Skin deep: Sindh’s indigenous tattoo culture at risk of fading away

"These tattoos are the only belongings that remain with us till our last breath because everything else in this world remains here."
Published November 25, 2023

Rattni, 55, remembers clear as day when she got her first tattoo at 13 years of age. It was her mother that gave it to her. “In our community, when a girl nears the age of her first menstrual period, we [the mothers] make a tattoo on her body. Likewise, when they get married,” she said.

Rattni’s neck, cheek, forearm, wrist, and the back side of her palm all bear different tattoos, each with a distinct story. She pointed towards 13-year-old Kamli Mewasi sat next to her, “She is still young so she could only get two tattoos, but as she grows older she will get more tattoos on her body like me.”

“These tattoos are the only belongings that remain with us till our last breath because everything else in this world remains here. We wish to get more tattoos on our bodies so that we die with such signs on our body parts. It may please God as well as our souls. We really feel incomplete without them,” she added.

Symbols and identity markers

Tattooing is a primitive part of the ancient culture and tradition for the women of Sindh’s Hindu communities. The women of Kachhi, Jogi, Mewasi, Rabari, Kolhi, and many other Hindu communities of southern Sindh have kept this art alive for centuries. Unfortunately, however, the custom may not be around for much longer.

The word tattoo itself comes from the Polynesian word, ‘tatau’ — originating from the tapping sounds of the tool made during tattooing. Different communities use other words for the practice, such as Gondna, Trazva, and Tryjoya.

For the Sindhi Hindu communities, some tattoos are considered significant signs of their religious belief, while others are considered identification symbols for belonging to a particular community, caste or clan. Some also showcase the possessions they own such as jewellery and money, emotions like love or hate, or their closeness to nature.

A tattoo depicting a heart and arrow. — Photo by author
A tattoo depicting a heart and arrow. — Photo by author

Many women have these tattoos without knowing the real meaning or significance they hold because the tattoo artists happen to be elderly women who do not explain why they make the tattoos. Many among them believe that drawing tattoos on their bodies will enhance their beauty and health.

These tattoos are etched on various parts of their bodies, such as the forehead, face, hands, arms, neck, chin, lips, palms, legs and feet. The designs range from depictions of animals, birds, flowers, and trees to symbols of social activities.

A group of women fetching water is a common tattoo image in Kachhi, Jogi, and Mewasi communities. It is meant to reflect the scarcity of water in their communities.

The women of Tharparkar and other water scare areas of Sindh’s coastal belt use clay pots to carry water. These pots are placed between rolled cotton cloth pieces on their heads. This rolled cloth is called senhori. Tattoos of senhoris are considered a symbol of female friendship. Such tattoo designs are mostly noticeable on the forearms and the backs of palms. Many of the female tattoo-makers are often friends amongst themselves and draw tattoos on each other.

A deer tattoo, meanwhile, represents prosperity and is commonly made on the forearm. Horses are associated with the sun, wooden fans with air, crocodiles with the goddess Ganga, and camels with the folk-god, Gogaji.

Forehead tattoos are an identity marker for Jogi and Mewasi communities as a small cross tattoo on the cheek is for the the Kachhi and Kolhi communities. This cross is also known as ‘Ronkhri’.

A young Mewasi girl smiles for the camera. — Photo by author
A young Mewasi girl smiles for the camera. — Photo by author

A young girl with a <em>Makhhari</em> tattoo. — Photo by author
A young girl with a Makhhari tattoo. — Photo by author

Mewasi women make a moon and star on their foreheads between their eyebrows which represents the third eye of goddess Shiva.

The identification symbol for Jogi women is called ‘Makhhari’. This tattoo is bigger compared to the others. The Makhhari is a big locust drawn on the centre of the forehead. The Jogis believe that tattoos of snakes and scorpions protect them from deadly creatures.

The female tattoo artists of Sindh

Sukhaan Jogan is an eminent tattoo artist in the Jogi community of Umerkot. She lives in the Sodho Jogi colony and has etched countless tattoos for girls and women in her colony.

According to her, every tattoo she makes holds meaning and significance. She also promotes this art form among other women of her community. “I can copy any tattoo by seeing it just once. The Makhhari tattoo is definitely one of the most important designs for our community due to its significance of being our community identification. I have taught Makhhari and many other tattoos to almost every woman in this area and that is the reason every woman has now become an expert tattooist.”

She further explained, “The tattoo designer uses a hand poke technique. The ink used is a unique mixture of wooden coal, goat milk and water, applied with a needle. Therefore, all tattoos are coloured black. Before applying the needle, we first make the design with a matchstick. Many of us apply it on the ground first before sketching it directly on the skin.”

Hand-poked tattoos with symbols. — Photo by author
Hand-poked tattoos with symbols. — Photo by author

She also explained that the process is relatively painless, but younger girls are afraid and often cry from the fear of needles. “Someone holds them during this process,” she said.

Rattni Kachhi lives in the village of Ghulam Mohammad Mari. In this village, Kachhi and Mewasi communities have been living with each other for years.

Rattni explained why it is only women that get tattoos. “Mostly our girls get tattoos on their bodies before marriage. If there is no tattoo on the body of a bride, the in-laws criticise her and call her a camel. It also shows that her parents are very poor, that they could not even make any tattoos on her body. This happened to be the main reason why we started tattooing our girls’ bodies from the age of 10-12 years. If we make tattoos before this age, they would break and dissipate with a growing body, so this is the perfect age to start making tattoos.”

Rattni’s village does not have any female tattoo artists. Due to this, they have to rely on male tattoo artists from different villages and cities who visit during festivals or specifically to make tattoos. “They charge Rs200-300 from us for each tattoo,” she said.

Dr Rafique Wassan is an anthropologist and currently teaches at the anthropology and archaeology department at the University of Sindh, Jamshoro. He explained that anthropologists have cross-culturally studied tattoo-making as body art.

“The study of body arts in anthropology covers a wide range of decorative objects and expressive cultures of aesthetics. For anthropologists, art is not limited to songs and music; tattoos are also part of body decorative art and an expression of culture as a way of life. Anthropologists see the culture of tattoo art through a symbolic approach that holds certain meanings. Every culture has symbols that reflect its customs, traditions and religion.

Anthropologists understand that symbols of various kinds in human society tend to communicate cultural values and meanings.“

A woman with multiple face tattoos. — Photo by author
A woman with multiple face tattoos. — Photo by author

However, today, well-to-do families of these communities are slowly leaving this tradition. Ramshi Kacchi, an eminent male member of the Kachhi community, said: “We are not making tattoos on our girl’s bodies anymore. In our family, only my mother has a body tattoo. We [now] live with people of other religions who are not aware of tattoos. We go to their weddings and funerals and also attend their rituals and rites so we are leaving this tradition. We think these tattoos are not important for us in this society. We are not leaving our religion, we are only leaving this tradition,” he said.

Despite its importance, the ancient tradition and art form is dying as many families have stopped such practices. However, the footprints of this culturally rich tradition still exist in the southern regions of Sindh and we must not let it go forgotten.

Header image: Indigenous Hindu women and girls from Sindh with a variety of tattoos. — Photos by author