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Fading tattoo culture makes Kandha women happy

Tribespeople are glad to see the end of one tradition

Fading tattoo culture makes Kandha women happy

Women traditionally had their faces tattooed to save their dignity

Ritu Sharma, Kandhamal

August 23, 2013

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Aged tribal women in the Kandhamal district of Orissa, eastern India, are happy that at least one of their ancient traditions is fading away with time.

The women of the Kandha tribe, which dominates the district and after which Kadhamal is named, used to undergo the painful practice of tattooing their faces. They also had their ears pierced in more than 15 places, in order to wear small silver earrings.

“I was 16 when my family forcibly tattooed my face and pierced my ears. It was very painful but I had no choice. It was mandatory for every girl of my age,” says Philomena Digal, a 75-year-old in Jyodegiri village.

The tattooing was performed with needles dipped in an indelible black ink, made from the charring on the bottom of cooking utensils.

“Your face used to swell like a pumpkin and a lot of blood would ooze out,” says Digal. “Sometimes we’d get infections on our faces but they kept applying the black color again and again for a few days, to make the tattoos permanent.”

Now, she is happy to see the tradition fading. After her, no girl in her family has been subjected to the experience. In nearby Barakhama village, 65-year-old Martha Digal says that young girls now refuse to go through it.

“Neither my daughter nor my daughter-in-law have done it,” she says. “It involves a lot of pain and I’m happy they’re saved from it.”

She adds that her husband received a primary school education, which was unusual in earlier times, and also traveled outside the region. With the benefit of his more cosmopolitan outlook, “he wanted our daughter to be the way she is,” she says.

The younger generation is happy to escape the practice. “I don’t like it,” says 25-year-old Avanti Digal. “I don’t know how women used to do it.”

According to legend, local kings in ancient times would sexually exploit beautiful girls, so the tribespeople purposely disfigured their faces to save their dignity. It later became a tradition that eligible bridegrooms would consider girls with tattoos and earrings were saved from the kings.

Others believe that the tattooing was a way to announce that a girl had attained maturity and was ready for marriage.

Its passing is just one of many changes for the Kandhas, the largest tribal group in Orissa.

Roads, electricity and education have been the main agents of change, according to Krishant Nayak of Nandgiri village.

"It used to take two days to reach the nearest town on foot but now travel is much easier,” Nayak says.

As contact with the outside world became constant, thinking patterns and lifestyles have changed. Even peoples’ dressing and eating habits are changing.

Paved roads have replaced dirt tracks; electric lights have replaced oil lamps. Most homes have televisions now.

Tribespeople who used to go half naked now take pleasure in dressing in saris, shirts, T-shirts and trousers. Even the earthen utensils, from which the black tattooing ink was made, are not much used now; steel or brass vessels are preferred.

These changes, most young people believe, are a sign of going forward. "These changes are good," says Bilap Kumar Nayak, a 28-year-old in Barakhama. “We don’t want to remain backward all our lives. We want to move forward.”

And while the older generation is not ashamed of the old traditions, they don’t want the younger generation to follow them. “Everything changes with time,” says Mariam Digal. “We too will have to change." 

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