Words || Masumi Parmar
After months and months of dreaming about my tattoo, I finally got it done last month. Most people’s first comment is, “Is that a real tattoo? It looks like henna!” And they’re right, it does look henna-esque but it wasn’t inspired by the beauty of decorative henna. The combination of dots and ‘stick figures’ that decorate my hand are called Trajva and they come from northwest India.
I remember seeing older Gujarati women in my community back home with peculiar green tinged markings on their arms and necks. Afraid to question their personhood, I never asked them what they were. Before I knew it, I stopped seeing these women floating around, and like that, the thought of these markings floated away as well. Years later a Gujarati tattooist from the UK named Heleena (@heleenatattoos) went viral. Her face was all I saw on social media for days; her alluring eyes and beautiful tattoos sparked my interest and I read her story.
I learnt about our traditional tattoos for the first time and honestly, it blew my mind. I never thought that tattooing was even a part of Gujarati culture let alone Indian culture! This is because the practice, for one, is considered synonymous with criminality among the older generation. The more I read about it the faster I realised that this thought was attributed to the legacy of Western interpretations of tattoos. Western colonisers deemed it to be savage and barbaric and now there’s barely any traces of Asia’s tattooing history. Ironically enough, tattoos in the West today are now synonymous with self-expression.
From the million articles I read following Heleena I learnt that Trajva tattoos are worn mainly by Maher and Rabari women. For us, Gujarati women, Trajva gave a strong sense of caste identity, it was also used to show strength as the tattooing process would be excruciating and susceptible to infection. The belief behind Trajva tattoos was that these substantive marks on the body would accompany the wearer into their afterlife, and when the body was deprived of all things of this world, nobody would have the power to remove the tattoo marks from the body as we do not take our wealth or even prosperity with us after the body dies.
A Mer proverb relates: “We may be deprived of all things of this world, but nobody has the power to remove the tattoo marks.” A Mer tattoo song also brings out this idea more clearly:
Rama O Rama, my tattoos are of the colour of “Hingalo [vermillion],” O Rama;
Listen, O Rama, uncle, brothers and grand-father, O Rama;
Mother and aunt and all return from the gateway, O Rama;
These tattoos are my companions to the funeral pyre, O Rama;
Rama O Rama, my tattoos are of the colour of “Hingalo,” O Rama.
Mer girls were usually tattooed when they were about seven or eight years old. The hands and feet are marked first and then the neck and breast. It is customary for a girl to be tattooed before marriage; otherwise her mother-in-law is likely to taunt her that her parents are “mean or poor.” One tattooist of the Mer reported in the 1970s, “if a bride were not tattooed, her in-laws would protest that she had been sent to them ‘like a man.'”
Mer men are not profusely tattooed and it is customary for them to have marks placed about their wrists, on the backs of their hands, and sometimes on the right shoulder. Camels are common symbols and the Rabari men of Gujarat often have them tattooed on the back of the palm or on the right shoulder.
It has been stated that the placement of men’s tattoos on the right may relate to the importance of the right hand in Hindu belief; “it is generally associated with ‘good omens’ and used for all forms of interaction with the natural and supernatural worlds, such as eating, writing, sacrificing, and for Brahmins, tying the sacred cord.” Motifs common among the men of both groups also include Hindu inspired designs like Rama, Krishna, or Hanuman, or the om design in Hindu script once again reflecting the process of Hinduization among the once animistic tribal peoples of Gujarat.
The indigenous instrument used in tattooing is a reed stick having two or three needles inserted at one end in such a way that only about a quarter of a centimetre of the points remain visible. The needle points are dipped into a prepared pigment of soot and cow’s urine or soot and the juice of tulsi plant leaves — sometimes water in which the bark of biyān or sisam (Dalbergia lotifolia) mixed with turmeric was used. The first type of pigment provides a blue-black colour while the second produces a green hue. Red pigment (mercury oxide) is also reported to have been used by some. These pigments were pricked into the stretched skin at least seven or eight times to form the desired tattoo.
The operation of tattooing is generally executed by the experienced women of the Mer tribe. The women of some wandering ethnic groups like the Vāgharis and Nats also do this work and tour villages in the winter. Traditionally, tattoo artists were paid in grain, but by the 1950s all transactions were made in cash and tattoos were increasingly made by men with tattoo machines.
The Rabari of the Kutch district on India’s northwest coast near the Pakistan border also tattooed and continue to do so to this day, although younger women who live in urban areas are receiving fewer tattoos because: “We are now city people, and tattoos are old-fashioned.” Notwithstanding, for hundreds of years the tribal women living in this region have practiced tattooing for decorative, religious, and therapeutic purposes.
It is for that reason that I was particularly adamant on getting the Trajva tattoo as my first tattoo. The fact that within just a few years of British colonisation so much of our history had been erased hurt in me in ways I can’t express. Years and years of culture and belief had just been swept away as though it held no value. Just by getting this tattoo I was confident that I’d be able to bring our culture back into this day and age. I knew that if I got it done, my children and grandchildren would know of the history and culture of my people. I hoped I’d be able to spread the word to more people along the way and I have been. It is an honour to be able to tell the stories of my people and the symbols that they held so dear to them.
Note: I’ve also got the north star incorporated into my piece for my sister (Dhruvi Atul Parmar) who is named after the north star (Dhruv Tara).