Documenting Indian tribal tattoos before they disappear forever

Baiga Tribal Women of Madhya Pradesh, they are known for their unique tattoos that they make all over their bodies. Image from Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0

Baiga Tribal Women of Madhya Pradesh, they are known for their unique tattoos that they make all over their bodies. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sandy and Vyjay. CC BY-SA 4.0

Tattoos are an integral part of Indigenous and tribal communities worldwide, including South Asia. Whether as a beautification technique or to escape the “evil eyes” of men from other tribes, Indigenous and tribal women have adorned their bodies with tattoo motifs influenced by nature, their history, and their spiritual beliefs.

While the popularity of modern tattoos is increasing among the young generation, the traditional tattoo culture is waning among most Indigenous and tribal peoples. This is further threatened by syncretism and acculturation as they are coming into contact with people from other tribes and places. However, tattoo artists like Amit Arjel are on a mission to trace and document Indian tribal tattoos before they disappear forever.

Delhi-based tattoo artist Arjel, originally from Nepal, has dedicated himself to researching and compiling the tattoo motifs of Indian tribes. He not only wants to document and redraw the faded tattoos worn by tribal women but also wants to publish a book on tribal tattoos from India.

Amit Arjel tattooing for a client. Photo via Amit Arjel. Used with permission.

Sanjib Chaudhary from Global Voices caught up with Arjel during his recent visit to Nepal. The interview has been edited for length and clarity:

Global Voices (GV): Can you tell us a bit about yourself? How did you get into tattooing?

Amit Arjel (AA): Actually, I started my career as a painter. I learned painting under some big names in India. When my father passed away in late 2014, things changed for me drastically. I returned to my ancestral home in Nepal to do the death rituals. Thinking of my mother, I decided to take up something that would give me the flexibility to visit her from time to time and spend time with her.

Also, I wanted to dedicate something to my father. So, I designed a tattoo in his memory and came to Delhi looking for a tattoo studio. I stumbled upon Inkinn Tattoo Studio, one of the most popular tattoo studios in Delhi among tattoo enthusiasts. While getting tattooed, the artist suggested that I join the studio.

Mulling over options and finding out that I would have more freedom and flexibility, I decided to join the studio. The artist I’ve learned from is Max.

GV: How did you get the idea of going for traditional tattoos and reviving them?

AA: I had been doing tattoos for two years and all of them were commercial tattoos. However, something inside me was telling me it was not what I wanted to do. I had never copied any artist and always tried to do something original.

I wanted to see what Indian traditions we have. Thus, started my quest to research Indian tribal tattoos. Looking on the internet, I found the Baiga tribe with a rich tattooing tradition. Luckily, I got connected to Shantibai from the tribe through one of my clients. I visited her to learn their tattooing tradition.

Then I went to Surguja in north Chhattisgarh and afterwards met with Bheel people, one of the ethnic groups from western India. Following that, I went to Madhya Pradesh and visited all the Central Indian tribes. Subsequently, I went to Garo people, an ethnic tribe from northeast India.


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GV: What are the differences between tribal and modern tattoos?

AA: Tribal tattoo motifs are completely different from modern tattoos. Tribals make motifs based on their belief systems. They tell the next generation to stick with these motifs and believe in them. They have been getting the same tattoos for centuries and are still following the same culture and tradition, the same patterns and motifs.

However, in the case of modern tattoos, the designs are based on one’s imagination, and they change from time to time and from person to person.

GV: You have been researching many Indian tribes. Can you tell us about some of their unique patterns?’

AA: The tribes from Surguja ink themselves with unique tattoo motifs called Surguja godna. They have a motif called ‘othi’, which represents the uterus and feminine energy.

Another motif I am very fascinated with is ‘sathi godna’ or friendship tattoo. If a person has a friend and wants to get them a tattoo, they have to commission the tattoo for their friend and pay for it.

GV: How do they select the motifs? How are they related to their lives?

Amit visits tribal tattoo artists and learns from them. Photo via Amit Arjel. Used with permission.

AA: Let’s take the case of the Baiga tribe. Before a girl hits puberty, mostly at the age of 8 or 10, she has to get a forehead tattoo. The different tattoo symbols they use represent womanhood and remind the girl that she is approaching womanhood. She is ready to get married and will need to take care of her household and her family.

After that, when she is 15 to 18 years old, she can have a tattoo on her back. So that she can attract a male. The Baiga women’s dress has always been designed in a way to flaunt the back tattoo.

Subsequently, she gets tattoos on both hands, one by one within a year. The hand tattoos remind her that she can be active in the community and participate in their rituals and activities.

When the girl gets married, she can also have tattoos on her legs. It means she is active in every field. And once she has a baby, she can get a chest tattoo. The chest tattoo represents motherhood. Women cannot get a chest tattoo if they aren’t able to give birth to a child. In that case, they can adopt a child and get a chest tattoo. It’s a complete circle — from childhood to womanhood.

GV: Can you tell us about the uniqueness of tattoo culture in other tribes?

AA: The Bheel women get face tattoos to protect themselves from evil eyes and to look more attractive.

Majority of the Tharu women from Sauraha in Nepal have tattoo motifs of ‘majur’ or a peacock. As the peacock was the only symbol of beauty at that time in their tribe, they also wanted to be as beautiful as a peacock.

GV: What are your future plans?

AA: My plan is to compile all Indian tribal motifs. Since the motifs on peoples’ bodies are not clear, I want to redraw them and write a book so that people can see the Indian tribal tattoos in their purest form. Also, I want the tribal tattoo artists to be recognized worldwide.

Knowledge has to be spread to be protected, not only compiled and saved. I want to show people that we have a rich culture and we’ve everything in written form.

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