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Expressions on the Skin: Tattoo Traditions of Nagaland

The enthusiasm for communication through creative expression is a remarkable aspect of human civilization. From inscribing marks on cave walls, humming tunes, to the development of scripts, the creative nature of mankind spontaneously reflects an interactive relationship with their surroundings in every community. The north-eastern states of India are home to ancient and traditional tattoo practices that are diverse and unique to the indigenous communities inhabiting these regions. One of the unique forms of expression are the ancient tattoo traditions. Tattoos are usually used as an indication of identity, as ornamentation, to heal diseases or as markers indicating the rites of passage in one’s life, such as puberty, marriage or childbirth.


Way to Kohima, Nagaland. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nagaland, often called the Land of Festivals, is well-known for its centuries-old tattooing culture. Although the practice of tattooing amongst the Nagas cannot be traced back to a specific period, it has been a part of their everyday lives since ancient times. Within many Naga communities, tattooing is a sacred art form. The symbols and lines used in their tattoos were also a medium of conversation. The Nagas consider the tattoos to be a mark of their identity and social status.

Traditionally, both men and women wore tattoos. The symbols and patterns differed according to clans, villages, customs or occasion and each of these symbols had a distinct and significant meaning.

In some Naga communities, tattooing was closely linked to headhunting. It is believed that all Nagas were born warriors, but a Naga was officially ascribed the warrior status only when he beheaded his enemy in war. The tattoos then served as a symbol of their victories. In early Naga societies, beheading an enemy was considered to bring prosperity to the warrior and his village. The warrior with the highest number of heads would get the most tattoos, and he was considered the bravest in the village. As a result of the Indian government’s ban on headhunting in 1960, both headhunting and the tattoo practices associated with it eventually faded away.


A Konyak Naga Tattooed Man. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Konyak Nagas, known to be the largest of all Naga tribes are primarily renowned for their face tattoos, which are done after puberty. The Konyak Nagas were divided into two groups based on the type of tattoos, Thendu and Thentho. The Thendu group of Konyak Nagas tattooed their entire face, while the Thentho group tattooed only their forehead and chin.

Tattoos in Nagaland were traditionally created using a method known as hand-tapping, which involved hammering a needle into the skin with a small tool. The first part of the tool consisted of rattan palm needles, clustered together and fixed to a piece of wood with the help of creepers that were used as threads. The second part of the tool was a hammer-like implement with a long handle that was used to tap the clustered needles to insert the pigment into the skin. Traditionally, the tattoos were geometric in design and the outlines of the desired shapes were made with the help of the bamboo implement.

The hand hammering technique required a bundle of needles arranged in a row in the form of a comb. These comb-shaped needles were gently inserted into the skin producing a chain of marks that formed the tattoo outline. Various tribes had their own local plants which they used to make the dye. The Tattoo pigment consisted of two ingredients, one being a natural dye known as yam-yak which was mixed with the ash that was derived from the resin of a burnt tree. The needle for piercing the skin was made from the thorns of a rattan palm or citrus fruit tree. Soft textured leaves with antiseptic properties were used to remove the excess pigment once the process of tattooing was over.

A number of local terms were used throughout Nagaland to describe tattoos. The tattoos on men mostly represented their warrior status, and the tattoos on women reflected their biological transformation with age. The men received tattoos on their chest, neck, face and arms, while women got their tattoos on their cheeks, chin, arms, legs and face. The ceremony of tattooing was considered auspicious and was usually followed by a grand feast with the entire village.

This unique tradition of tattooing, despite losing its prominence today, continues to be an essential part of the rich cultural heritage of Nagaland. It unveils a set of memories of the Nagas and reflects diverse creative expressions that silently narrate stories from the past.