A Look At India’s Tribes And Its Traditions Of Tattoos

A Look At India’s Tribes And Its Traditions Of Tattoos
Phejin Konyak & Peter Bos

Aesthetically pleasing or sentimentally relevant, tattoos have a way of their own. From designing their own tattoos, to surfing the internet for the most exquisite ones, there’s no doubt that young Indians use the tattoo culture for self-expression.

But did you know that this trend actually has been a part of the Indian tradition and culture? From the northern ranges to the southern planes, from the eastern landscapes to the western coasts, the practice of tattoos has been followed by Indian tribes for the longest time.

Traditionally called “gonda” or “tarazwa”, these traditional tattoos have played a very significant role in every tribe. Not only as jewellery or caste marking, but also as a means of expression and faith. It symbolises their identity: their caste, gender, faith and traditions. Each tribe has its own unique methods, pigments and ingredients to make a tattoo. We enlist some peculiar practices here.

The Apatani Tribe

Belonging to the Ziro Valley, the Apatani tribals are tattooed from the tip of their forehead to the tip of their nose and bottom of the lower lip to the edge of the chin, as a mark of their tribal identity. The people of the tribe begin to tattoo the women from the age of ten and preferably during the winters to reduce pain and accelerate the drying process. The ink used by this tribe is the soot (chinyu) collected from the bottom of heavily used utensils mixed with animal fat, and the needle, a bunch of three-headed thorns, called the Iimotre, tied together to pierce the skin. The ink is hammered inside the skin using a small hammer, the Empiia Yakho, and left to get infected so that it grows larger and clearer.

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The Dhanuks

The women of this tribe from Bihar are tattooed as means of protection from the predatory eyes of the covetous noblemen. Even though their faces are covered in a purdah, the visible areas of their face and body are tattooed to make them look ugly and un-glamorous and evade the eyes of sexual predators. It is also a mark of them belonging to the lower caste, unlike the upper caste women who, even though under the purdah, do not get tattooed.


The Rabaris

These tribal women of Gujarat refer to their tattoos as “trajva”, in which they hold a strong sense of identity and are considered prophylactic. It is a symbol of their strength as the process of getting the trajva is very painful, excruciating and susceptible to infection. Potential brides are decorated with tattoos, as bare skin is viewed to be ugly. There are signs like scorpions, snakes, and many more on their faces, claves, throats, forearms, breasts, neck, etc. The men have symbols of camels on the back of their right palms. The ink is prepared by mixing lampblack and tannin extracted from the bark of a local kino tree, or with mother’s milk or sometimes even urine.


The Mer

Belonging to Gujarat, these tribals prefer getting motifs like holy men, popular gods and symbols derived for nature tattooed. Girls are marked first at an early age of seven or ten, on the hands and feet and later on their necks and breasts. It is customary to tattoo the girl before the marriage, or the girl is considered to be belonging to a poor family. Men are not so heavily tattooed. But getting marked above the wrists, on the back of their hands and sometimes on the right shoulder is mandatory. The ink used here is the pigment from soot mixed with cow’s urine or soot with the juice of tulsi leaves. To carve, a reed stick with two or three needles inserted at the end, is used.


The Baigas

An integral part of their culture, Baiga women instil great pride in their “gondans” and feel incomplete without them. It is an art they have inherited from their forefathers. First tattoo is generally applied on the girl’s forehead at the age of ten and then on the other parts as she grows up. The last gondan, called the Chhati Godai, takes places on her chest after she delivers a baby. Crushed powder of Niger seeds is used as ink. This process takes place inside a forest, as men seeing a woman’s blood is considered an ill omen. A bamboo stick is used to carve the symbol and the ink is penetrated using a needle. The area is washed with cow dung and lukewarm water and later Raijal herb is applied to heal the wound.


The Konyaks

Only men are tattooed in this tribe from Arunachal Pradesh. Boys upon reaching adult age are tattooed as a sign of manhood. But as an eligibility test, a group of young men need to capture at least one head from the enemy village. The tattooing is always done only by the wife of the chief, who belongs to the pure blood of aristocratic clan. The face is pricked, and if bearable, the neck and the chest.

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The Ao Nagas

Women are being trained from generation to generation about the skill of gondan in this tribe of Nagaland as they are the ones who carry out this ritual. No men should be around when a girl is getting tattooed is a strict rule followed. Girls are tattooed before puberty, otherwise she is considered as a disgrace and would not marry well. Several women hold that girl plied on the ground when the needle is pressed in her skin. A little bunch of cane thorns is used to puncture the skin with a root of kamri. 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 colouring matter is the soot made from the sap of a tree bark called napthi, which is burnt in a pot on fire.

The Santhals

Having different tattoos for each sex, this tribe from Bengal and Jharkhand, have a different body part for different stage of life. Men have a coined shape “sikka” inscribed on their forearm. They also several tattoos along their wrists, which are always in odd number. Because according to the Santhal belief, odd numbers signify life and even numbers signify death. Women are marked on various body parts, including the face with floral patterns. They believe that the painful process prepares the girl for motherhood and gives her the strength to face the challenging life. The tattoos are washed with soap-nut water to reduce the pain.


Even though the Tattoo industry is flourishing, this age old tradition of gondan is fading away as the times progress. Some even fear its extinction. While the tattoo artists are making money, their gondan counterparts are finding it difficult to make ends meet. This rich culture of creativity and skills which is passed on to the gondan artists from generations definitely needs to find ways to preserve itself.

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