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Fading Ink Diaries Part I: A Journey Across The Naga Hills To Capture The Dying Art Of Traditional Naga Tattoos

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Posted by: NeBuzz Uploaded: 28-Apr-15





Displacement has always been an integral part of evolution, while culture and tradition have historically, always played a losing hand to it. But we owe it to ourselves to understand our unique heritage before we merge into an amalgam of standardized global trends.  

We belong to the glorious state of Nagaland, which is situated in the northeast region of India. For the uninitiated, Nagaland “The Realm of the Warriors”, as it was called, is one of the eight northeastern states of India inhabited for thousands of years by several groups of people of mongoloid descent. Clubbed under the blanket term of ‘Nagas’ by the British for administrative convenience, we are people comprised of several communities, each having our distinct dialect and set of cultural practices.

In the year 2011, we set out on a mission to document the dying tradition of tattoo making among the several Naga tribes who practiced the art in the past before the advent of Christianity, which brought with it many benefits like education, sanitation and better living conditions. It released us from our isolation, but in that process it displaced a huge part of our culture and our practices; thereby changing the entire social milieu that we lived in.

At the onset of this project, the foremost of our concerns was the loss of culture and to redress the cultural amnesia that we as modern Nagas were suffering. 
Our team comprised mostly of Nagas (with the exception of our dear friend Saptarshi Bhattacharya who is an honorary Naga and avid lover of bamboo shoot and axone) who had spent most of our lives studying and working outside the state. It was an opportunity to rediscover our home. This was a journey that re-introduced a part our rich heritage to us. 

TATTOO TRADITION

Tattoos have been related to the primordial human tendency of expression. This ancient practice of marking designs and patterns on the most intimate of canvas known to man, the human skin, has been an intrinsic art form among many cultures around the world.

Among several Naga communities like Konyak, Ao, Chang, Khiamnuingan, Phom, Sangtam, Pochury, Yimchungru and Tikhir; the tradition of tattoos was in the past, an intrinsic part of their cultural practices. 
The lack of documentation and the fact that most of the people who remembered the past were old and marginalized by development, made our task quite challenging. But what followed was an experience of a lifetime that changed our perspective for good. 

During the course of our journey, we met several cultural experts, administrative heads and some of the last remnants of our headhunting past who shed light on the subject of tattoos. There were several reasons as to why the Naga communities used the epidermis to express the art form. 

fading ink tattoos revelation

HEADHUNTING

Nagaland is famously referred to as, ‘The Realm of Warriors’, primarily because of the ancient practice of headhunting, which leads us to the subject of traditional tattoos. The most common reason for tattooing among the men folk in the various Naga communities was headhunting. Tattoos were marked to indicate their headhunting exploits. The world might have thought of us as savages because of this horrifying practice. Truth be told, it is hard to imagine yourself living in those times.
J.H Hutton, the Deputy Commissioner of the Naga inhabited region, conducted several expeditions into the Naga Hills in 1921 and in 1923. This is what he had to say about the practice of head taking after one of his expeditions:

“The real basis of headhunting among all Naga groups is the belief that the head is the seat par-excellence of the life essence. This life essence is brought back to the village in the head and put in a sacred place from which apparently the life essence diffuses to the villagers, their crops and their stock. This explains the necessity for taking heads to replenish life in the village when the population has been weakened by disease and scarcity.”

RITE OF PASSAGE

Tattoos were marked to indicate that the person had reached a certain stage in life. We learnt during the course of our journey that for the Khiamnuingans from Tuensang district and Aos from Mokokchung district, that tattooing was a rite of passage to adulthood. 
The females from the Ao, Konyak and Pochury  tribe could not get married without getting a tattoo. Tattoos were a sign of eligibility when it came to matters of matrimony in the past.

MARK OF DIFFERENTIATION

Tattoos were also used as a mark of differentiation among the Konyak communities. Tattoos were a means to differentiate which clan, village and region you belonged to. In Mon district we met up with Reverend Chingang, an authority in the subject of the region’s history. He resembled a calm and peaceful hermit as he patiently recounted to us the happenings of an immobile but memorable past.

A SAFE PASSAGE IN THE AFTERLIFE

The Khiamnuingan tribe directly connected their tattoos to their understanding of human death and to the spiritual essence of their pagan beliefs before the advent of Christianity changed it all. Like the Khiamnuingans, the Yimchungru people of Tuensang district also believed that tattoos were directly connected to their spiritual essence. They believed that tattoos provided a safe passage in the afterlife.  Much like the tradition of payment of coins to Kharon (or Charon), the ferryman in service of Hades, the Athenian god of the netherworld.

PROCESS AND TOOLS

The process and the tools of making the traditional tattoos were basically dependent on the resources available to them from their respective surroundings. The implements varied from the use of resin of pine trees to the thorns of a cane plant and in some cases the use of indigo leaves in some cases. As opposed to the modern tools of tattooing, one can only imagine the pain involved in getting traditional Naga tattoos on your skin. 

As we traveled all over the Naga Hills to hear the last syllables about a dying tradition from the old and ageing, we realized what we had lost to development and it saddened us. But at the same time we had truly understood that the transformation of our society was inevitable. Life in the past was very difficult and Christianity was welcomed after the initial few years of hostile reluctance. Today, most of the Naga population follows Christianity and it transformed our ruthless and savage society and taught us to be kind and compassionate.

The revelation from our journey was that the world, in which we live in, does not exist in one absolute sense but as a manifestation of the infinite human imagination. For every civilization that moves ahead, it is important to remember what was left behind.

Fading Ink Diaries is a four-part series - Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4

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