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It was a dark but sparkling work on the index finger of a Tamilian boy of our college. Pachukutharathu, he informed, flaunting a realistic gem-like 'tattoo' as we know it. Everyone was drooling over it, some fascinating about which one should they have, others asked about pains and precautions. Some critics warned him of health complications but he remained calm and told about the importance of body art in Tamil culture very proudly. His bubbly response made me wonder how it all started. How tattoos evolved from needle-burying to lesser paining modern machines, from geometrical patterns to realistic portraits?

Basically, it is an unsolved mystery as there is no exact record of the era of inking and its process. But as archaeologists tell, Godna was a copied pattern from pre-historic wall cravings by tribals. It was done by needle-burying the skin & fill in the soot mixed with animal fat to get the deep blue or dark green colour. The wounds thus formed, were then allowed to get infected so that the ink spreads wider making it larger, clearer and shinier. The Indian government banned this painful technique in the 1970s.

The reasons for tattooing vary from region to region depending on the community and locality as well as traditions and beliefs. The women of remote tribal areas of Arunachal Pradesh, for example, were tattooed because there was a fear of abduction by rival tribes if found the prettiest. So, it was done to deglamourise them at the same time giving them a permanent jewellery no one can snatch.
Similarly, when there were wars among the tribes, it was inking pattern that helped in counting the number of men martyred & to establish their cultural identity. Body art in Munda tribes of Jharkhand includes three straight vertical lines on foreheads of men symbolising their victory over Mughals thrice.

Puberty is a celebratory period and so is tattooing at this time. The Santhal women of Jharkhand are inked with floral patterns on their bodies and faces with a notion that the painful experience will lessen their labour pain & facilitate the motherhood. The Chhati godai is a custom of inscribing patterns on a girl's bosom at adolescence otherwise after marriage. My mother recalls a time when her grandma told her how significant inking was for a woman. A woman was rendered "marriageable" only if she had a  Godna or tattoo on her wrist and after marriage, she would have to get the initials of her husband inscribed on her arm to ensure their togetherness even after death in the spiritual world.

Tattoos can be used as a powerful tool to express oneself and to picturise the emotions associated with special events. The Ramnami tribe of Chhattisgarh were considered untouchables as they were prohibited from entering the temples and were compelled to use separate wells for fetching water. They inked their faces and bodies with the word Ram, the Lord who ate plums given by Shabari, a tribal devotee of Him. They did so to declare their deep faith and profound devotion to Lord Ram giving their molesters a message that the Lord is "theirs" too. He is equal for all & all are equal before Him. In this way, they fought caste discrimination & untouchability.

The modern urban Indian gets tattooed for many reasons varying from belief to fashion with designs like lover's name in a fancy font to realistic three-dimensional art. Body art has, thus, expanded from remote villages to ultra-modern cities, emerged from uglifying to embellishing the body and most importantly, to express anything worth telling to the future generations by wearing the emotion boldly.

By Gyanendra Yadav