Are Tattoos Significant in South Asian History?

Tattooing is an age-old art form, but how significant is the practice in South Asian culture? Let’s find out.

Are Tattoos Significant in South Asian History - f

The stigma surrounding tattoos is slowly dying out.

Tattooing is an art form that has been recognized across the world and throughout different cultures, but how significant is the art form in South Asian history?

Tattoos have been around in India since ancient times with the custom being used across various communities and tribes.

Whilst they are often known for beautifying the human body in western society, South Asian cultures show a much deeper meaning behind tattoos.

DESIblitz looks at the significance of tattoos in South Asian history and how skin-deep the tradition of tattooing truly is in the community.

History of Tattooing

Are Tattoos Significant in South Asian History?Scrolling through Instagram or Pinterest, you may think that the nature of tattooing is a western practice, however, that is not the case.

Tattoos and the art of tattooing have a long and rich history across different cultures around the world.

In places like South Asia, tattooing can be traced back to medieval periods in India and is exemplified in many tribal communities across South Asia.

In many South Asian cultures and tribes, tattoos are significant for a wide variety of reasons including religion, spirituality, storytelling, marking significant life events, coming-of-age moments, and identity.

In ancient India, tattoos have been popular amongst certain tribes and castes, where individuals used tattoos to mark themselves as part of these groups but also for religious and spiritual reasons.

For example, communities like the indigenous Baiga tribe in Madhya Pradesh in central India have been adorning tattoos for centuries, believing them to be symbolic of protection and feminine beauty.

The Hindi term ‘Godna’ is commonly used in Northern and Central India when discussing a type of tattoo artistry and is the tattooing art form in which the women in the Baiga tribe take pride.

Other tribes in India like the Gond tribe, the Naga tribe, the Toda tribe, and the Apatani tribe all hold similar connections to tattooing in their history like the Baiga tribe and continue to honour these traditions to this day.

Tattoos for many tribes are significant for religious purposes as well as oral memory as they tell stories and values passed down by previous generations.

Though permanent tattoos do hold significance in South Asian history, many individuals primarily think of henna tattoos when thinking about Indian tattoo culture.

Henna tattoos, also known as mehendi, also have a vast Asian history.

Henna is a dye and paste made usually from dried and powdered plant leaves and leaves a temporary stain on the body once applied.

Whilst it does not produce a permanent tattoo on the skin, it is pertinent to note that it is a form of tattooing the skin and indicates the early connections between tattoos and South Asia and the longevity of tattooing practices in this region.

Thus, the tradition of body art produced from temporary or permanent tattoos is nothing new in South Asian culture and holds a deeper history than pictures on Pinterest boards may show.

Stigma against Tattoos

Are Tattoos Significant in South Asian History?Despite certain cultural and religious forms that tattoos take on across different South Asian cultures, there exists a modern stigma against tattoos in the South Asian community.

With the increasing westernisation of cultural practices, tattoos have become a subject of intense debate across western society.

They have been negatively perceived in certain western spheres by being labelled as tacky or as signs of deviance and in the past have even been reasons for prejudiced attitudes in the workplace.

54-year-old Gita Sharma* says: “I certainly don’t want my son or daughter getting a tattoo, I think it will decrease their chances of getting a respectable job and they won’t be taken seriously in a workplace environment.”

Thus, in certain pockets of the South Asian community, some members choose to follow these western attitudes or approach matters such as tattoos and piercings conservatively.

Due to the westernisation of tattoos and tattooing practices, many South Asians now view tattoos as a western practice despite the rich South Asian history they have.

The commercialisation and increasing self-expressive attitudes towards tattooing are also a large reason for the stigma in the South Asian community against tattoos as they are no longer viewed with meaning by many South Asians.

This has led some South Asians to view tattoos as futile body art that is permanently marking the body for no real reason.

However, this is not the case with all South Asians in the community as evolving and progressive attitudes in the community may mean the stigma surrounding tattoos is slowly dying out.

21-year-old Jayna Lad, who currently has four tattoos says: “I think the stigma exists mainly with older generations and with younger generations this stigma doesn’t really exist as I know many people in my generation who have tattoos or are planning on getting them.”

Thus, amongst younger generations, there is a growing acceptance of tattoos prompted by mainstream and popular culture and changing attitudes in the community which may push more individuals to get tattoos.

Identity Markers

Are Tattoos Significant in South Asian History?Tattoos have also been used by many South Asians to signify one’s identity, social status and sometimes even caste.

For instance, members of certain tribes, castes or groups in ancient India saw tattoos as a way to maintain tradition meaning they had tattoos of specific designs that identified them as part of a particular community.

The Ezhava tribe residing in Kerala were believed to have tattoos on their forearms or wrists that were usually geometric shapes or symbols that signified their caste.

However, these caste-based tattoos which still exist to this day are problematic and have led to caste-based discrimination in the South Asian community.

Tattoos were also used in ancient India as a symbol of defiance against caste-based discrimination by a low-caste Hindu group called the Ramnami Samaj nicknamed the tattooed rebels.

The Ramnami Samaj tattooed their bodies with the Hindu God’s name, ‘Ram’, more than 100 years ago, in an act of defiance and devotion after they were denied entrance to temples and forced to use separate wells.

Tattoos have often been seen as acts of rebellion across the world as the Ramnami Samaj group displayed and are still to this day seen as a rebellious act by some members of society.

The Ezhava tribe and the Ramnami Samaj’s tattoos are not the only instances where Indians have expressed their identity and beliefs with tattoos, history and present-day society shows several instances where tattoos are markers of identity.

Historically, many South Asians choose to get tattoos relating to their culture or religion not only to show devotion to God but to highlight how culture is a huge part of their identity and to show pride in it.

However, due to increasingly changing attitudes, tattoos are now seen more often as forms of art or self-expression which prompt more individuals to get them done.

Though some individuals still get them to express their identity, many South Asians nowadays are getting tattoos purely for the fun of it and moving away from tattoos that are cultural or religious.

Gender Divide

Are Tattoos Significant in South Asian History? - 1Though tattoos are for everyone, regardless of gender, in present-day society there exists a gender divide regarding tattoos in the South Asian community.

Traditionally, men in the South Asian community are more often seen proudly displaying tattoos and having tattoos in areas that are more visible in comparison to women in the community.

Thus, there exists a peculiar stigma attached to women getting tattoos in the South Asian community in comparison to men.

This may be because historically tattoos have been associated with masculinity meaning women may be seen as ‘unfeminine’ if they get tattoos.

This divide also exists in working within the tattoo industry itself as it is a predominantly white and male-dominated industry.

In an interview with Bustle, Leicester-based tattoo-artist, Heleena Mistry talks about this divide as an individual who has tattoos herself and works in the industry:

“I didn’t fit the stereotypical tattoo artist ‘look’ and to this day, I don’t.

“[I was told] that brown girls shouldn’t get tattoos, let alone do them on other people.”

In the interview, Heleena also discusses the various setbacks she faced as a South Asian woman, working in the tattoo industry and the invisibility of South Asians she has witnessed in the industry at large.

However, this gendered divide is rooted in irony as it doesn’t take into consideration that women in the South Asian community have been getting tattoos for centuries in India.

For example, women in the Kutia Kondh tribe in East India have been getting tattoos as a normalised practice for decades, with many tattooing symmetrical lines on their faces to recognise each other in the spirit world.

Thus, this stigma surrounding which gender can proudly display their tattoos is rooted more so in a western standpoint than anything else.

The rich history of tattooing in South Asia thus prompts individuals to look deeper at tattoos as more than just a beauty modification or marker but something that holds tradition and history.

There’s no denying that the practice has evolved into a global phenomenon.

The practice of tattooing has transcended over time, moving from religious and traditional practices to symbols that are purely semantic and now to markers of self-expression.

Whilst there is no doubt that tattoos are a global practice, it is important to acknowledge the rich cultural practices and history behind the artistry itself.

Tiyanna is an English Language and Literature student with a passion for travel and literature. Her motto is ‘My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive;’ by Maya Angelou.

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