GUDNA TATTOOS / DALIT TATOOS
INDIAN TRIBAL TATTOOS
MEANINGS OF TRIBAL AND DALIT TATTOOS IN INDIA HISTORY
The tattoo, the immaterial jewelry that can't be stolen:
For hundreds of years, the tradition of tattooing was venerated across the agrarian and forested landscapes of India. The ancient maze-like carvings on prehistoric rocks were copied by tribal communities on their bodies. They called the process gudna (burying the needle in Hindi) and flaunted the markings as jewellery – the kind of jewellery no one could take away from them even if they were to lose all their worldly possessions.
The female tattoo as a deterrent against sexual predation:
Most of India’s tattooed tribes lived in the remote hinterlands of the country, where stealing of women by rival tribes was a common occurrence.
In the Apatani tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, for instance, young girls were tattooed to make them unappealing to the rival tribes of the neighbouring districts, who could otherwise abduct their prettiest women.
Central India also has a long and barbaric tradition of tattooing. The Dhanuks in Bihar believe tattoos deglamourize women – this helps them evade the eyes of influential sex predators. Due to the prevalence of purdah, women from lower castes had to have visible parts of their bodies tattooed to signal their inferior status.
The tattoo as decent clothing:
The Gonds of Central India, one of India’s largest tribes, traditionally left much of their bodies exposed. The bare skin was covered with kohkana (Gondi for tattoos) to ensure they looked decent.
The tattoo: to recognize oneself in the afterlife:
Women of the Kutia Kondh tribe of Orissa, called the ‘the people of the spirit world,’ ink themselves with beautiful geometric facial tattoos; it is said these identifying marks ensure they recognize each other once they enter the spirit world.
The tattoo as an act of defiance against the oppressor:
In recent history, Chhattisgarh’s Ramnamis fought caste discrimination with full-bodied ‘Ram Ram‘ tattoos, a message to their persecutors that God is everywhere, regardless of a person’s caste or social standing.
Denied entry to temples and forced to use separate wells, the Ramnamis first tattooed their bodies and faces more than 100 years ago with these words, which are as much a demonstration of devotion as a talisman against persecution.
“The word “Dalit,” from the Marathi for “broken” or “crushed,” has come to replace “untouchable” as the most common label for the more than 160 million people who live at the bottom of the caste hierarchy in India and other parts of South Asia. Names matter—never more so than when dealing with the identity of an oppressed minority. In 1972, a group of young Dalits in Bombay formed the Dalit Panthers. On August 15, 1973, the twenty-sixth anniversary of Indian Independence, the Dalit Panthers organized a march of some two hundred people through the streets of Bombay (Mumbai) in a celebration of what they called “Black Independence Day” (“Kala Swatantrya Din”). Drawing on the legacy of the Black Panthers, the Dalit Panthers challenged a narrative in which “independence” had already come to the Indian people. The very name “Dalit Panthers” marshaled notions of blackness and Black Power to present Dalit resistance as militantly unbounded by the triumphant complacency of self-proclaimed “democratic” nation-states.”