Gargi Kucheria: The Antiquity; Tribal Tattoo Wearer

A depiction of tattoo designs

We have always read about India as a rich country with diversity in languages, cultures, food and clothing but we never emphasised on our old traditions of tattoos which differ from country to country. Be it a tribal, nomad or a common man who belongs to any of the states of India can be seen with a traditional tattoo. This not only beautifies the body but speaks about their roots and their love for culture.

In tribal tattoos, each symbol holds a unique meaning and significance for the wearer and their community. The art of tattoo making has been alive since ancient times and commonly known as Gudna or Hand-Poked Tattoo practice. It was mainly done with the use of herbs and natural colour extracted from plants and flowers. Herbs were used for its medicated properties as the process was extremely painful and highly infectious. Turmeric was a commonly used ingredient to reduce inflammation and give a bright shade to the colour of the tattoo.

These women were tattooed at different stages of life. Most of the tribal women have elaborate tattoos. All hand-poked and done in batches around the time of puberty and before marriage. Floral patterns are painstakingly inked on the bodies of santhal women (a tribe hailing from Bengal and Jharkhand). It is believed the painful experience prepares a girl for motherhood and gives her the strength to face the challenges of life.

The motifs are symbols of beauty and femininity of the tribe or even a permanent form of jewellery for those who couldn’t afford it and for some it's a kind of jewellery which nobody could take away from them even if they were to lose all their precious possessions. Most of India’s tattoo tribes lived in the remote hinterlands of the country, where stealing of women by rivalry tribes was a common occurrence. For keeping young girls and women safe, the Apatani tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, for instance, tattooed them to look unappealing to the rival tribes of the neighbouring districts, who could possibly kidnap their prettiest women.

Tattoo traditions are particular to states with a few common motifs. Rabaris and Ahri tribe in Gujarat were known for Trajva tattoos as a mark of beauty and endurance. Santhal tribe from Jharkhand used to tattoo their forearms for showing strength and identity. The headhunting Konyaks of Nagaland used to tattoo their faces to signify their strength in warfare. Body art was very pervasive among the aggressive tribes of the North-East (including the Noctes and Wanchos of Arunachal Pradesh) as they considered tattoos as marks of strength, courage and bravery because of the pain associated with the piercing process. These are only a handful of tattoo traditions that marked India’s diverse and vivid tribal culture.

While we know that India’s tribal tattoos tradition is at the verge of vanishing, we still have access to some scarce but rich resources – our elders with marked skin, old photos that tells the stories of time, folktales, paintings, wood carvings etc. We should keep making our continuous and conscious efforts to safeguard our traditional tattoos from getting extinct and pass on to younger generations as a legacy.