Tattooing has become a fashion today all over the world. Nevertheless, in the past times printing tattoos in your body had significantly different meaning and values. This tradition stretches from India to Great Britain and Polynesia to Nepal. Though, it has long history of 6500 to 12000 years (Neolithic Era), in ancient China it was considered as barbaric practice and during Qing dynasty (1636 to 1912 A.D.) it was done to the face of criminals. In the mid-19th century, Baron Haussmann, while arguing against painting the interior of Parisian churches, said the practice "reminds me of the tattoos used in place of clothes by barbarous peoples to conceal their nakedness". (Wikipedia)
In Nepal, tattooing had different cultural and traditional values. Even though, the real date of its advent cannot be traced exactly. It was differently accepted by different communities of Tharu, Gurung, Magar and Newar in Nepal.
Tharu women had ancestry from Rajasthan while Men were Nepali and women tattoos are painted when they are married (INDITales). It tells that Tharu women somehow had to accept tattooing as an imposed tradition at their marriage. It might be significant in a sense that it showed their loyalty to a man as well as sign of married woman. Moreover, Explore Homalaya states that, “in Tharu tribe Tattoo or ‘Godhani’ are the part of their social norms. Ladies decorate their hands, limbs, legs and chest with symbolic designs of nature mythological stories and historical events. It is a common Tharu belief that one will find a peace of heaven.” Though, it is hard to find out why men were not tattooing their bodies? So how would they be able to find solace in the heaven after life?
Newar is another ethnic community which follows this as an ancient tradition having its own distinct norms. “Mostly popular amongst women, getting inked during Jatras (festivals) and Melas (carnival) like Rato Machindra Jatra, Indra jatra in the Kathmandu valley was quite popular during the old days especially in Tebhal and Thimi, Bhaktapur. Lha: Chyogu as called in Nepal(?) Bhasha, ‘Lha’ means ‘flesh’ and ‘chyogu’ means ‘writing’; the tattoo in the legs of Newari women symbolizes her strength. And an interesting belief about getting a tattoo is when a person dies he takes nothing but the tattoos on his body. And on the way to heaven, if one finds hardships he/she can sell the tattoos and therefore make a way to heaven more comfortably. In the Syashyas tribe in Newar community, designs in legs and hands can be seen in the old Jyapu women’s around Bhaktapur and Patan. (Explore Himalaya)
It can be seen that even in Newar community of Kathmandu valley had traditional norm to imprint tattoos with the belief of afterlife for women. Why it was necessary to follow only by women? Had it only the socio-cultural value or it was an imposition of certain socio-psychological values of gender biasness?
Tattooing in other two tribal communities of Nepal, Gurung and Magar also show controversial values. It could be considered as an ancient heritage of these communities or the exposition of social imbalance between male and female. “In Gurungs and Magar, tribe ladies decorate their faces and near lips with designs of sun, moon and the stars. They used the designs as beautifying process and a symbol of good luck for them and their families. Some even believe that the trend of getting their face inked, started in ancient times when the king used to take any women he wished. And to keep the women safe, they started making face designs to distract the king from taking their women in ancient times.” (Explore Himalaya)
Tattooing might have been accepted by the different society now and it might have an ancient value, it can further be understood that it had started with the ideology of indifferent norms. It clearly shows that only women had to take some kind test to gain peace in the heaven and it also shows that women had to be beautiful by decorating their body, accepting the unbearable pain, imprinting pictures onto the body is not easy to go through.
A social science student, Sharif states different views, that “some believe that you carry only your tattoos with you when you die, and it is like a mark that helps your mother to find you so that she can take you to the afterlife and some say the tattoos are done to replace jewels, some say it’s to meet their mother in heaven who will recognize her with the tattoos while some say, the tattoos started to stop men from kidnapping and trafficking women as these body marks make them appear less attractive. But all the theories are now useless since Pano Devi’s granddaughter would not be doing the tattoos anymore because she has aimed to be in Nepal Police, and the department does not accept people with tattoos on their bodies.”
Tattooing in Nepal: Cultural Heritage or a Gender Imposition?