Despite the intense appreciation and prevalence of tattooing in the “Hindu belt” of Asia, specifically the countries of Nepal, India and Indonesia, we hardly ever hear or read about the tattoo traditions of these countries.
Tattooing is an integral part of the lifestyle, and although the artists are not held in high esteem (as are those in Southeast Asia), the tattoos themselves are given incredible importance. They are seen to help determine destiny. A profoundly idealistic and communal usage of art in this region is what makes it so intriguing.
Tattoos are not a personal decision — many things aren’t — but one the whole family is concerned with. What is etched into people’s skin, in a life lived in close quarters, is seen to help determine the fate of those around them. To them, tattooing is just another condition and result of dharma, or the cycle of eternal existence, which is an integral part of the Hindu belief system.
It’s a practice woven into their daily lives and one that they believe will help to determine what will happen in the afterlife. Like all of the arts there, it is a discipline into which the artists are born and must dedicate their lives, by practicing frequently and making offerings to the appropriate gods. The tattooist is bound by caste, and must do what was predetermined before birth.
While there are hundreds of castes too complex to go into here, tattoo artists are in a low sub-caste of the artisan class, the third lowest out of the four, not including the casteless Dalits, or ‘Untouchables.’ In this commonly understood hierarchy, they are “below” warriors, and considered more “worthy” than laborers.
Tattoos in Goa
On the Western coast of India at the old Portuguese colony of Goa, I got my first view of Hindu tattooing and its traditions. My friends and I encountered a nomadic group of Chenchu women, a tribal clan with gypsy ancestry, believed by some social scientists to be direct descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel.
We were walking along a deserted beach when they suddenly appeared — ghost-like through the thick monsoon fog. They had thick black hair ornately braided and wrapped around their heads like crowns, and silver piercings through their septums and nostrils. Some of them had bone stretched through their ears. Although we were struck by their beauty and enchanted with their body decorations, we couldn’t have felt more different from these women, who live in a rustic world ruled by family and religion. They carried bundles of goods on their heads and didn’t hesitate to surround us like a cyclone to play a common gypsy game of “dress-up the foreigners and see what they’ll buy.”
Although the women were hoping to make a big sell on us, when they began to whip jewelry onto us, aggressive but friendly, as they surely had done a milliontimes before with other travelers, we discovered with delight that they had a lot of tattoos.
The encounter then steered away from the jewelry fashion show and into a deeper level. I saw that one woman — the grandmother of the otherwise youthful bunch — had tattoos covering her arms and wreathed around her shoulders in a spider web-like design of faded black. When she noticed my enthusiasm she timidly, but with a glimmer of pride, hiked up her sari to reveal her feet and calves, which were also covered with random animist symbols. I kicked myself for not having my camera because her upper body was covered in some of the most beautiful, old, faded tattoos I had ever seen.
One of the women understood a little Hindi and another some English, so we managed to communicate a little, although their first language, was an obscure dialect not even recognized by the government. When we told them we were from the United States, they didn’t believe us, because there’s a common misconception in India (as a result of ‘Dynasty’ re-runs on TV) that all people in the U.S. have blond hair, blue eyes and gold rings on every finger.
They explained to us that they’d all received the majority of their tattoos when they were children. The oldest woman indicated that she had applied some of the younger women’s tattoos herself, many years ago. They asked us if our mothers had applied our tattoos and if we’d received them as children.
When they were leaving, they suddenly realized dejectedly that they’d made no money off of us as intended, but they rubbed and kissed our tattoos, exclaiming that they were lucky and beautiful. We left feeling flattered and wishing that our tattoos were met with such enthusiasm everywhere.
As I traveled around the continent more, I learned it wasn’t unusual to get surrounded by people lining up to marvel at and touch my tattoos for good luck. Never once was I asked why I had them, as I so often had in the States.
In a land with an entirely different culture, where you constantly find yourself hitting a brick wall of far off stereotypes, tattoos are a key to meeting at a common reality. I would automatically feel close to the people there with whom I shared a love of tattoos, and often they would invite me into their homes for tea and a round of tattoo show and tell. It was infinitely more rewarding to wear tattoos in Asia.
Through these exchanges and my own investigations of the tattooing traditions in India and Nepal, I began to piece together the incredibly large history of its usage. I learned that women (like the ones in Goa) were predominantly in charge of developing and maintaining the art.
Although the region is extremely large and the home to many different cultural groups this is one generalization I found to be universally true among all of them. Since women are the ones typically in the cultural role of being concerned with beautification and spiritual matters (which tattooing is considered an integral part of) they are the portion of the population whose job it is to wear the motifs and to tattoo babies while they are still weeks old.
The commonly-pictured Indian symbol representing ‘OM,’ made up of Sanskrit characters is the most commonly seen tattoo on the Hindu subcontinent. If a mother performs the decreasingly common practice of tattooing her child during its infancy, this is one symbol she’ll surely apply. It can often be spotted between the thumb and forefinger on the hands of people from all sectors of the population. The hard-working peasants believe the symbol helps to keep away evil spirits and reminds their children throughout life to praise the gods. The superstitious hope is that this praying will bring luck to their impoverished life (or at least the next one). This is not the only tattoo seen there, though.
Many symbols, including the lotus flower and insignias representing certain Hindu gods are all popular tattoo subjects. Hindu scriptures are tattooed also, and people who never learned how to read may find themselves living their life, including childhood, with such a scripture permanently etched onto their arm.
Rural mothers, in addition to tattooing these symbols on their children, will sometimes tattoo their children’s names and birth dates on them, in order to better keep track of these facts, in a life passed without commodities such as paper and calendars. Since Hindus believe in a life cycle of many reincarnations-and because tattoos are not considered taboo-this is not looked at as a big deal and it’s never questioned. It’s just a part of this life, actually just a fleeting moment, within the continual millions of others, past and forthcoming.
For comparison with our way of thinking though, imagine how many questions you would face in mainstream America if you had your name and birth date tattooed in faded scrawl on your forearm. In the countryside of India and Nepal this is perfectly normal.
Surprisingly enough, most of the recipients don’t mind having been tattooed involuntarily in infancy. The devout majority believe that the religiously significant tattoos have power to allot them a better place in the next life — but only if work with complete faith inside and out. The tattoos generally fade into their skin quite quickly under the hot tropical sun, and for this reason, they always appear ancient — even on children — as if they could actually be left over from another life. The people find it unusual, but are delighted, when you comment on them.
Traditional Tattoos in Nepal
A woman I knew in Nepal, a gardener and the mother of several children, had a few randomly placed tattoos on her hands and feet, as women in that country often do. Among all the others, she had one machine-done tattoo on her forearm of Krishna, the infamous lover of Hindu mythology. She didn’t receive it at an official shop, but rather at a small- time circus bazaar that passed through her Katmandu neighborhood.Hindu-tattoo-tradition-dee-dee
The first time she showed it to me she insisted on a quick spit shine before displaying it. She was proud of this piece, and she was probably the first woman in her village to have a machine-made tat. It was crude by our standards, but over the time I knew her I saw that, for her, it was a symbol representing her faith in a better life the next time around, in the next incarnation. She explained to me that she was forced to sell, in desperation, her gold jewelry, which was part of her dowry from when she was married, in order for her family to survive hard times gone past, but it was obvious her Krishna tattoo was one aspect of her identity that she could afford to value. It could not be sold or taken away, and for this permanence it was a precious possession.
This woman, whom I only knew as Dee-Dee, meaning older sister, (in Nepal the people use kinship terms to address each other) was different than many others because she had received this tattoo by choice, as an adult, and as a paying customer. Her husband actually paid for her to get it, (this is unusual —men don’t generally go out of their way to do things for their wives there) as if he hoped some of the luck it would bring might rub off on him.
The permanent illustration of Krishna on her skin was a form of spiritual insurance, in a land where there is no other. It was a hopeful guarantee that, in the next life, she will climb the karmic ladder and come into life of a higher caste and financial position.
This combining of modern equipment with the traditional ideals in tattooing is more recent on the Indian subcontinent than other parts of Asia. In my travels through India and Nepal, covering a time period of ten months —and all but the remotest regions — I only came upon a few ‘official’ tattooing shops (which still aren’t very official — or necessarily reliable) and every single one of them catered to the tourist trade. They were all located on various parts of the Arabian coast, on the main stretch of the typical travelers trail through Asia.
No average Indian would go into one of these shops, other than to look at the crazy Western kids. What we pay for a simple tattoo is equivalent to about two months salary for them, and that’s taking into consideration that the shops there give tattoos at a price (generally $40-$50 per hour) we’d consider very reasonable.
The shops I visited were run mostly by old men, because the actual professional world of art is one that only men may enter (it would be blasphemous for a woman to touch all these strange men!). All of the artists used either questionable hand-made guns or the common mail-order variety from the West. Most of them said that they had learned to tattoo in the old days with just a single needle (one of the artists told me his mother first taught him this method) and only picked up a gun when they saw an opportunity to make money during the ’60’s-when India was becoming a popular destination for young I travelers.
They all seemed delighted to have found a profession where they could be working for foreigners, which allowed them to break free of of caste restrictions and receive relatively comfortable incomes doing so. Unfortunately, most of the customers visiting the shops were not too demanding of the artists and they typically just wanted a flash design.
Embracing Modern Tattoos in Indonesia
Further over into the Pacific, the people of Indonesia also have a Hindu tattooing tradition that not much knowledge has been gathered on, with other tattoo practicing societies nearby receiving more of the spotlight.AW-hindu-tattoo-bali-beach-boys
In many ways Indonesia, particularly the more modern islands of Java and Bali, are places more advanced than India and Nepal in their evolution of the art. Unfortunately, most of the customers visiting the shops were not too demanding of the artists and they typically just wanted a flash design. Further over into the Pacific, the 3 India and Nepal in their evolution of the art.
The old tradition has practically died out but the young have adopted the art and transformed it. The tattoo wearers there, these days mostly young men, (although there are still some women around who have the small simple hand-done designs) don’t hold much religious significance in the art, even though they still often utilize designs of Hindu deities.
Safi, a popular tattoo artist in Bali, says he respects the ancient tattooing traditions of his country, but he aspires to emulate the sophistication of his mentor, the Australian artist, Bernie Luther.
In a seaside interview with him at Kuta Beach, his home, Safi said about the art, “I’m glad we have the tradition because it gives me more of a reason to continue with tattooing instead of some other art, and I love tattoos. I draw a lot of inspiration from the old style of the art, but around here people want more modern stuff. I use all European equipment and most importantly, good ink. I think we’re becoming competitive with the artists in Europe, America or Australia.”
After taking a look at Safi’s work, you may agree, and he is only one among a growing population of tattoo artists working there now. Unlike Indonesia, where an integration of modern machine work and traditional tattoos is occurring smoothly, the Indian sub-continent still has a long way to go before it is known as a modern tattoo emporium.
Western tattoo techniques are now making a minor invasion, but nowhere near as quickly as in other south Asian countries. The trend can be measured by the increased number of visitors, to Thailand (the most popular place to receive a tattoo in Southeast Asia these days) or Indonesia to receive work, while very few tattoo fiends are bound specifically for India or Nepal to get them. At the same
time, after having a tradition that outlived those of other Asian countries, the old application of the art is dying out in all but the most remote of villages.
The increase in world-wide communications and quest for Western ideals (reminiscent of the days of the colonizers) is causing the Indian subcontinent to leave the traditional use of the art behind — without bothering to create a new one.
The well-off population considers them a symbol of the ‘backward’ classes, although they are conveniently forgetting that higher castes traditionally received them also.
There is little interest among the educated in tattoos of any sort these days, even the young MTV-exposed generation, whose parents seem to have an influence that hits closer to home. Also, limited concern by sociologists about tattooing in a land heavily-layered with arts, has allowed for the practically undocumented death of this fascinating tradition.
Ironically, while Western taboos are what is killing the art over there, we are seeing an increase of Hindu symbols in tattoo designs over here. The ‘OM’ symbol, the lotus flower, and colorful Hindu deities, (the most popular being Ganesha, the elephant- headed God of prosperity, and Shiva, the Himalayan-dwelling pot smoker in the Hindu holy book, the Ramayana) and even Sanskrit characters, are showing up in tattoo portfolios, magazines and on the flesh everywhere.
As long as we’re adopting this many Hindu ideals, we might as well go all the way — cover our bodies with religious symbols, tattoo our children, and bank on the hope that we’re headed to Nirvana.