Tattoo culture in India, then and now

Tattoos. I had always wanted one but kept away from it for various reasons, pain being the number one. I have wondered why people would want to undergo the pain to get themselves inked. I have asked my friend who got himself two tattoos. According to him it a form of expression. Something he feels strongly about.

Tattoos are anything but new. It has existed centuries ago as a part of a culture and it continues to exist now albeit in different forms. First recorded tattoo in the world dates back to 6000 BCE from Peru in South America, in one of those ancient tribes. In India too, tattoos are anything but unusual. I have seen many old women with tattoos on their arms and back and more often than not these are not the name of their lovers. Getting inked was more of a cultural thing and these tattoos are have deeper meanings.

I had always wanted to do a story on tattoo culture in India. In my quest, I was able to meet couple of women, most of them in their 70s, who had lot of tattoos adorning them. They did not seem like names of their lovers, husbands or kids. Rather some signs some round with markings on them and words in a language I do not seem to understand. I asked them why would they want to get tattoos, considering it is a painful process during those times when the needle literally pierces your skin for long hours. It is called pachakuthuradu where in ink is mostly made from natural herbs instead of chemicals used now. Though it is still the same piercing technique with technology advancement, hygiene is ensured and process is cut short.

The older woman, lets name her Aayakka, said each tattoo has a meaning and represents each stage of life. For instance the tattoo on her forearm represents fertility and any woman who gets married gets them. There are other tattoos too like for health and success. There are some beliefs among tribals that tattoos act as a protective charm since they lived in the forest. It is believed that it was a barrier against evil spirits. In ancient times existed the practice of sacrificing babies to god. In case a baby has some defect or mark on its body, he or she is spared. So some parents tattooed their babies to save them.

Another tribal tattoo on neck that holds different meanings like fertility, protection etc..

Among the tribes, especially, it is not very uncommon since they lived amidst the forest and it was their way of life. You would have heard stories of how women are made to look ugly by tattooing their faces so that they rival tribes do not find them attractive. There are cases when people are inked as a punishment too.

It is custom of tribals in North Eastern part of India to tattoo their face so that rival tribes do not take their women away

It is not just India, tattooing is a part of most ancient cultures like Egyptians, Chinese and Japanese culture. Though in Japanese culture, tattoos are not accepted as it is associated with Japanese crime syndicates, the yakuza.

But things have changed now of course. Perception of tattoos have changed over years from one of protection to sort of rebellion. If you ask my mother she will say that having a tattoo gives a negative impression like someone who will never obey the rules, a rebel. Many offices prohibit employees from displaying tattooes and are required to cover it up. This is more common in Japan, where displaying of tattoo in public is prohibited.

It has also become more of a fashion statement than for anything else than any real meaning. When I spoke to couple of tattoo parlours I have come to understand that number of people who want to get inked have increased, especially youngsters. It continues to be lovers name and such but some like my friend get themselves inked to assert themselves while the rest get going with the trend. This is probably why tattoo parlours have mushroomed in the India.

Well though it is yet to be more mainstream, I hope I get the courage to get myself inked before then!


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