The history of the Indian tradition of tattoos


FSince being used as a sign of social status or as jewelry marks, tattoos have been around in India since ancient times. But the age of this custom remains a mystery. From the dense, soggy mountainous jungles of the northeast to the arid deserts of the Rann of Kutch in the far west, tattoos haven’t always been about beautifying the human body; they have been used for various reasons by different communities across the country.

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For hundreds of years, the tradition of tattooing has been revered in the agrarian and forest landscapes of India. Ancient maze-like carvings on prehistoric rocks were copied by tribal communities on their bodies. They called the process Gudna (burying the needle in Hindi) and displayed the marks like jewelry – the kind of jewelry that no one could take away from them even if they lost all their material possessions.

Most of India’s tattooed tribes lived in the remote hinterland of the country, where the theft of women by rival tribes was common.

In the Apatani tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, for example, young girls were tattooed to make them unattractive to rival tribes in neighboring districts, who might otherwise kidnap their prettiest women.


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The Apatani tattoo procedure involved the use of thorns to cut the skin and soot mixed with animal fat to fill in the dark blue color. The wounds were then allowed to fester so that the tattoos became larger, darker and lighter. The Indian government banned this in the 1970s, but the practice continues in some of the untouched interiors of the northeast.

Another tribe, the Singhpo of Assam and Arunachal, had separate rules for each gender. Married women were tattooed on both legs from ankles to knees, while men tattooed their hands. Unmarried Singpho girls were not allowed to wear tattoos.

Among the tattooed tribes in the northeast, the headhunting Konyaks of Nagaland also tattooed their faces to indicate their fighting prowess and numbers. Tattoos also helped establish tribal identity in the region, as well as allowing recognition after death in war or fatal accident.

Body art was very common among the warrior tribes of the northeast (including the Noctes and Wanchos of Arunachal) as they considered tattoos to be a sign of strength, courage and virility due to pain associated with the drilling process.


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In South India, permanent tattoos are called pachakutharathu. They were very common, especially in Tamil Nadu, before 1980. Nomadic Korathi tattoo artists roamed the countryside in search of clients. The kollam, a winding labyrinthine design believed to trap evil beings, is inked on the bodies to keep them permanently safe until they are reunited with deceased ancestors in the afterlife.

Among the Toda tribe of southern India, the hands, calves and shins are tattooed with the same geometric patterns used in their embroidery.


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Central India also has a long and barbaric tradition of tattooing. The Dhanuks of Bihar believe that tattoos deglamorize women – it helps them escape the eyes of influential sexual predators. Due to the prevalence of purdah, women from lower castes had to get tattoos of visible parts of their bodies to signal their lower status.

On the other hand, the Munda tribe of Jharkhand, who value courage, use body art to record historical events. The Mundas defeated the Mughals three times, and to commemorate these victories, Munda men still tattoo three straight vertical lines on their foreheads today.

The Central Indian Gonds, one of India’s largest tribes, traditionally left much of their body exposed. Bare skin was covered in kohkana (Gondi for tattoos) to make sure they looked decent.

The women of the Kutia Kondh tribe of Orissa, called “the people of the spirit world”, inked themselves with beautiful geometric facial tattoos; these identifying marks are said to ensure that they recognize each other once they enter the spirit world.


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The Santhal tribes of Bengal and Jharkhand have different tattoos for each gender, for different parts of the body and for different stages of life. Men inscribe tattoos called sikkas on their forearms and wrists, named so because they are usually the size of coins called sikka in the Santhal dialect. The number of these tattoos is always odd because odd numbers mean life and even numbers symbolize death in Santhal cosmology.

Floral designs are elaborately inked on the bodies of Santhal women, including their faces. The painful experience is believed to prepare a girl for motherhood and give her strength to face life’s challenges. the chati godai, for example, is a tattoo inscribed on a girl’s chest when she reaches puberty and, if not, when she gets married. Once finished, the tattoo is washed with soapy water to cool it down and reduce pain.

Even among the tribes of western India, the art of tattooing is revered, with tattoos having a close relationship with both secular and religious devotional subjects. The Rabari women of Kutch have been practicing tattooing for decorative, religious and therapeutic purposes for hundreds of years. A traditional Rabari tattoo kit is simple: a single needle and a bowl of calabash to hold the liquid pigment, which is made by mixing lamp soot with tannin from the bark of local trees. A small amount of turmeric powder is also added to lighten the color and prevent puffiness.

Rabari women tattoo elaborate symbols on their necks, breasts and arms, signifying their strong faith in magic.


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Kothari women usually begin the task of elaborate tattooing by bestowing blessings on their subjects while Rajput women wear the crown emblem of Krishna on their arms as a sign of aristocracy. Despite the cries of pain, the ladies are still perfect in their conception of symbols and figures. Tattoos are also used to strengthen the marital relationship between couples, with the symbol of the Moon protecting his favorite wife and the tools of Lord Vishnu like the wheel and the lotus being marked on the palms of the wife to guard her safe.

The tattoo designs preferred by the Sea tribe of Gujarat also include holy men, popular gods and symbols derived from nature. A Mer woman’s most favorite tattoo design is called hansali, which extends from her neck to the edge of her inner feet.

The temporary tattoo art of mehndi also has a deep-rooted cultural connection to India, with the use of mehndi and turmeric being described in early Vedic ritual books.

The main emphasis of mehndi in India has always been on the women of the household and it is traditionally used for celebrations and rites of passage.


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In recent history, the Ramnamis of Chhattisgarh have fought against caste discrimination with ‘Ram-Ram‘, a message to their persecutors that God is everywhere, regardless of a person’s caste or social status.

Banned from entering temples and forced to use separate wells, the Ramnamis first tattooed their bodies and faces more than 100 years ago with these words, which are as much a show of devotion as a talisman against persecution.

The tattoo of Dios, Ramnami Samaj

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While body art has been practiced for centuries in many Indian communities, it is only in recent decades that tattoos have become a fashion statement among young urban Indians. Tribal adaptation of popular designs like the dragon and tiger and abstract art are gaining popularity among young people. Memorial tattoos, which commemorate the death of a loved one or much-loved pet, spiritual tattoos, and tattoos with the name of the significant other, are also very popular.

In 2015, three Indians – Mo Naga from Nagaland, Abhinandan “Obi” Basu from Kolkata and Manjeet Singh from Delhi – were featured in the world tattoo atlasa list of 100 notable tattoo artists from around the world published by Yale University Press.

An award-winning tattoo artist, Manjeet Singh’s specialty is his stunningly photorealistic designs. He loves doing tattoos inspired by the Sikh religion and is an internationally renowned tattoo artist.


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Abhinandan Basu, whose tattoos are rooted in Bengali folk art, is known for his special personalized body art, called “Bongo” – inspired by the Bengali folk art form “Patachitra” (scroll painting) and works of legends like Jamini Roy. .


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Mo Naga from Nagaland wants to create modern designs emerging from traditional designs and founded the Headhunters’ Ink tattoo school in Guwahati. He uses modern machines and tattooing techniques to bring to life the traditional designs of the tribes of the northeast.

“I’m not trying to bring back old beliefs and lifestyle. My effort is to tell the stories of our ancestors through art and design,” explains Mo Naga, who believes that in-depth study of the patterns traditional tattoo designs can reveal priceless pieces of history.

An alumnus of NIFT-Hyderabad, Mo Naga is a self-taught tattoo artist who draws inspiration from Naga culture as evidenced in tribal costumes, folk tales, paintings, wood carvings, and more.


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Over the ages Indian body art has undergone a great transformation – from tattooing for beauty and tradition to tattooing for fashion and beliefs. A mix of creativity and fashion, tattoos are no longer just about identity and territory. In today’s world, they have become a means of expressing beliefs, memories, and the phase one is going through in life.

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