Fading Ink: The Story of Traditional Tattoo - Jhooti | Milaap

Fading Ink: The Story of Traditional Tattoo - Jhooti

A Dying Art Lives its Final Days on The Bodies of Women in Rural Odisha
Tattoos are a common sight to see in today's modern cities. Many people get enamored by the idea of a permanent mark on their bodies, come to the various tattoo shops and artists to get their ideas imprinted on their bodies. But what does it mean to have a tattoo? Where did this culture come from? What does it symbolify?

Mina, 34, a mother of two, shows the jhooti on her wrist. 

Tattoos could mean anything from art, rebelling against the system, to a way of expressing oneself. It could be all of those reasons or none of them. From being seen as enhancing beauty to degrading it in the eyes of society, tattoo played a big role in the cultural history of human civilization. From the tattoos used to mark the ranking of warriors, to mark the status of prisoners, tattoos have been used time and again as a symbol. The meaning behind the symbol lies with the events surrounding the creation of that particular tattoo.

While today's modern tattoos are more of an expression of one's self or art, it wasn't always so in the past. For example - The famous Naga warrior tribe, Konyak, has a unique tattooing technique. Every tattoo had a meaning behind it. One's age, gender, social and marital statuses all influenced the marks etched on their bodies.

Another historic form of tattooing exists in the eastern part of India. The states of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, and West Bengal have a tattoo culture that is dying out soon. The Jhooti. It is said that both men and women were a part of the Jhuti culture. However, over the years, only women had tattoos on them. But when did this culture begin? How did it come to exist in society? Why is it dying out?

A nameless* grandmother shows the jhooti on her left forearm. She says it was done over 30 years ago. 

Jhooti culture of many Sambalpuri (a culture belonging to the people living predominantly in the western parts of Odisha ) women in Odisha has been in the pursuit of being connected to one's deity. Some women belonging to the native tribal communities of the region put on tattoos to symbolify their oneness with nature and the folk deities of the forest. Some believe that having tattoos on their bodies made them appear 'friendly' to the animals of the forest. The animals would see the markings on their body and respect them as fellow creatures of the forest, as far as the belief goes.

Banita Padhan, 48, farmer and animal husbandry business owner, shows off her tattoos on the underside of her forearm. She is a loving mother of two sons who go to a nearby college.

According to Balcham, a BA Hindi student in Dunguripali, Odisha, says that at one point of time in the past, people used to believe the tattoos enhanced a person's beauty. The tattooing of the motifs representing Goddess Lakshmi (Indian Hindu deity of prosperity) would make her bear many children and bring fortune to the homes she belongs to. These beliefs made sure that Jhooti (or jooti) practice flourished and almost every woman belonging to the Hindu community in the region had tattooed on their bodies.

Rama Patra, 54, a proud mother and grandmother of a large family. She shows us the jhooti on her arms. The motifs on the right symbolify Goddess Lakshmi.

The practice slowly fell out of fashion in the next few decades. Modernity was creeping into Indian society, tattoos were being seen less as works of art that enhanced a woman's beauty to be the opposite. Fewer women had tattoos anymore and those that did live mostly in the remote rural regions.

Earlier there used to be many women with tattoos on their cheeks and collars. Now the only women with collarbone tattoos are those are grandmothers and over 60 years of age. The next generation had fewer tattoos on their bodies, and the generation after that had even fewer. Roughly 9 years ago, it is said that the last woman was tattooed by an old practitioner in a remote town in the Subarnapur district of Odisha.

Mina, 39, mother of two bright daughters shows us the jhooti on her feet. She says the tattoo was done when her puberty had started. 

Anita, 52, a mother and a grandmother in a small village in Odisha shows off the jhooti on her feet. Notice the similarities and the addition of more motifs on Anita's feet and shins. 

Jhooti was done on women during the Lakshmi Puja rituals. Women and girls who were not married used to receive tattoos. The motifs of Lakshmi Puja symbolized the public perception that the girl would grow up to bring fortune to her in-laws family by bearing many children, especially boys. There were obvious tinges of patriarchy splattered all across the seemingly innocent cultural belief that stood out like black spots on a bare white sheet.

From the interviews of numerous women, there were mixed opinions about Jhooti, as a culture. Some were proud of the ink on their bodies, others were indifferent to them. Several young ladies said they did not like tattoos and do not mind that they do not share the culture with their mothers and grandmothers. Some expressed admiration for the ink and sighed that the practice ended long ago.

Anita shows off the unique patterns and motifs on her arms. 

Despite the artform dying out from this part of the country, it lives on the bodies of the women who walk these lands. Wrinkles and hard years blur out the details, however, the ink refuses to fade. These might be the final moments of a part of a culture.

[* - Nameless because she did not wish her name to be published]