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

Article © 2009 Lars Krutak


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.

Mer body tattoos.

Fig. 26) Mer body tattoos.

Mer tattoos: 1) Holy men, 2) Feet of Rama, 3) Pāniāri, 4) Kāvad, 5) Feet of Lakshmi, 6) Name of Rama, 7) Name of Krishna, 8) Hanuman, 9) KrishnaMer tattoo symbols: 10) Tiger, 11) Lion, 12) Horse, 13) Camel, 14) Peacock, 15) Scorpion, 16) Bee, 17) Fly, 18) Coconut tree, 19) Mango tree20) Date palm, 21) Large Bāval tree, 22) Small Bāval tree, 23) Champa flower, 24) Kevado plant, 25) Flower, 26) Almond nut, 27) Pedestal, 28) Yoke strap, 29) horse’s saddle bag30) Throne, 31) Cradle, 32) Bhim’s blanket, 33) Well, 34) Step-well, 35) Complex step-well, 36) Small shrine, 37) Anchor, 38) Sowing machineMer tattoo symbols: 39) Drum, 40) Wooden vessel, 41) Donkey’s burden frame, 42) Ibid., 43) Churning pot cover, 44) Chain, 45) Sweet-meat, 46) Five grains, 47) Four grains, 48) Three grains, 49) Two grains, 50) Ward of untouchables in a village

Fig. 27-31) Mer tattoo symbols

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 (Figs. 26-31). 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 crescented 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 (Figs. 32, 33A & 33B).

Rabari body tattoos Rabari forearm markings  Rabari arm tattoos Photograph © Michael Laukien

Fig. 32) Rabari body tattoos

Fig. 33A) Rabari forearm markings

Fig. 33B) Rabari arm tattoos
Photograph © Michael Laukien

1) Om tattoo, 2) Incarnation of Vishnu, 3) Ibid., 4) Personal name, 5) Ibid., 6) Ibid., 7) Cobra, 8) Swastika, 9) Scorpion, 10) Sacred greeting, 11) Moon, 12) Sun, 13) Drum of Shiva, 14) Pāniāri, 15) Flower, 16) Pedestal, 17) Almond nut, 18) Throne, 19) Small shrine, 20) Instrument used in sowing seed, 21) Ward of untouchables, 22) Five grains

Fig. 34) Various tattoo symbols

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 (Fig. 34). 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 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, all groups were headhunters, and the Indian government outlawed the practice in 1953; but rumors persist to this day that men are 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.

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. 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.

Ao Naga body tattooing Ao body tattoos

Fig. 35) Ao Naga body tattooing


Fig. 36) Ao body tattoos

Among the Ao Naga, tattoo artists were always old women who performed the rite in the jungle near their village (Figs. 35 & 36). 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 headhunting 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 capture 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 ang of the village, a woman of pure blood of the aristocratic clan. To prick the pattern on the face of one man took an entire day (Fig. 37). Those who could withstand the pain also had the neck and chest tattooed (Fig. 38).

Upper Konyak facial tattooing. Photograph © Lars Krutak 2009-2007 Son of the Ang of Chui, Upper Konyak, ca. 1925.

Fig. 37)Upper Konyak facial tattooing

Fig. 38) Son of the Ang of Chui, Upper Konyak, ca. 1925.

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 or men's house of the clan who 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.

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