The Stories Of Change

Inked: Tattoos Show ‘Ownership’ of Women in Tribal India

In a tiny hamlet in rural Rajasthan, womenfolk not just have the name of their husbands tattooed on their forearms but also the fact that they are married to them. Read more about the tradition of tattooing in tribal India.

It is common to find people getting the names of their friends or their favourite image tattooed on their bodies but in several villages in Rajasthan, it is mandatory that womenfolk not only have the names of their husbands tattooed on their forearms but also the fact that they are married to them.

Though not many in the tribe know when the practice of tattooing started, a villager said that she got it done after her husband asked her to.

Sukhiya, 27, said that she got it done during a fair in Bagru ( a town in Rajasthan).

Sukhiya outside her house.

“My husband and I visited this fair where we saw people getting their arms tattooed. When my husband asked if I wanted to, I immediately agreed,” she says.

While her husband got both hers and his name tattooed on his forearm, she got her forearm tattooed reading, “Mohanlal ki aurat Sukhiya. (Mohanlal’s woman Sukhiya).”

Sukhiya’s tattoo “Mohanlal’s woman Sukhiya”

Sukhiya, who belongs to the Sapera community (snake charmers) of Rajasthan, was nearly 16 years old when she got married. She is now a mother of three children – a daughter and two sons.

“Elders in our community believe that girls will run away if they are not married off at a young age.”

Geeta outside her house in Bagru town of Rajasthan

Among tribal communities in India, tattooing is known as “godana” (to pierce). This practice has been prevalent since ancient times and was used for decorating one’s own body, for self-expression and for the couples to declare their love for each other.

Jagdish patni Geeta (Jadish’s wife Geeta) is written on her forearm.

Among Indian tribes, this practice was carried out to protect the womenfolk from being “poached” by men from other tribes. For example, girls belonging to the Apatani tribe in Arunachal Pradesh, have their faces tattooed to make them look ugly or unappealing so that they don’t get abducted by rival tribes.

The Indian Government in 1970 took a serious note of this practice and immediately banned it. But the ban hasn’t had much of an effect and is still prevalent in that community.

Meera outside her house in Bagru town of Jaipur district in Rajasthan.

In another tribe of the North-East, called Singhpo, spread across Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, there are different rules for married and unmarried women. While unmarried women are not allowed to get their bodies tattooed, the married have to get tattooed both their legs from the knee to the ankle. In the case of men, they have to get their hands tattooed.

Omnath ki aurat Meera (Omnath’s woman Meera) tattooed on her forearm.

The Dahunks of Bihar used to resort to such practice to keep their married women away from the wandering eyes of other men. In some communities in north India,  tattooing is carried out to strengthen the marital relationship of the couples.

Sugna outside her house in Bagru town of Rajasthan.

In large parts of India, the tattoo art of Mehendi (henna) is gaining traction. While needles are used for piercing the skin for tattooing, in the case of Mehendi, a paste made by mixing henna with water is poured into a plastic cone which is then used to draw different designs on the palm of women.

Dinanath ki aurat Sugna ( Dinanath’s woman Sugna) is written on her forearm.

Such a practice is carried out during marriage ceremonies where the bride’s hands and feet are tattooed with the henna. It is believed that if the henna leaves a darker shade once it dries off, stronger will be the couple’s bond.

Photos: Sanskriti Talwar

Originally published here, this story is part of the Milaap Fellowship Program.  It is a unique opportunity, providing young professionals with a six-month fellowship to contribute to a cause and cover inspiring stories of change.

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Sanskriti Talwar

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