A Tribal Tattooing Case Study: Expressing Heritage and Pride through Ink

Tattooing is more than just an art form. It is a powerful means of expressing cultural identity, heritage, and pride. Throughout history, tattooing has been practiced by various ancient cultures, leaving behind a rich tapestry of traditions and beliefs. From the ancient Egyptians to the Scythian Pazyryk, Britons, Greeks, Romans, and Pre-Columbian cultures, tattooing has played a significant role in shaping cultural narratives and social hierarchies. The indelible markings etched on the skin have served as symbols of nobility, social status, identification, and even therapeutic purposes.

However, the significance of tattooing as a tribal art is facing the threat of extinction. As modernization and globalization seep into traditional societies, the cultural heritage embedded in these tribal tattoo designs risks being lost. To prevent this loss, it becomes essential to identify the market segment and develop appropriate strategies that favor the preservation and promotion of traditional tribal tattoo designs.

According to UNESCO, tattoos fall under the category of movable tangible cultural heritage, while also encompassing intangible aspects such as oral traditions, social practices, rituals, and traditional craftsmanship. For tribal communities, tattoos hold a profound significance beyond mere aesthetic appeal. They are woven into folklore, myths, and beliefs that recommend their wearing, albeit with variations in traditional stories and characters across different communities. Tattooing is deeply ingrained in the culture and serves as a visual representation of a community's uniqueness and identity.

Tattoos serve various purposes, each distinct to different cultures and individuals. In indigenous groups, tattoos signify attachment to a particular clan or community, symbolizing togetherness and shared identity. In modern societies, tattoos have become a means of individualistic self-expression, allowing individuals to stand out and showcase their uniqueness. Adornment is another purpose of tattooing, with urban populations using tattoos as fashion statements and enhancements of outer beauty. Conversely, there are tribes, such as the Apatanis of Arunachal Pradesh, India, who tattoo their women to deter rival tribes from abducting the most attractive individuals.

Social position and status are often communicated through tattoos in indigenous groups, serving as markers of eligibility for marriage, adulthood, or leadership roles. Certain tattoos are exclusive to individuals with special powers or positions of honor within the community. However, there have been instances where tattoos were stigmatized, associated with disrespect or taboo. In Western societies, tattooed individuals were historically marginalized, viewed as outcasts or criminals.

Tattoos have also been believed to possess healing powers, serving as alternative medical treatments in some cultures. However, it is important to note that improper hygiene during tattooing can lead to serious health risks, including skin infections and the transmission of diseases such as hepatitis or HIV/AIDS. Moreover, tattooing has had apotropaic associations in many traditional societies, serving as a means to ward off evil spirits or attract good luck.

As an intangible aspect of cultural heritage, tattooing encompasses a myriad of purposes and meanings across societies and time. It is an ancient practice with stories and artistic skills passed down from one generation to another, continuously evolving. By studying the Santhal tribe as a case study, we gain insights into how tattooing rituals transform over time within indigenous societies.

A Case Study of Santhal Tribe

The Santhal tribe, belonging to the Proto-Australoid racial group, is one of the oldest tribes in the Indian subcontinent. According to the Census of India 2011, they are the country's third-largest tribal group, with a population of 7.4 million. The Santhal tribe is mainly concentrated in the states of Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, and Assam, and can also be found in parts of Bangladesh and Nepal. Their primary occupation is agriculture, supplemented by hunting during festivals. The characteristics of Santhal society are evident through their festivals, marriage alliances, annual hunts, economic activities, and religious practices (Gogna, 2011).

Tattooing, known as 'Khuda' in the Santhali language, holds significant cultural importance for the Santhal tribe. While both men and women engage in body modifications, women predominantly wear tattoos, while men have a form of body modification known as 'sikka' or 'coin.' These coin-sized burn marks are typically found on the upper side of the left hand. The Santhal tribe has specific tattoo designs, each with its own symbolic meaning (Fig. 1). Some common tattoos among the Santhals include:

The Nekkii Khuda: The Nekkii tattoo depicts a wooden comb, representing beauty and grooming (Fig. 2).

The Had Khuda: This tattoo signifies belongingness to the Santhal community and is proudly worn by its members (Fig. 3).

The Kadam Baha: Kadam means flower in Santhali, and this tattoo represents the Kadam flower, symbolizing beauty and nature (Fig. 4).

The Pan Sakam: This tattoo represents the leaf of the betel nut, a significant element in Santhal culture (Fig. 5).

The Miru Khuda: Miru means Sun, and this tattoo symbolizes the worship of the sun, considered one of the most powerful deities among the Santhals (Fig. 6).

The Sim Kata: Sim refers to a hen, and kata represents its legs. This tattoo design resembles the legs of a chicken (Fig. 7).

During the field survey, these common tattoo designs were observed and photographed, but the reasons behind the repetitive use of these particular designs remain unknown. The Santhal community perceives tattooing as a ritual, focusing more on the virtue of wearing a tattoo rather than the specific pattern or design chosen (Ghosh, 2020).

The Santhal tribe's tattooing tradition reflects their deep-rooted cultural heritage and serves as a means of visual communication and identity expression within the community. Further research and exploration are needed to gain a comprehensive understanding of the cultural significance and evolving nature of tattooing among the Santhals.

Tattoo as Craftsmanship

Tattoos among the Santhal tribe are created during the winter season by a group of people known as 'Khudnis.' These individuals, who do not belong to the Santhal tribe, are most likely nomadic and followers of Islam. The tattooing process itself is quite painful, involving the injection of pigments into the skin using a bunch of fine needles. Traditionally, the pigment is made from the carbon remains found on the backside of cooking utensils. This carbon is mixed with water to create the ink used for tattooing. Interestingly, lactating 'Khudnis' sometimes use their breast milk instead of water. The pigment initially appears black but turns greenish once applied to the skin (Ghosh, 2020).

Tattoo as Ritual

Within the Santhal community, tattoos serve as a means to showcase a person's identity and social status, particularly among women. Tattoos are inscribed using various natural objects and are commonly found on both hands, along the neck, shoulders, and outer part of the palms. Unmarried girls typically have tattoos on their right hand, while married women adorn their left hand, although these rules are not strictly followed. In March 2019, during interviews and focused group discussions with approximately forty Santhal individuals, the importance of tattooing in their lives was explored. According to the elderly members of the tribe, the ritual of tattooing stems from the belief that nothing from the material world can be taken after death, except for tattoos or body marks, which are believed to aid survival in the afterlife. According to Santhali myth, a person without a tattoo would be consumed by insects after death (Kislaya, 2013).

Changing Pattern of Tattooing

With the process of modernization, the concept of tattooing is rapidly changing within the Santhal community. Perception regarding tattoos varies based on sex and age. Globalization connects tribal communities with the outside world, leading to accelerated cultural change. However, the impact of rapid cultural change tends to affect men more directly, leaving women less changed and anxious (Spindler and Spindler, 1958). As a result, traditional tattooing, both in terms of the process and motifs, remains more common among women, while men often opt for "modern" designs over traditional ones.

Formal education has also influenced perceptions, with the notion of an afterlife being questioned or denied. Consequently, young adults are losing interest in traditional tattooing, either ignoring tattoos altogether or getting very small ones solely to fulfill social norms. Kislaya (2013) noted that many young individuals who have tattoos wish to have them removed, associating a sense of inferiority with tattooing. This problem extends beyond the Santhals and is observed in other Indian tribal groups as well. For example, college-going girls of the Oraon tribe in Ranchi, Jharkhand, desire tattoo removal, considering exposed tattoos on their bodies embarrassing and anticipating differential treatment from others.

In contrast, tattoos have become fashionable for many individuals, particularly in urban areas. Tattoo parlors and studios are thriving, with urban citizens willing to spend significant sums of money to have patterns designed from afar permanently inked on their bodies. Unfortunately, there is a growing ignorance about ancient tattooing methods and motifs associated with their own culture. This highlights the need to conserve this art and custom. However, determining what should be preserved, whether it's the designs, the mythological tales related to tattoos, or the instruments, presents a significant challenge.

In order to regain popularity, traditional tattoos can be promoted in a modern context. Targeting a specific segment of the population as prospective consumers, positive psychological statements can be circulated through various electronic and print media. Aggressive demonstrations can be held in marketplaces, emphasizing aspects such as price, package, place, population, and performance. By promoting traditional Santhali tattoo designs in a similar fashion, there is hope for their resurgence. A case in point is the story reported by Das (2012) in the Times of India about a Manipuri artist who established a school where he teaches the ancient practice of tattooing to both experts and novices. Similar efforts can be made to promote Santhali tattoo designs, establishing a model tattoo parlor where individuals can get tribal motifs inked using modern tattoo machines while simultaneously experiencing the exhibition of ancient tattooing tools and learning about the stories and myths associated with tattooing in the Santhal tribe (Ghosh, 2020).


In conclusion, tattoo culture in India is an ancient and significant cultural heritage that has been practiced by various tribes for centuries. It has evolved as an ethnic marker and holds deep cultural and social significance within tribal communities. However, tattooing has faced challenges and changes over time due to factors such as globalization, modernization, and shifting perceptions.

The perception of tattoos varies greatly among different cultures and societies. It can serve as a form of body adornment, a means of expressing identity and social status, a ritual practice, or even a form of therapy. Tattoos can be seen as symbols of beauty, uniqueness, and individualism in modern society, while in tribal communities, they represent tradition, community belonging, and cultural heritage.

The Santhal tribe, one of the oldest tribes in the Indian subcontinent, provides a case study that exemplifies the changing patterns of tattooing. Traditional tattooing, primarily practiced by women, holds strong cultural and ritualistic significance. However, with the influence of modernization and formal education, younger generations are losing interest in traditional tattoos, associating them with inferiority or embarrassment.

To preserve and revive traditional tattooing practices, efforts should be made to create awareness among young people and promote traditional designs in a modern context. This can be done through media campaigns, market-driven services, and the establishment of tattoo parlors that showcase traditional tools, motifs, and stories associated with tattooing.

By bridging the gap between traditional tattooing and modern practices, the cultural heritage of tattooing can be revitalized and preserved for future generations. It is essential to understand and respect tribal cultures, their beliefs, and their way of life in order to ensure the conservation of this ancient art form.

The preservation of tattoo culture requires a balance between tradition and modernization, appreciation for the cultural significance of tattoos, and efforts to safeguard and promote this unique form of cultural expression.

We Make Ink Do More

Paul Park, The Xtreme Team

For more information on our TATTOO INK sets, please take a look at our piece on Xtreme Inks: Artist Collections.

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