Rediscovering – The tradition of Indian tattoos

Image Source- IndianRoots

by Annesha Das Gupta

Tattoos and the culture of India are the two things that many of us will immediately deem as an oxymoron. Through the electronic and the print media, the masses are feed upon the images that the art of tattooing as particularly a western phenomenon. Though, here the idiom of ‘What we see is not always true’ can be thoroughly applied.

Many of the customs and traditions of our subcontinent did become obsolete a long time ago, and the surprising bit is that the culture of tattoos is one of them. Tattoos were hold in ultimate veneration throughout the agrarian landscapes for much longer than what the annals of documentation tells us.

The ancient patterns of maze-like creations carved on the rocks dating back to the time of 1000 B.C. were later adopted by the tribal communities to mark their arms and other parts of their bodies. The patterns resembling a labyrinth known as Kolam, were often drawn by the families, residing in the regions of South India. The symbols were placed outside the threshold of their abodes, in order to protect the members of the household.

It was believed that the illustration is capable of magical powers which would trap the demons and other evil beings in the puzzle of the maze, something which cannot be solved by those creatures. The Kolam was usually made during the time of dawn, when as the legend goes, the inhabitants of the darkness come alive. Thus, it is of no wonder that the same was inked on the human bodies to permanently keep themselves safe and secure.

Apart from this one tattoo which was and still is believed to have magical properties, the marks, the symbols, the lines and the dots were regarded to borne medical, religious and sympathetic significance as well.

 Exploring the power of tattoos – Surreal and beyond

Gauitra Bahadur writes that while researching for her book Coolie Woman, she found out about the tradition of Sita Ki Rasio, a tattoo without which the married women of northeast India cannot cook meals for their in-laws. While another of the tattoos drawn on women, denotes the five Pandavas and one Draupati, as five dots centered around a single one. This can depict the harmonious relationship between various husbands as polygamy was readily practiced by some tribes like that of the Nagas.

Such instances, also tells us about the heavy influence of the Hindu epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata. Then there is the symbol of Krishna’s crown which was wore by the Rajput women to show off their aristocracy indicating that the social status or position of someone’s caste or class can be read upon by the tattoo they have been marked with, like the caste of Govals who had the tattoos of Kanhaiyyaa and his milk maids inscribed on their arms.

The tattoos also used to work as something which will strengthen the marital relationship between the couples. The symbol of Moon or Chandi protecting his favorite wife, Rohini and the tattoos carrying the decorations of Vishnu’s tools like wheel and lotus are marked on the palms of the wives keeping with the terms of the legend that the God drew his weapons on the arms of his wife, Lakshmi to keep her secure while he was away, engaging in wars.

The craft of tattooing which is called Gudna in Hindu was mainly used to be done by the elders of the village or otherwise the itinerant women, who may be were illiterate but there was no standard of complex design that cannot be drawn by their expert hands and shrewd eyes. The Kothari women, who practiced tattooing on both men and women, generally began the task by restoring benediction on their subjects. The materials that were used in the exercise were three or more sharp needles tied up in a thread, organic materials like the coating of turmeric, cow’s milk and urine mixed with oil to lubricate and redeem the pain which will be felt by the person when the pricking will be going on.

Sometimes songs and nursery rhymes were also sung to divert and soothe away the pain which the man or the woman is going through. It is known that in the earlier times, no such distractions or ointments were applied and the area where the person has been tattooed would have been bloated and pain remained there for even more than a week.

Moving on, comes the religious powers that were believed to be donned by the tattoos, they also were said to have affinity to ease the work of everyday life. We can start on by the instance, where the horses and Hanuman being tattooed on the thighs of women so that they could be protected while walking barefoot and have the ability to labor all day in the field and carry out burdensome materials and task from one place to another.

The sector of agricultural, while, holds a primary place among the rural population and tribes and was therefore included it in the evolving structure of the tattoos. Especially when the harvesting season comes, the women who are not tattooed were not allowed to reap the crops and was considered to be impure for cultivation and its various purposes.

On the other hand, one can also speak of the medicinal importance of tattoos, like the ‘tattoo operations’ being performed to affect the remission of gout, rheumatism and arthritis.

Some of the tattoos are separately reserved to pay respect to motherhood like that the image of goddess Bara Deo, drawn on the breastbone of women, when their first infant is born. This particular part of the woman’s body is chosen due to the fact that it is where the child rests its head while been suspended inside the clothing. It is supposed to protect the child while the mother’s hands freely work in the fields.

Among the superstitious facets, it is held by some that tattooing can help them in keeping themselves secured, especially in their afterlife. As it is a common believe that the marked ones are safe as the devil do only devour the beings who are not tattooed and also that the inscriptions help the people to find their way safely back to their deceased ancestors.

It is also feared by some communities that if a man interrupts the tattooing ceremony by accident and markings on the body of the girl is not finished, no further performing of the task can be carried out. And that it is the will of the God, who will be shredding the woman’s body with iron rods after her death.

Concluding – The present state

We can make an appraisal of the current situation by Akhilesh Shukla’s report on tattoos of India at the Caravan Magazine which he titles as ‘Fading out’.

The traditional tattoo artists, he reports are at a total loss as the scope in this occupation has already gone its prime time and is now withering slowly away. Most of them, does not want their next generations to pursue the same path as the customs of the tattoos are getting erased from the minds, even of those who belong to the tribal communities.

In pre-Independent India, most of the tattoos used to cost a sum of one-sixth annas to that that of five and now it is more than that of hundred bucks even for a single line. Earlier, of course it was a fashion statement for the elites and also a necessity as the girls who do not have tattooed themselves before tying the knot, were considered as belonging to an uncultured background.

But now, the times have changed and so have the norms. Separating men from women, the male population, have also stopped getting themselves involved in the arena of tattoos as most of them, coming from the rural settings try out for the positions in the military. Since, there are already strict rules on any tattoos in the field many are discouraged to try their ‘hands’ out on this way.

Therefore, it may be safe to conclude that the future of traditional Indian tattoos, are rather degenerating into the pit-holes of loss of memory. Lack of proper anthropological research and dissemination of the topic is creating crevices which if not repaired soon, will become irretrievable.

Annesha Das Gupta is a student of Sociology, pursuing her degree from IGNOU, Kolkata. She has a special interest in the branches of Feminism, Sexuality and Dalit Studies. Twitter: Dancingbluepen





  • sudheer naik

    The tradition of tattooing has still remained an integral part of so many tribes and communities.