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March 14 2001

A tribal custom of tattooing bodies has divided Church people and academicians in eastern India.

While some reject the tattoos worn by Santal people as superstitious and unchristian, others, including a Santal Catholic bishop, vouch for the health and cultural benefits of the tattoos.

Father Maria Arochim Alfonse Raj says the Santal, the third largest tribal group in India, believe that tattoos are talismans against evil spirits.

The Dumka diocesan priest, who has worked among Santal for the past 25 years but is not a member of a tribal group, advocates the discouragement of such beliefs as "bizarre and meaningless."

Father Raj alleges that the Catholic Church "discreetly keeps mum" as it "neither advocates nor condemns" the practice so as not to hurt Santal Christians´ sensitivities.

However, Bishop Julius Marandi of Dumka asserts that tattoos represent "a lot of positive aspects in life."

Tattoos have curative, decorative and totemic ingredients, though wrapped in magico-religious myths, the first Santal Catholic bishop told UCA News. "We are not against tattoos."

Sylvester Nag, 50, a Catholic Santal villager of Dumka diocese, told UCA News that "ojhas," Santal tribal priests, prescribe figures and motifs for tattoos to identify evil spirits afflicting people, and also suggest cures.

Sohan Soren, a Santal priest, called tattooing an ancient custom that appeals to youth and uneducated people.

According to Ursuline Sister Amulaya, "ojhas" discovered tattoos´ "enormous curative and therapeutic potential," but mixed this with black magic and bizarre beliefs to instill "awe and acceptance among common tribals."

The herbal medicine practitioner said tattoos can cure goiter, help relieve tumors and heal rheumatism. "When a child is slow in learning to walk, tattooing his loins helps a lot," added the tribal nun who works in Dumka, some 1,300 kilometers east of New Delhi.

Akhilesh Giri, an acupuncture expert, told UCA News that his studies on myths and methods on tattooing have revealed similarities with the Chinese practice of acupuncture.

Bishop Marandi has urged scholars to study tattooing scientifically.

"If tattoos really have curative value, it would be a great Santal contribution that may stand at par with Chinese acupuncture," said the bishop. Most of the 79,500 Catholics in his diocese are Santal.

Anthropologist Rajesh Ranjan, a university teacher, said tattoos have a "totemistic origin," but became associated over time with "magico-religious superstitions."

Traditionally, Santal priests used needles or thorns and color made from a mixture of charcoal and human milk or juice from wild fruit.

Poonam Besara, a Santal scholar at the Institute for the Study of Santal Culture in Pakur town, near Dumka, prefers to view tattoos as "a kind of permanent cosmetic" rather than therapeutic or superstitious.

Sunita Bhargava, a non-tribal who learned tattooing as a means of livelihood, said Santal women have scorpion, cock, horse or peacock designs tattooed on upper arms, around nipples, inside thighs and on buttocks to enhance beauty.

"The Santal believe these creatures possess great potency and such drawings enhance the girl´s vigor," said Bhargava, who claimed to have tattooed hundreds of women.

Paulus Hembrom, a Catholic Santal teacher at a Jesuit school, interpreted such tattoos in yet another way, as a rite of passage symbolizing a girl´s "fertility," indicating that "God´s work of procreation can begin now."