India has always been a land of rich culture and traditions.
The art and tradition of the tattoo is not a new concept in India. Tattoos have existed through generations among tribals not just as a sign of beauty but also as a tradition. They have existed for diverse reasons by different communities across the country. The ancient maze-like carvings on prehistoric rocks were copied by tribal communities on their bodies is just one example of a design.
Over the past few decades, tattoos have become a sign of fashion among urban Indian youth.
The traditional process of tattoo making was called gudna meaning burying the needle in Sanskrit. The womenfolk flaunted the markings as the design resembled jewelry – the kind of jewelry no one could take away from them even if they were to lose all their worldly possessions.
The Apatani tribe of Arunachal Pradesh had reasons of their own to make tattoos. They believed in making their young girls unappealing to the rival tribes of the neighboring districts, who would otherwise abduct their prettiest women. They would use thorns to cut the skin and soot mixed in animal fat to fill the deep color. The wounds were then allowed to get infected so that the tattoos became larger, darker, and clearer. The Indian government banned this in the 1970s but the practice lives on in some of the untouched interiors of the northeast.
The Singhpo of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh had a clear demarkation of rules for each gender. The married women had tattoos on both legs from their ankles to the knees, while the men tattooed their hands. The unmarried Singpho girls were barred from carrying tattoos.
The Konyaks of Nagaland tattooed their faces to indicate their prowess in battle and headcount. The artistically made tattoos were to instill fear among their enemies before the start of the battle.
Tattoos have been instrumental in tribal identity in these regions especially, besides enabling recognition after death in a war or fatal accident.
On the other hand, the Noctes and Wanchos of Arunachal, for them, tattoos are a sign of strength, courage, and virility because of the pain associated with the piercing process.
Not just the North East, the art of tattoo making is seen in Southern Indian as well. The art of Permanent tattoos is known as Pachai kuthu – where Pachai means Green and Kuthu means Punch. They were very common, especially in Tamil Nadu. The traditional art form was initially practiced by people of the Narikuravar tribe in Kalmedu village near Madurai, Tamil Nadu and later on, spread among other communities as a means to earn a living.
The art of pachai kuthu involved writing names on the body using a needle and these would remain permanently. For the ink, milk mixed with the soot of the lantern lamps and herbal powder made with crushed leaves was used. While the color of the ink would be black initially, it turned into green after some time and remained clear and permanent ever after. All the tribals have their names imprinted on their arms. In case some harm was to befall on them, they would be identified with the help of their tattoos.
The Toda tribe from Nilgiris near Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu also had their hands calves and shins tattooed with the same geometric patterns used in their embroidery.