Skip links

Tales, Taboos, and Tattoos: The History Behind Indian Inking

Tattoos have a vibrant and unique history in India. Long before the term tattooing was coined here, Indians called it gudna. It is a Sanskrit word that means ‘burying the needle’. Tattoos in India were not only used as adornment on the body but also for various other purposes.

For some, tattoos are an expression of love, like getting the name of their partners imprinted on the arm (then trying to cover it up after a breakup) or marking a small moon on the chest because that’s a tat no one will notice or judge you for having. Even though India is a place of boundless tales, only a  handful of them are associated with the history of tattoos.

A tribe residing in Ziro valley in Arunachal Pradesh, the Apatanis, have long used tattoos to protect their women. People from the surrounding districts would frequently abduct beautiful women from the valley. As a strategy to prevent this, the women of the tribe would get tattoos on their faces to make them ‘unappealing’. This practice was banned in the 1970s but is still exercised in some remote, interior parts of the North-East region.

A man and a woman from the Apatani tribe stand together.

©: NE TRIBE

Moving to southern India, tattoos here have had a whole different story and a completely different name – pachakutharathu. Korathi, a community from Tamil Nadu, would travel across the country searching for people who wanted to get a tattoo. These people often performed the job of tattooing in return for rice, plantains, betel leaves, and nuts. Korathis would then begin the procedure of tattooing by blessing the person and singing rhymes to divert their mind from the pain. The tattoos closely resembled a kolam, a traditional decorative art usually drawn outside homes, which was believed to confuse and trap evil spirits until the bearer is reunited with their deceased ancestors in the afterlife.

The Rabari, also known as Rewari or Desai, is another indigenous tribal caste in north-west India. The Rabari women from Gujarat refer to their tattoos as trajva. For them, getting a trajva is a sign of strength since the process of tattooing is harrowing and unbearable. The Rabari women of Kutch, on the other hand, practised tattooing for decorative, religious, and therapeutical purposes. 

Rabari woman of Gujarat sitting in a kitchen

In the central region, women of the Dhanuk tribe from Bihar were tattooed to make them less appealing. Even though women practised purdah, these tattoos were imprinted on the visible parts of their bodies to make them look ‘ugly’. Tattooing, for this tribe, was done primarily for two purposes – first, to protect them from sexual predators, and second, to represent that they belong to a lower caste.

A lady from the Dhanuk tribe with tattoos across her chest.

Much like the Dhanuk tribe, the Ramnami community used tattoos as markers for social identity. Nineteenth-century India saw the uprising of various socio-religious movements. One of these movements was the Ramnami Samaj movement which took place in Chhattisgarh. It was founded by scheduled caste Ram devotees as a peaceful resistance against the practice of untouchability in India. In this movement, Ramnamis imprinted Ram on their entire body to demonstrate that God is omnipresent and accessible to all. Today, while some view tattoos of their name or caste as a means to strengthen their community ties, others see it as an obstacle. Even though tattoos are no longer used as a branding tool, their relationship with caste hasn’t subsided. 

Ramnami man with 'Ram' tattooed on his body.

It is evident from these narratives that tattoos took on different meanings in different parts of the country. They have long been used for various purposes—marking, showcasing strength, and beautifying—but mainly to communicate beliefs. However, the practice today is considered controversial and western. With time, their meaning and significance have changed tremendously. Today, a typical conservative parent asks their children to refrain from getting a tattoo. While the younger generations use tattoos to express themselves, others still seem to have preconceived notions about them. The latter and some older generations believe that a tattoo reduces one’s job prospects and exudes criminality. But, how were these beliefs embedded into people? How did getting a tattoo correlate with criminality and reduced job prospects?

While we have varied views on varied concepts, one thing we can all agree on is the imprint the British rule left on India. During the initial stages of their rule, the British required participation from Indians in the governance of the country. They found how deep the roots of casteism were in India and portrayed tattoos negatively as markings of punishment and low caste ranking. By doing so, they not only stigmatised tattoos but also destroyed the importance they held for people.

Many well-paying jobs under the British Raj restricted people from getting any visible, permanent tattoos. Since men were the primary breadwinners for the entire family, they were forced to drop the age-old tradition of getting a tattoo. Women, on the other hand, stayed home and could carry the tradition forward, resulting in a greater number of tattooed women in the late 20th century.

The Britishers then stigmatised tattoos with criminality. They convicted thugs, a community classified by Britishers as wayfarers and serial killers. They were only released if they admitted to having the word ‘thug’ tattooed on their body. Tattooing thus became a symbol of punishment.

Even after India’s independence, tattooing was used as a form of punishment, as seen in the Jebkatri tattooing case of 1993. In the infamous case, three policemen tattooed ‘jeb katri’ (pickpocketer) on the foreheads of four women. These policemen were finally convicted in 2016 with three years of imprisonment.

Jeb Katri case women with 'Jeb Katri' tattooed on their foreheads

Women who were branded ‘Jeb Katri’ by the police in 1993. Photo: TS Bedi

©: The Tribune

Fast forward to present-day India, the society still has mixed views on tattoos. While one generation abhors them, others find it exhilarating and liberating. Youth today think long and hard before getting permanent tattoos. They have emerged as a worldwide sensation due to globalisation. They have a story and meaning which is understood by almost everyone.  For example, a semi-colon tattoo is not just pretty but also a movement that spreads awareness about mental illness. While some get this tattoo to show their struggle with mental health, others get it to show their support for people who are struggling with the same. 

Selena Gomez with semicolon tattoo on her wrist

©: Pinterest

Tattoos have gained an aesthetic appeal, attracting more people each day. Ironically, the lines outside the tattoo parlours are increasing but traditional Indian tattoo artists are losing their livelihood. Tattoos are considered a western concept but people have forgotten that the roots of inking were established in India long before it became popular in the West. With the inclusion of various designs and techniques, tattooing has emerged as an art form. It’s fascinating to see the taboo around tattoos fade but at the same time, it’s important for people to cherish India’s knowledge about tattoos.

Share On:

Leave a comment