Women tattooing in India

photo courtesy Meena Kadri

In the tribal regions of India tattooing remains a widely spred tradition, especially in the central and northeastern regions of the country. It is interesting that the practice is more prevalent among women. In some communities tattoos are essential for marriage; in others the number of tattoos is indicative of the bride's economic status; and in some places a man will not touch or accept food from a woman who is not tattooed on her feet. The main purpose of tattooing, however, is protective, the tattoo acts as defense against the forces of evil that are  believed to be constantly active and attempting to gain advantage over the unprotected humans causing misfortune, illness or death.

photo courtesy Meena Kadri

Tattooing is often performed during initiation rituals or as a prelude to marriage. Designs in many cases indicate a woman's social status. For example, women from a chiefly family may have very elaborate designs all over the body while others who are lower in rank have much simpler tattoos. Additionally woman's tattoos document her progression through various stages of life, from puberty to marriage to pregnancy.

photos courtesy  Meena Kadri

All visible parts of the body can be tattooed: forehead, nose, chin, chest, breasts, arms, hands, legs and feet. Traditional patterns are created with dots, stars, and lines that are applied singly or in rows, depending on the part of the body. The tattooed signs have special symbolic significance: a circle symbolizes the full moon; a crescent the half moon; a circle with a dot in the middle is the sign of the sun; sets of parallel lines symbolize steps. Sometimes the tattoo depicts a peacock, a fish, and other animals or symbolic representations of religious myths.

photo courtesy Raj Kumar

photo courtesy Andrea Kirkby

photo courtesy Peter Barwick

Usually tattooing is made by pricking the skin with an instrument such as a needle or group of needles of wood, bamboo, bone or metal. Before use, the needle is dipped into pigment made by mixing soot with tannin extracted from the bark of the kino tree or with milk or urine. The needle's point is placed upon the skin and hit with a stick to puncture the skin and introduce the pigment through skin rupture.

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  1. It is amazing! They are actual walking works of art, with their life story drawn onto them. A powerful and romantic way of expressing yourself as a culture. Wonderful how different we all are!

    All Things Bright and Lovely

  2. All of these tattoos are beautiful. It is great to see that this traditional form of tattooing is still preserved in India.

  3. Interesting post about tattoos and how they have different meanings and symbolism for these women. The method of applying tattoos sounds like it hurts very badly, even more than the techniques used these days !!!

  4. I love reading posts like this as you can learn so much about different cultures. Throughout history men and women have always adorned themselves like this but it's fascinating to know the significance of the individual tattoos.