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Sunday, April 25, 1999
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Significance of tattooing amongst the Baigas

One of the tribes for whom tattooing is an integral part of their lifestyle is the Baiga tribe. This tribe inhibits the dense hilly forests in the eastern part of the Satpuras in Shahdol, Bilaspur, Rajnandgaon, Mandla and Balaghat districts,
Ruby Gupta

CURRENTLY tattooing is in fashion amongst the younger generation. However, not much is known about the cultural and historical significance of tattooing. For instance, there is an interesting legend that is associated with the art of tattooing. According to it, in the ancient days society was essentially caste-less.

Characteristic tattoos on the foreheads of Baiga womenThen one day God decided to designate castes. He gave the pen to the people who came to be known as Brahmins, the plough to the Gond and water to the Kaveat. All he had left was the Dhol that he gave to the Ojha. The Ojha then started making his living by singing songs and playing the dhol. This was not very lucrative and one day he came back home and found that there was nothing to eat. At this he got angry and beat up his wife. The Ojha’s wife became extremely upset and gave up food and water as a result.

After eight days, God was unable to see her suffering and decided to take matters in his own hands. So he sent for her. When she came, God took out a black fluid from the Sarei tree, and marked her face with a blackdot. This was the first tattoo. He told her to henceforth tattoo all the tribes that live in the hills. Through the application of this first cosmetic for the Adivasi women, she would be able to earn her livelihood. Since that day, tattooing as a means of beautifying the body has become immensely popular amongst the various tribes of India.

One of the tribes for whom tattooing is an integral part of their lifestyle is the Baiga tribe. This tribe inhibits the dense hilly forests in the eastern part of the Satpuras, in Shahdol, Bilaspur, Rajnandgaon, Mandla, and Balaghat districts. The Biagas are of Dravidian stock and are one of the eight extremely backward and primitive tribes of M.P.

It is believed that this tribe is an offshoot of the Bhuiya tribe of Chhota Nagpur. A distinguishing feature of the Baiga tribe is that their women are famous for sporting tattoos of various kinds on almost all parts of their body. The women who work as tattooing artists belong to the Ojha, Badni and Dewar tribes of M.P., and are called Godharins. They are extremely knowledgeable about the different types of tattoos preferred by various tribes. Their mothers traditionally pass on this knowledge to them. Tattooing amongst the tribals commences with the approach of winter and continues until summer.

Extensive tattooing on the backs of Baiga womenAt this time the Godharins visit various villages, and village fairs to practise their art and earn their living. Tattooing is not done in the rainy season due to the possibility of infection. The Baiga women pay the Godharins in accordance with their skill and the part of the body on which the tattoo is done. Usually small tattoos cost about Rs 5, almost the entire body tattooed costs Rs. 100.

The ink for the tattoo is prepared in a rather complicated manner. Firstly black til is roasted in a vessel. This is hand-pressed and made into horizontal rolls. These rolls are then burnt to obtain the ink. Sometimes Beja wood colour or tehra colour is also added to the ink to give it a rich colour. In some parts fluid obtained from the Malwan tree is used as ink. The part of the body, which is to be tattooed, is cleaned and the predetermined design is drawn upon it. Then, three or four needles are taken and dipped in the ink, and the skin is pierced with it. This piercing is done all over the design. This is quite painful and draws blood also Ramtila oil is applied on that part of the skin from which blood comes out. Girls getting themselves tattooed often scream with pain and roundly curse the Godharins.

After the entire design is covered with the needle pricks, the site is washed with cowdung water or soap-nut water. The soap-nut water provides a cooling effect and decreases the pain. These same soap-nuts are then strung on a string and put round the necks of small children. It is believed that this helps them in easy cutting of their teeth and also protects them from bad spirits. After a couple of weeks the needle marks disappear, but the tattoo remains for the entire life.

The men are usually forbidden from watching any woman getting herself tattooed. However, nowadays at fairs and weekly bazaars tattooing is done with the help of machines operated by dry cells. So this limitation is not applicable at such instances. But the Baiga women avoid getting themselves tattooed in fairs, or by a machine. They believe that if a man watches any woman while she is getting tattooed, then he will be unable to hunt for the sambhar deer. This is because he will be unable to locate the tell-tale marks like sambhar blood in the jungle. It is by seeing these marks that the Baigas determine the location of sambhar in order to be able to hunt it.

Amongst the Biagas tattooing is not done in any haphazard or individualistic manner. Actually, specific body parts are tattooed with specific designs at specific ages. Significantly it is only the women who sport tattoos. It is imperative that a girl gets her first tattoo by the age of eight years. Sometimes girls as young as five also get themselves tattooed. The parents consider it their sacred duty to get their daughters tattooed. The parents believe that if they give their daughter ornaments she can easily sell them, and so they might not last forever. But the daughter would never be able to sell the tattooes that they give her. According to tradition at the age of eight, a Baiga girl gets a "V" mark tattooed in the centre of her forehead. Apart from this, three dots, a vertical and horizontal line are also tattooed. The woman who does this tattoo is according to custom given some turmeric, salt, chilli, few other items, and one rupee wrapped in leaves of mahlol, all of which is placed in a Supa. She blesses the girl and is also paid a sum of Rs 20. Then at the age of 16, the girl’s back is tattooed. Various designs like chains, dots, circles, parallel, horizontal, slanting and vertical lines are made. After this dries up, about four months later, the thigh is tattooed. It is compulsory for a girl to get her thighs tattooed before she gets married. This too consists of various designs as made on the back. Subsequently, the entire leg and hands are also tattooed. According to convenience, a girl can get her chest tattooed after marriage also. Leaving the breasts, the rest of the chest is tattooed. Tattooing of this part of the body is the most expensive. Thus, by the age of about 20, a Baiga woman gets her entire body covered with beautiful and attractive tattoos.

Tattooing has a manifold significance. Apart from the ornamental value, the women go in for such a painful beautification process because of its health benefits. It is believed that as a result of tattooing the women never suffer from gas. They also become immune to weather changes. Poisonous substances do not have any effect on them. It increases their ability to fight blood-related disorders and also prevents arthritis.

It acts as a kind of acupressure treatment. The Baigas believe that tattooing is the main means by which they can beautify the body. It is also important because it is a permanent ornamentation that goes along with them even after death. It can neither be stolen, nor can it be taken away from them. Another reason why they sport tattooes is due to the belief that if they fail to do so, They would be tattooed with a huge ploughing implement after they die.

The different types of tattoos also act as an identification mark that distinguishes one tribe from the other. For instance, the women of the Oraon tribe living in Surguja and Raigarh districts get three lines tattooed on their foreheads.

The women of Bison Horn Maria tribe of Bastar get their forehead and chin tattooed in a traditional manner. The Bhil women have a characteristic bird like tattoo at the side angle of both eyes. This gives them a permanent long-lashed look. Incidently, the bird like motif and scorpian motif is found only amongst the Bils. The characteristic tattoo of the women of the Baiga tribe is a ‘V’ shaped mark at the centre of their forehead between the brow bone. There is also a broader significance behind tattooing. Tattooing serves to keep members of a particular group together. It is very important for people to feel a sense of belonging to a particular group.

And tribe-specific tattoing serves this important function. It generates a sense of belonging amongst the members of a particular tribe. This gives them security and satisfaction. This explains why certain figures have continued since the past several generations.Back

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