From hundreds of years, the tradition of tattooing was venerated across the agrarian and forested landscapes of India.
The ancient maze-like carvings on prehistoric rocks were copied by tribal communities on their bodies. They called the process gudna (burying the needle in Hindi)and flaunted the markings as jewellery – the kind of jewellery no one could take away from them even if they were to lose all their worldly possessions.
Most of India’s tattooed tribes lived in the remote hinterlands of the country, where stealing of women by rival tribes was a common occurrence.
The Apatani tattooing procedure involved using thorns to cut the skin and soot mixed in animal fat to fill in the deep blue colour. The wounds were then allowed to get infected so that the tattoos became larger, darker and clearer. The Indian government put a ban on this in the 1970s but the practice lives on in some of the untouched interiors of the northeast.
Another tribe, the Singhpo of Assam and Arunachal, had distinct rules for each gender. The married women were tattooed on both legs from the ankles to the knees, while the men tattooed their hands. The unmarried Singpho girls were barred from wearing tattoos.
Also prominent among the tattooed tribes of the northeast were the headhunting Konyaks of Nagaland who tattooed their faces to indicate their prowess in battle and headcount. Tattoos also helped in establishing tribal identity in the region, besides enabling recognition after death in a war or fatal accident.
In Southern India, permanent tattoos are called pachakutharathu. They were very common, especially Tamil Nadu, before 1980. The nomadic Korathi tattoo artists travelled the countryside in search of clients. The kollam, a sinuous labyrinthine design believed to ensnare evil beings, is inked on bodies to permanently keep them safe and secure until reunited with deceased ancestors in the afterlife.
Central India also has a long and barbaric tradition of tattooing. The Dhanuks in Bihar believe tattoos deglamourize women – this helps them evade the eyes of influential sex predators. Due to the prevalence of purdah, women from lower castes had to have visible parts of their bodies tattooed to signal their inferior status.
On the other hand, the Munda tribe in Jharkhand, which values courage, uses body art to record historic events. The Mundas thrice defeated the Mughals and, to commemorate these victories, Munda men even today tattoo three straight vertical lines on their foreheads.
The Gonds of Central India, one of India’s largest tribes, traditionally left much of their bodies exposed. The bare skin was covered with kohkana (Gondi for tattoos) to ensure they looked decent.
different parts of the body and for different life stages. The men inscribe tattoos called sikkas on their forearms and wrists, named thus because they are usually the size of coins called sikka in the Santhal dialect. The number of these tattoos is always odd, because odd numbers signify life and even numbers symbolise death in Santhal cosmology.
Floral patterns are painstakingly inked on the bodies of Santhal women, including their faces. It is believed the painful experience prepares a girl for motherhood and gives her the strength to face the challenges of life. The chati godai, for instance, is a tattoo inscribed on a girl’s chest when she attains puberty and, if not then, when she gets married. On completion, the tattoo is washed with soap-nut water to cool it and decrease the pain.