The Face As A Canvas: Face Tattooing And Tribal India


With New Zealand’s Nanaia Mahuta’s Maori tattoo rose a lot of curiosity around facial tattooing. The art of tattooing is being practiced for some centuries now, but it is only in the recent decades that it has become urbanised and “cool”. Facial tattooes, at that, are particularly bold and make a statement like nothing else. Using the face as a canvas has been an age-old tradition in tribal India, the patterns remaining almost unaltered ever since they began. These Godanas, when literally translated from Hindi, mean “piercing a sharp needle into the skin”. The reasons for these tattoos are endless, but it can be inferred that all of them serve a particular purpose. Take a tour of tribal India with us to understand this peculiar art of facial tattooing:

To avoid abduction, we got to take precautions.

The Face As A Canvas: Face Tattooing And Tribal India
Wikimedia Commons – Doniv79 

Some keep bodyguards, others call the cops. The Apatani tribe of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh tattoos its women. Does it make any sense yet?0 Read on. 

Abduction of women by rival tribes is common in the tribal world. Apatani women, being naturally very beautiful, are more prone to being kidnapped. To avoid this, the members of the tribe have been tattooing the faces of their girls since long. An excruciating procedure of tattooing follows. Thorns are used to cut the skin, the cuts then filled with a mixture of animal fat and soot give a rich blue colour. That’s not all. The cuts are allowed to get infected, so that the tattoos get larger, darker and Apatani tribe uses these tattoos make a woman unattractive and, therefore, unappealing to abductors. Because of the violent nature of the practice, the Indian government put a ban on it, but it’s still clandestine.

Hello from the other side

The Face As A Canvas: Face Tattooing And Tribal India
Wikimedia Commons / PICQ

Ever watched a movie where a tattoo was carried with the spirit? 

The Kutia Kondh tribe of Orissa specialises in beautiful geometrical face tattoos. These tattoos are identity marks and, according to them, ensure that they identify each other in afterlife. 

The Andhra Tribe of Andhra Pradesh has a similar story. The Andhras believe that they won’t be granted entry to heaven without tattoos etched to their foreheads.

What doesn’t kill you…

The Face As A Canvas: Face Tattooing And Tribal India
Wikimedia Commons / Yves Picq

The Konyaks love to display their strength. For this tribe that lives in the Indian state of Nagaland, tattoos are a way to show prowess in battles and combats. Tribal identity is also associated with these markings. How do you identify someone who has been brutally injured in an accident, or died? You got it, the tattoos!

Ready to be a mom?

The Face As A Canvas: Face Tattooing And Tribal India
Wikimedia Commons / Rukmini Murmu

The brutal pain experienced while tattooing prepares a girl for maternity and childbirth, or so the Santhals of Bengal believe. On the faces of Santhal women can be seen beautiful, floral tattoos. These tattoos are sometimes filled with colours to make them vibrant and appealing. 

The exclamation point of the outfit!

The Face As A Canvas: Face Tattooing And Tribal India
Wikimedia Commons / Ramesh Lalwani

Many Indian tribes live secluded – close to nature and away from civilisation. With poverty lurking in these areas, the tribes can hardly manage a piece of jewellery. What results from this lack are strikingly artistic tattoo patterns in lieu of expensive jewellery pieces. The innovation has resulted in the worldwide love for tattoo jewellery that leaves everyone breathless!

This is, of course, not an exhaustive list of the Indian tribes and their facial tattooing traditions. The list is nearly endless because of the diversity of the Indian tribes and their rich tribal culture. 

If you liked this, check out The Ainu Tribe Of Japan: Petting Bears & Tattooing Lips


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