Tracing The Legacy Of Traditional Hand-Poked Indian Tattoo Customs

Tracing The Legacy Of Traditional Hand-Poked Indian Tattoo Customs
Image Courtesy (L) India Ink Archive (R) Omar Reda

Unlike in the west, the art of tattooing is not a contemporary idea for the Indian subcontinent. Tattooing in Northern and Central India is referred to as ‘Godna’ and is a ritualistic tradition dating back centuries when tattoos were not just self-expressive, but also a communal art form performed by tribal groups and passed on to future generations.

Traditionally, the artist uses a hand poke technique to tattoo a range of simple or intricately elaborate designs; they could have a religious or spiritual meaning attached to them, signify a person’s status or belonging to a community or simply be permanent jewellery. While not being restricted to gender, traditionally it was a pursuit practised by women on women. The Singpho tribe from Assam and Arunachal have a practice where married women of the tribe get tattooed on both legs from the ankle to the knee and the men get tattooed on their limbs.

In the Northern parts of India for the Hindu communities there, tattoos possessed spiritual powers, reflected one’s financial status and attached social meaning. A woman married off without a tattoo was considered to be too poor to get Godna done and individuals with Godna in the form of permanent jewellery indicated that they could not afford the actual alternative.

Popularly recognised as tattooing, Godna affiliates itself with traditional customs of tattooing and was once considered a means of enhancing one’s beauty and passing on history. Today the same practice is shunned for an array of reasons; including but not limited to the influence of the west on tattoo designs. In Southern parts of India, permanent tattoos are called Pachakutharathu; the name changes as we move to different regions but the significance attached to it remains.

However, the act of traditional tattooing has its roots in both pride and violence. The tattooing customs, the mix of dyes and the meaning attached to the act are unique to each state, region and tribe in India.

I. Baiga Tribe From Central India

Godna for the Baiga tribe is essentially practised by women to mark and record the different stages and phases of the lives of the women of their tribe. A girl’s journey to becoming a woman; from puberty to marriage and eventually to childbirth are all living records in the form of symbols, patterns and identification marks scattered across their body. These traditional tattoos attach themselves to collective pride and belonging for the Baiga tribe and also serve as indicators that identify one ethnic group from another and one cultural area from another.

According to the customs, a girl born in a Baiga tribe is to receive her first tattoo on the forehead around the age of nine. Godna on the forehead, especially, is the tribe’s marker without which they are not considered a part of the tribe. The tattoos intend to prepare the women for birthing children and are considered to be their safe passage into the afterlife as after death one cannot carry anything with them but the tattoos on their bodies.

In order to make the tattoos darker, the tribe would rub them with a paste of turmeric, vegetable oil, and cow dung.

Image Courtesy: India Ink Archive

II. Apatani Tribe From Arunachal Pradesh

The roots of tattooing for the Apatani tribe are in protection from gender-based mistreatment and violence against women. Historically, the Apatani tribal women were often abducted by neighbouring tribesmen for their beauty. In order to not look ‘appealing’, they tattooed their faces and wore huge circular nose plugs.

The act of tattooing was painful as the instruments of use were thorns along with soot mixed in animal fat; as the wounds would get infected, the tattoos would spread on the skin and become larger, serving the initial purpose.

Image Courtesy: Omar Reda

III. Jhooti Culture Of Sambalpuri Women In Odisha

Mainly practised during Lakshmi Puja rituals, the symbols are essentially centred around the idea of being one with nature and the folk deities of the forest. The belief goes that the tattooed symbols would help the animals to recognise and respect the women as a part of the forest and fellow creatures. The practise also has its roots in patriarchy, unmarried women with motifs structured around Lakshmi Puja were perceived by the community as individuals who would bring not just fortune but also bear male children for the families they would marry into.

Image Courtesy: Milaap

Call it modernity and urbanisation or call it effects of colonisation and overall socio-economic transformation, the traditions and customs attached to this century-old practice are fading away in time. Army and paramilitary organisations have restrictions on body art, inevitably, this could also account for the decline in traditional tattooing as many many young men from rural areas enrolled in the forces.

Perhaps it’s the modernisation in the tattooing industry itself and our idea of individualism where being associated with a community or being categorised by it comes in the way of our ideals.

While the traditional practices and customs are dying out and being rejected by younger generations, they continue to live amidst the winkles of many people belonging to the subcontinent. In an attempt to record and revive the art form, Mumbai-based tattoo artist, Shomil Shah, with his project ‘India Ink Archive’ is helping people reconnect with their roots.

To learn more about Shomil Shah’s work visit:

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