Tattoos and Tribal communities in India

Being considered an important part of beauty, tattoos also hold spiritual importance for tribals of central India. Women especially consider tattoos of utmost importance as it is said in their culture that while all the beautiful clothes and ornaments would be left behind, the tattoos on their skin will go with their soul.

By Shuchita Jha

The indigenous people of central India are very fashion forward, and tattoos have been an important part of their culture since time immemorial.

When I meet tribal women, I love to see the richness of their culture. They proudly carry their ‘gudna’ on their forehead, arms, neck, shoulders and bellies. Each tattoo is different and they all happily smile and tell you all about them when you ask. For most girls, the day they get inked is unforgettable, as it was the day they passed the test of their endurance and their journey forward begins. It is like a passage of rites.

From girls as young as 7 to those as old as 70, have tattoos on their skin. This practice takes place two times in a women’s life- once as a spinster in her maternal home, and later as a married woman at her in-laws.

Women especially consider tattoos of utmost importance as it is said in their culture that while all the beautiful clothes and ornaments would be left behind, the tattoos on their skin will go with their soul. It is something that cannot be separated, and along with the skin, it is also inked into their souls. While the practice of getting inked seems to be painful, the indigenous women make it sound so beautiful that you yourself want to get one! I for one feel super scared of getting inked, but for the first time in my life I felt like having a little tattoo after an elderly woman said this to me. However, the feeling passed when I saw a guy crying in a tattoo parlour later in the city mall later that day. 😀

According to the tribal women, the practice of tattoo making goes back ages, when humas were able to summon Gods with their devotion and prayers. Once upon a time a married woman went on a hunger-strike after having a fight with her husband. On the seventh day of her hunger-strike, a Goddess sent her messengers to bring the woman to her. When the woman met the Goddess, she made a tattoo or gudna on her cheeks with milk form the sal tree with the help of a bamboo needle. The Goddess told her that like she had inked her, she would now have to ink other women of her community as a mark of their endurane and patience. The women who will bear tattoos on their skin will be able to endure all kinds of hardships in their life. So the women of the tribal communities like Gond, Korku etc love to get inked.

Tattooed forearm of a Rabari woman at Nadapa village, east of Bhuj. Photo by Meena Kadri/Flickr

Along with this, the Adivasis also believe that tattoos increase sexual desires of women, helping them become more fertile to bear children. Tattoos of scorpions, bees, peacocks-pea-hens, rooster and hens etc are made to increase prospects of getting pregnant. Literally birds and bees! 😀

I wonder if that’s where the saying comes from? Who knows?

Gudna or the practice of getting inked is considered as auspicious as any other ritual like birth, marriage and last rites.

The practice of covering large parts of the body is not just limited to the tribes of central India. Many indegenious communities of the North East, Wastern and Southern part of India also love to get inked. They are like their acquired beauty-marks, like jewellery in absence of jewels and their belief in high powers who they say look after them and ward off evil. Indigenous communities of Africa, Australia and Polynesia also get inked.

With so many purposes, it becomes inevitable for women to not get inked. Young girls follow the standards of beauty in their communities, watching their grand-mother, mothers, aunts and friends, which makes them eager to get tattoos too. It is like when little girls wear their mother’s saris, their jewellery and high heels to look more like them.

Even to this day tribal women use traditional methods to make tattoos. They dip the needled in mustard oil to make them smooth and then arrange 3-4 needles in a pattern to make a design. The ink is prepared from the soot of mustard oil, and is diluted with water and filled into the engraved sign. To prevent infecion, the inked area is cleaned with water and mustard oil, and then the lady who makes the tattoo called ‘gudanhari’ applies a paste of turmeric power and mustard oil to it as it has anti-septic properties. The inked area gets healed within a week and the tattoo becomes a part of the girl’s body and soul.

Indigenous people prefer to get inked in winters as there is a lesser risk of infection in winters. The designs of tattoos also vary from one tribal community to another. For example, women of the Uraun tribe get three lines inked on thier forehead- this is called lammar, Gond women go for a floral design called ‘jat’ and the ‘Kanwar’ community goes for the ‘elephant’ motif’. They also get symbols and insignias of thier tribes engraved into their skin to ask their ancestors to protect them. Totems, flowers, plants and animal tattoos are also popular in tribal communities.

Women also sing songs while engraving tattoos on the skin of girls. It is believed that it was Lord Krishna, who first made tattoos on the bodies of his ‘Gopis’ and the practice started back then. They sing hymns in praise of Krishna while doing the art.

While it is mostly women who get inked, men from a special community of Chhattisgarh called the ‘Ramnami’ community. They are devotees of Lord Rama, who is regarded as the most righteous and honourable man to have ever lives. The men inscribe the deity’s name into their skin several times to imbibe his qualities.

Earlier men used to cover their whole faces and bodies with the detiy’s names, but now the younger generation prefers to get the tattoo only on the arms or chest. They are ardent followers of the Ramanaya and thier rites and rituals are very similar to those practiced in the holy book.

That’s all for today folks. Hope you enjoyed this little piece on the importance of tattoos in the tribal communities of central India. To connect with us follow @groundtales on twitter, Instagram and Facebook .

Banner– A tribal hand tattoo in a market in Jaipur, India. Photo by Meena Kadri/wikimedia commons


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