India: Land of Eternal Ink
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India: Land of Eternal Ink

Article © 2009 Lars Krutak

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 jungles 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 is relatively weak on the art form 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 a recent trip to their homelands in the remote northeast. What follows is a modest encyclopedic survey of traditional tattooing practices in India past and present.


Tattoo (gudna, 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 (Fig. 1). Another labyrinth dated to 1000 B.C. inscribed on a dolmen shrine at Padugla in the Nilgiri Hills reveals a similar configuration (Fig. 2).

Goa labyrinth   Nilgiri labyrinth

Fig. 1) Goa labyrinth

Fig. 2) Nilgiri labyrinth.

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.

Drawing a kolam Kolam tattoo pattern Kolam tattoo patterns

Fig. 3) Drawing a kolam

Fig. 4) Kolam tattoo pattern Fig. 5) Kolam tattoo patterns

Not surprisingly, many South Indian tattoo designs worn around the early 20th century were specifically derived from kolam patterns because they were also believed to be protective in nature (Fig. 5). These complex tattoos were a puzzle, since Yama, the God of death, and his demon minions could not harm the tattooed since they could not solve the puzzle that the tattoos presented. Why? Because kolam tattoos were a maze with the idea that demons were drawn into the pattern, then lost, and rendered powerless. At the same time, however, kolam markings were also connected to other aspects of the afterlife. Among lower castes and tribes, it was considered a necessity for women, and sometimes men, to be tattooed in order to avoid punishment in the land of the dead: because Yama's demons only devoured the unmarked. Kolam tattoos also worked as a kind of map because they were believed to help guide the dead person on their way to the land of the dead so that they would be safely reunited with their deceased ancestors.

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," 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 (Fig. 6.1). The mole or tattooed dot was also considered an emblem of the 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 favourite 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 (Fig. 6.2).

Various tattoo patterns for women

Figs. 6.1 - 6.6) Various tattoo patterns for women

A line between the eyebrows represents the red powder or the ashes applied to that spot as a protection from all evils (Fig. 6.3). It is called angara, or vibhuti.

The Panch or five Pandavas (Fig. 6.4) 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 (Fig. 6.5) 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 (Fig. 6.6).

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 (Fig. 7).

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.

The profession or caste of an individual is very often indicated by tattoo marks, though it has not usually been intentionally included among them. It will be interesting to find out whether ateran or uteran (spindle) is tattooed by women of the spinning castes (Fig. 8A), who were originally nomads, and are now mat-makers or rope-makers, still unsettled in their habits.

The milkmaids of Krishna are thus represented (Fig. 8B).

Yoni and fish tattoo patterns Caste tattoos Mystical compass tattoos

Fig. 7) Yoni and fish tattoo patterns

Figs. 8A & 8B) Caste tattoos Fig. 9) Mystical compass tattoos

These emblems will possibly show that the woman who bears them is a milkmaid, Ahir or Goval by caste. It may be carefully noted that the number of maids shown is always five. The mystic sign A 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 (Fig. 9).

Krishna’s Crown tattoo

Fig. 10) Krishna's Crown tattoo

The tattoo mark known as Kanhayya's mukat or crown is this (Fig. 10).

And there is no mistaking the caste of the woman using it. Although the design is 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 denote the castes of the women using them; but as most of these designs have not been grouped according to castes, 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.

Figurative tattoos

Fig. 11) Figurative tattoos

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 (Fig. 11) 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 promotes safe delivery in child-birth.

The Dhelki Kharia of Jharkhand also had a rich tattooing tradition. When a girl is old enough to walk, she is tattooed. In some cases the tattooing is delayed until the tenth or eleventh year, but in any case it must be completed before the girl is married. An omission to do so is regarded as a social and religious offense, and has 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 are the tattoo artists and they use a three-pronged iron instrument to produce the tattoo markings. The tattoo pigment is made of soot, preferably of charred behloa (Semicarpus anacardium) wood. Mother's milk was mixed into the soot. After the operation, the tattooist smears the puncture with turmeric paste diluted in water. The tattooing is 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 a 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 recount 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 their. 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 the 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.

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