked with two footprints under a tree outside the village. When they have a pain in the foot they go to him, rub his two stones together and sprinkle the dust from them on their feet as a means of cure. The device tattooed on the foot no doubt performs a similar protective function.”
“On the upper part of the foot five dots are made, one on each toe, and a line is drawn round the foot from the big toe to the little toe. This sign is said to represent Gajkaran Deo, the Elephant God, who resides in cemeteries. He is a strong god, and it is probably through this symbol on the feet that enables women to bear weight. On the back of the legs they have images of the Baiga priest and priestess. There are also supposed to give strength for labor, and when they cannot go into the forest from fever or weakness they say that Bara Deo, as the deified priest is called, is angry with them. On the upper legs in front they tattoo the image of a horse, and at the back a saddle between the knee and thigh. This is Koda Deo the horse-god, whose image will make their thighs as strong as those of a horse. If they have pain or weakness in the thigh they go and worship Koda Deo, offering him a piece of saddlecloth. On the outer side of each upper arm they tattoo the image of Hanuman, the deified monkey and the god of strength, in the form of a man. Both men and women do this, and men apply burning cow dung to the tattoo-mark in order to burn it effectually into the arm. This god makes the arms strong to carry weights.”
“Down the back is tattooed an oblong figure, which is the house of the god Bhimsen, with an opening at the lower end just above the buttocks to represent the gate. Inside this on the back is the image of Bhimsen’s club, consisting of a pattern of dots more or less in the shape of an Indian club. Bhimsen is the god of the cooking-place [and rain], and the image of his club, in white clay stained green with the leaves of the semar tree, is made on the wall of the kitchen. If they have no food, or the food is bad, they say that Bhimsen is angry with them. The pattern tattooed on the back appears therefore to be meant to facilitate the digestion of food, which the Khonds apparently once supposed to pass down the body along the back. On the breast in front women tattoo the image of Bara Deo, the head on her neck and the body finishing at her breastbone. The marks around the body represent stones, because the symbol of Bara Deo is sometimes a basket plastered with mud and filled with stones. On each side of the body women have the image of Jhulan Devi, the cradle goddess, who is represented by small figures attached to Bara Deo.”
“But a woman cannot have the image tattooed on her till she has borne a child. The place where the image is tattooed is that where a child rests against its mother’s body when she carries it suspended in her cloth, and it is supposed that the image of the goddess supports and protects the child, while the mother’s arms are left free for work.”
“Round the neck they have Kanteshwar Mata, the goddess of the necklace. She consists of three to six lines of dots round the neck representing bead necklaces. On the face below the mouth there is sometimes the image of the cobra, and it is supposed that this will protect them from the effects of eating any poisonous thing. On the forehead women have the image of Chandi Mata. This consists of a dot at the forehead at the parting of the hair, from which two lines of dots run down to the ears on each side, and are continued along the sides of the face to the neck. This image can only be tattooed after the hair of a woman has been parted on her marriage, and they say that Chandi Mata will preserve and guard the parting of the hair, that is the life of the woman’s husband, because the parting can only be worn so long as her husband is alive. Chandi means the moon, and it seems likely that the parting of the hair may be considered to represent the bow of the moon.”
Of course, there are various accounts relating to the origins of tattooing in Madhya Pradesh and one is given below:
“Bara Deo was the son of Kadrengal and Tallur Muttai [Mother Earth]. He had six brothers and seven sisters. One day the seven sisters went to Tallur Muttai and asked her for ornaments such as would last even after death. Kadrengal gave Bara Deo a dhol and a dhamru drum. Then two sons were born to Bara Deo. One was called Murha [Muria] and the other Ojha. Bara Deo taught Murha to beat the dhol with wooden sticks on the ground. Because he beat with wood on the ground Murha became a ploughman but Ohja played his dhamru slung from his shoulder, and spent his life hunting and drawing patterns on the walls of houses.
In this way the Ohja’s wife learnt how to tattoo and once a year the Ohja gives a goat to Bara Deo saying, ‘Behold, we go all over the world tattooing. From the marks we make let there be no wound, no pus, no swelling. Let no evil magic attack us as we work.’ Because of this, Bara Deo lives with the Ohja and no witch can injure them at the time of tattooing.”
A Bhumia woman also spoke about the importance of her tattooing. “If we die and do not have any markings we will not have anything of beauty to show in the afterlife. We are tattooed to show Bhagavan [Supreme Being] something that will please him.”
Similarly, the Muria Khonds considered tattooing to be a kind of “passport” to the afterlife. “If she dies without being tattooed, Mahapurub [Creator god] will punish her. But if she brings him beautiful drawings from the Middle World, he will keep her with him and look after her.”
It has also been recorded that “sorcerers” were tattooed with some image or symbol of their Deo or “god” on the chest or right shoulder, and believed that this deity would always remain with them and that any evil magic directed against them would fail.
Not surprisingly, several tribes in Gujarat like the agrarian Mer believe that tattoos, not prosperity or wealth, are the only substantive things that accompany them into the afterlife. A Mer proverb relates: “We may be deprived of all things of this world, but nobody has the power to remove the tattoo marks.” A Mer tattoo song also brings out this idea more clearly:
Rama O Rama, my tattoos are of the colour of “Hingalo [vermillion],” O Rama;
Listen, O Rama, uncle, brothers and grand-father, O Rama;
Mother and aunt and all return from the gateway, O Rama;
These tattoos are my companions to the funeral pyre, O Rama;
Rama O Rama, my tattoos are of the colour of “Hingalo,” O Rama.
The Dangs shared a similar belief stating, “the marks would go with us to paradise but if one is not tattooed, after death God will use a red-hot ploughshare to make them.”
The tattoo motifs preferred by the Mers have a close relation to secular and religious subjects of devotion. Designs include holy men, feet of Rama or Lakshmi, women carrying water in pitchers on their head, Shravana carrying his parents on a lath (kāvad) to centers of pilgrimage, and popular gods like Rama, Krishna and Hanuman are also depicted. The lion, tiger, horse, camel, peacock, scorpion, bee and fly are other favorites. Symbols derived from nature such as those of the coconut, date palm, mango, and acacia tree or champa flowers and almond nuts are also common. Articles of daily use such as pedestals, cradles, and even confections occur. Other tattoo subjects such as shrines, thrones, wells, anchors, chains, and groups of various agricultural grains are found.
Mer men are not profusely tattooed and it is customary for them to have marks placed about their wrists, on the backs of their hands, and sometimes on the right shoulder. Camels are common symbols for the shoulder and they are favorite motif, as they are for the Rabari men of Gujarat who have them tattooed on the back of the palm or on the right shoulder. One authority has stated that the placement of men’s tattoos on the right may relate to the importance of the right hand in Hindu belief; “it is generally associated with ‘good omens’ and used for all forms of interaction with the natural and supernatural worlds, such as eating, writing, sacrificing, and for Brahmins, tying the sacred cord.” Other motifs common among the men of both groups also include Hindu inspired designs like Rama, Krishna, or Hanuman or the om design in Hindu script once again reflecting the process of Hinduization among the once animistic tribal peoples of Gujarat.
Mer girls were usually tattooed when they were about seven or eight years old. The hands and feet are marked first and then the neck and breast. It is customary for a girl to be tattooed before marriage; otherwise her mother-in-law is likely to taunt her that her parents are “mean or poor.” One tattooist of the Mer reported in the 1970s, “if a bride were not tattooed, her in-laws would protest that she had been sent to them ‘like a man.'”
The Indigenous instrument used in tattooing is a reed stick having two or three needles inserted at one end in such a way that only about 1/4 of a centimeter of the points remain visible. The needle points are dipped into a prepared pigment of soot and cow’s urine or soot and the juice of the leaves of the tulsi plant – sometimes water in which the bark of biyān or sisam (Dalbergia lotifolia) mixed with turmeric was used. The first type of pigment provides a blue-black color while the second produces a green hue. Red pigment (mercury oxide) is also reported to have been used by some. These pigments were pricked into the stretched skin at least seven or eight times to form the desired tattoo.
A Mer woman’s most favorite tattoo design is called hānsali which encompasses the neck and moves downwards towards the breasts. Its name is derived from a silver necklace which is thick in the middle and coiled at both ends. More specifically, the hānsali begins at the neck with a flower-motif in center and with peacocks on either side. It is followed below by the lādu (“sweet meat”) or bājoth (pedestal), on either side of which occur rows of about four or five holy men. These human figures are supposed to protect the chastity of the women so tattooed. Next follows two or three crescent rows, one below the other, of enlarged deri (cover of a churning pot) motifs with flower, bee, etc. occurring at intervals. Likewise, the motifs of four or five grains and pāniāri (water pitchers) adorn the breasts profusely. On the forearm, the tattoo starts from the biceps and invariably has pāniāri and peacock motifs followed by others. The whole hand is ornamented with various markings, the dotted designs occur repeatedly while the linear ones appear sparingly. On the back and sides of the palm and the fingers two or three pairs of grain motifs are marked. The three-grain motif generally represents a diminutive form of deri motif. The legs are tattooed up to the knees, the front part of which is tattooed more than the calf muscles. The linear motifs like those of khajuri (date palm), bāval tree, āmbo (mango tree), and deri accompanied by tiger and lion adorn the legs. The exquisite motif of the pāniāri girdle around the border of the inner feet is supposed to enhance the charm of the Mer women.
The operation of tattooing is generally executed by the experienced women of the Mer tribe. The women of some wandering ethnic groups like the Vāgharis and Nats also do this work and tour the villages in the winter. Traditionally, tattoo artists were paid in grain, but by the 1950s all transactions were made in cash and tattoos were increasingly made by men with tattoo machines.
The Rabari of the Kutch district on India’s northwest coast near the Pakistan border also tattooed and continue to do so to this day, although younger women who live in urban areas are receiving fewer tattoos because “We are now city people, and tattoos are old-fashioned.” Notwithstanding, for hundreds of years the tribal women living in this region have practiced tattooing for decorative, religious, and therapeutic purposes. Traditional patterns (trajuva) were passed down and elder women worked as the tattoo artists at fairs, festivals, and markets when Rabari from the hinterlands gathered to trade their goods and catch-up with dispersed family members.
Tattoo pigment was prepared by mixing lampblack with tannin extracted from the bark of the local kino tree, or with mother’s milk and sometimes urine. A traditional Rabari tattoo kit is simple: a single needle and gourd bowl to hold the liquid pigment.
Nearly all surfaces of the body are tattooed: face, neck, breasts, arms, hands, legs, and feet. Some Kutch tattoos are caste marks for their particular occupations (e.g., herders, comb-makers, or traveling blacksmiths) while others are thought to induce fertility or attract a husband. Still more, usually those motifs with counterparts in nature (e.g., lioness, scorpion, spider), render magical protection while others relate to religious Hindu mythology. Some women believe their tattoos are extremely appealing to the opposite sex and that men believe tattooed women are more faithful. Many of the Rabari motifs parallel those of the Mer in form and function.
NAGALAND AND ARUNACHAL PRADESH
The Naga ethnic groups of Northeast India and Northwest Myanmar appear to have migrated to their present location from Tibet sometime around A.D. 400. Naga settlements are situated amidst mountains that slope forth into endless successive saddles traversed by innumerable rivers, streams, and rivulets. Formerly, most groups were headhunters and the Indian government outlawed the practice in 1953; but rumors persisted into the early 1990s that men were still on the human hunt in more remote areas. Although most Naga tribes have converted to Christianity, traditional animistic religion continues to focus upon unseen higher powers that regulate human destinies and the surrounding world.
One hundred years ago, tattooing was a widespread custom reserved for women and warrior men. Today, it is becoming increasingly rare and its social meanings lost, although one Naga tattoo artist is seeking to revive these ancient traditions. However, a large amount of detailed ethnographic information on Naga tattooing exists. Much of it was written in the 1920s-30s when the largely unsurveyed areas of the Naga homelands were slowly opened up to outsiders through the reports of intrepid government agents, anthropologists, and other travelers.
Among the Ao Naga, tattoo artists were always old women who performed the rite in the jungle near their village. Ao men were seldom tattooed, and it was strictly forbidden in many villages for any male to be present when a woman was being marked; this rule was also followed for the Wancho Naga of Arunachal Pradesh. The old women with the necessary knowledge to tattoo were only found in a comparatively few villages, and they toured the country in December and January. These months were usually chosen for the operation on the grounds that the colder it is the more quickly the sores healed. The knowledge of the art was hereditary in the female line, the operators teaching it to their daughters, who in turn taught it to their daughters. In some villages, it was more or less obligatory for a daughter of a tattooist to follow her mother’s profession. It was believed that if she didn’t, her life would be filled with illness and she would eventually waste away.
Girls were generally tattooed before puberty, when they were from ten to fourteen years old. Ao Naga informants interviewed in the 1920s said that is was of the utmost importance for a girl to be tattooed, otherwise “she would be in disgrace and would not marry well.”
When a girl is about to be tattooed, a bamboo mat is placed on the ground on which she reclines. Several old women hold her down while the operator plies her instruments. The tool used for puncturing the skin consists of a little bunch of cane thorns bound on a wooden holder, which is inserted into an adze-like head made from the stalk of a plant. The pattern to be tattooed is marked by the old woman on the girl’s skin with a piece of wood dipped in the coloring matter. If a girl struggles and screams during the tattooing, a fowl is hastily sacrificed close-by to appease any evil spirit that may be increasing the pain.
The puncturing is done by hammering this instrument into the skin with a root of kamri: a particularly heavy, sappy plant with an onion shaped root. The black coloring matter is then applied once more after the blood has been washed off, and the tattoo client is left to bemoan her sores until they have healed. Usually the coloring matter is made from the sap of the bark of a tree called napthi. This is collected and burnt in a pot on the fire. A leaf or a bit of broken pottery is put over the receptacle in which the sap is burning, and the soot which accumulates is collected and mixed.
Among the Konyak, young boys were ceremonially tattooed on reaching adult age as a sign of manhood. Before the annual ritual was performed, it was necessary for the group of young men to participate in a combat mission and hopefully take at least one head from an enemy’s village. Magical power was attached to the head and it was believed to increase the fertility of the crops and the men who took it. Like the Wancho, the tattooing was usually performed by the principal wife of the chief or angh of the village, a woman or anghya of pure blood of the aristocratic clan. To prick the pattern on the face of one man took an entire day. Veteran warriors who single-handedly took more than a head, and who could withstand the pain, might also have their neck and chest tattooed.
As a Konyak man matured, he was compelled to continue his headhunting quests. When enemy heads were captured, they were either cut up into pieces or brought back whole to the village gate. The eldest male members of each clan then performed an important ceremony. They took a fresh egg and smashed it against the head; then they poured rice-beer over the head saying in a low voice: “May your mother come, may your father come; may your brothers come; may all come!” The destruction of the egg was intended to blind – by sympathetic magic – the victim’s relatives so that in the future they would be easier to kill. Finally, the skull feeding ceremony was conducted. This practice was believed to influence the soul of the victim and to call all of his relatives so that they too may be killed and their heads brought to the village.
Afterwards the head was placed in a basket and hung on an enormous log drum (khom) and then rhythms were pounded out to notify neighboring villages of the successful headhunting campaign. Later in the evening the head was brought to the morung (also called paan) or men’s house of the clan that captured it.
Even when headhunting was officially outlawed in the 1950s, the Konyak and other Naga groups did not give up their tattooing customs. Instead, they substituted monkey skulls, carved wooden heads or even wooden dummies for their human victims and carried them into the village shouting songs of victory as if they had just taken a real enemy. Then, the tattooing ritual was performed. Today, however, it is quite rare to see any Konyak or Wancho man under the age of seventy with facial tattooing. It is a dying cultural practice that will disappear in the next generation.
Among the Chang and Phom Nagas, the ceremonies and tattooing patterns for men were different. Boys who accompanied a war party, but who returned home before actually participating in a battle, had a little hole pierced in the upper part of the earlobe. The men who brought back enemy heads were permitted to have their chest tattooed with what writers have variously described as two “ostrich feathers,” a “V-shaped” chest marking, “fertility fountain,” or what the Khiamniungan call “tiger chest” in reference to the belief that they become “tiger-like” when killing their enemy. After additional victories, tattoos of human figures were added as they were among the Khiamniungan, Wancho, Konyak, and Burmese Naga groups. Later on the arms, shoulders, calves, and back were tattooed.
Chang women were tattooed only on their faces. The most prevalent pattern was made on the forehead near the hairline. Women of the tribe interviewed in the 1960s said that they wore such a tattoo because it would frighten any tigers that crossed their path. Indeed, elders at the time could never recall one instance of a woman being attacked by a tiger! Of course, I interviewed a Chang woman about her forehead tattoo. In this particular village, the tattoo pattern is associated with a maiden who sacrificed her life to save the village from a great flood brought about by a breach of taboo. The deity responsible for the incident promised that the water would recede if the women of the village began tattooing this symbol upon their faces.
Other Naga groups affirm that this common forehead symbol allows the ancestors to recognize the marked woman after she has died or that it could be used as currency to purchase food and other provisions in the afterlife. The non-Naga Abor of Arunachal Pradesh also have a similar belief.
Wancho Naga women did not wear any tattoo patterns on their faces. But they did receive extensive tattooing all over their bodies. Besides being a form of personal adornment, tattoo also had social and ritual importance. Different designs of tattooing were placed on different parts of the body according to a woman’s social standing in the community. For example, women from a chiefly family may have had very elaborate designs all over the body while others who were lower in rank (e.g., commoners) had much simpler tattoos. At the same a woman’s markings signified her progression through several life stages from puberty to marriage to pregnancy.
A girl received tattoos four times in her life. Her first tattoos (chung hu or chungsu) were placed over the umbilicus around the age of six to seven years. This tattoo resembles a Maltese cross branching out in four directions from the navel. In the case of a chief’s daughter, zigzags are added at the ends of the radiating lines. When a girl reached puberty, her calves and legs were tattooed with various configurations of horizontal, perpendicular, and zigzagging lines. Aristocratic women were given a series of diamond or lozenge designs over their tibia or shins. After this
second stage of tattooing had been performed, a male suitor proposed to her parents. He sacrificed a pig, prepared rice-beer (zu) and sent these gifts to her parent’s house along with a basket of cooked rice. The third stage of tattooing was done on the thigh above the knee when the girl left her parent’s home to live with her husband. In some villages, this tattoo was given after she had conceived, and the design consisted of fine parallel lines running up from the knee. A chief’s daughter might have eight additional small dots arranged in two rows on the top of the lines. The final stage of tattooing is that which was placed on the chest in the husband’s house in the seventh month of pregnancy or after the birth of the first child. The design resembles an “M” in three lines shooting upwards between the breasts. I was told that it represented an abstract anthropomorph. Such designs, if received by aristocratic women, have additional lines forming the body of the figure. Women of this class may also have their arms, shoulders, and scapulae tattooed with checkered designs of diamonds or lozenges.
The technique of tattooing is similar to that described above for the Ao Naga and the instrument resembles a small adze with one row of five to seven cane needles (siit) attached to the head of the tool. However, only aristocratic women or “tattoo Queens” (e.g., chief’s wife) could work as the tattoo artist. Traditionally, the day for tattooing was arranged through a divination ritual and a feast was given to mark the occasion. Before the female tattooist performed the operation, she observed a food restriction and only ate rice and bamboo shoots. She also wore the leaves of a wild plant called chunian in the ear which may have “cooled down” any spiritual activity in the immediate vicinity.
Patterns were stenciled on the body part to be tattooed and the pigment was prepared from soot obtained from charred wood mixed with pine-sap resin and water. While the skin is pricked by the female artist, or rather lightly “hammered” with the tattooing implement, the skin is stretched by an assistant. The blood that oozes out is smeared with a bluish juice made from the charred and pulverized remains of a jungle plant to enhance the blue-black coloration and to heal the punctures. Payment consisted of one leg of a sacrificed pig, one basket of cooked rice and four bamboo tubes of zu for the second stage of tattooing. After the third stage, the tattoo artist (hu tu nu) again receives these items and one metal armlet.
Tattooing for Wancho men was a more serious affair. As amongst other Naga groups, the right to be tattooed was earned on the battlefield and if a man or clan brought back human trophies then the victors were tattooed by the Queen. And account of 1872 stated that men who captured an enemy head could receive the prestigious facial markings (thun hu) of a warrior whereas men who took only the hands or feet of their victim would receive markings on the legs. Of course, other authorities have stated that “a tattoo mark on the face was an indication of the fact that the man had taken part in head-hunting and not necessarily, as is the common belief, of his having taken heads.” I have also been told that if a man had slain an enemy he may take a chest tattoo and wear a brass ornament around his neck that symbolized the number of his human victims. Or if he had killed a dangerous animal like a tiger, he may also earn the right to wear a facial or chest tattoo.
Warriors typically received their tattoos just days after a successful kill (e.g., three or five days after). Everyone knew who deserved to be tattooed and the Queen performed her work in her own house. Sometimes it took her a fortnight to complete all of the tattoos of the successful warriors in her midst. One writer who lived in the Wancho district in the 1950s reported “at the first head taken [the Queen] tattooed the chest; at the second she did the throat; at the third, the face; and at the fourth and subsequent heads she did the arms, back, and belly. The order may not always be the same, but it is probably that the amount of tattooing does represent the degree of prowess of a man or at least of a man’s family or morung [paan in Konyak]. Sometimes human figures are tattooed on the chest, and such a man is regarded as very formidable.” After a man received his tattoos, it has been told that the brave warrior observed a ritual period of taboo (genna) and confined himself in his home and refrained from speaking with anyone for one day.
LAND OF ETERNAL INK
From the warrior tattoos of the Naga, to the magical kolam markings and tattoos of the Hindu pantheon, India’s tattoo cultures comprise an incredibly rich tribal mosaic of visual artistry spanning thousands of miles and thousands of years. Here vestiges of Indigenous tattooing practices still survive in forms close to their original sources, even though modernity and other influences have set in motion a series of transformations that may perhaps lead to the demise of these ancient traditions forever. As one member of the Dangs tribe of Gujarat put it: “People have improved now, so they don’t get tattooed; those who are educated say this is a bad practice.”
Of course, many Indian youth continue to tattoo today, but these designs are not the traditional designs of their ancestors; they are tattoos taken from the West – pretty girls, skulls, butterflies, and personal names of girl/boy friends tattooed onto forearms. The same can be said of tattoo trends in Gujarat and other regions of India where abstract designs once related to the landscape or caste insignias have largely been replaced by Western motifs like radios, padlocks, wristwatches, airplanes, and parasols. Furthermore, the tradition of tattooing by hand in South India and other regions, by women for women with payments in grain or other foodstuffs, has been largely replaced by machined art made by men for men with all transactions paid for in cash.
Whatever the outcome of these developments, this once hidden frontier of body art should continue to warrant our attention because it exposes the various ways Indigenous peoples in India were culturally integrated into their human, ancestral, spiritual, and environmental worlds through bodily ritual and social symbolism. Revealing that tattooing was not only a practice that defined local perceptions of existence, but one that also asserted and inscribed affiliation, maturity, personhood, as well as cultural pride and artistic ability itself.
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