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Northeast India’s Fading Tattoos

22 November 2013

Author : reba

Christo Geoghegan is a documentary photographer and writer who has made time to tell Sang Bleu about his time in the remote Northeast India and the fascinating culture of body modification practiced in the particular areas that he visited.

The art of tattooing and body modification has always been an intrinsic part of tribal culture. Cultural identity and heritage is the beating heart of any tribe and as such body art has been used as an external expression of internal values. It became a form of visual ID to indicate which tribe you were from and where your loyalties lied. And in the remote northeastern states of India, whose populations are predominantly tribal, this was important.

Northeast India is a collection of seven states connected to mainland India by a 21km wide stretch of land known as the Siliguri corridor. Though administratively Indian, much of the culture and people share almost no similarities with their Indian neighbours and as such the ‘Seven Sisters States’ are disparate siblings of their mainland brothers. Northeast Indian culture is far more influenced by the neighbouring countries of Myanmar, Tibet and to a lesser extent, Bangladesh. And it’s because of this isolation away from mainland governance and the inexorable modernisation that goes with it, that the region has remained one of the last bastions of tribal culture.

Back in 2009, I was incredibly fortunate to obtain the necessary permits required to enter the geographically secluded states of Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland in order to meet and photograph two of its most famous tribal inhabitants: the Konyak Headhunters of Mon and the Apatani women of Ziro Valley. Both of these tribes are famous for their distinctive tattoos and body modifications, but the significance and origins of each are entirely different.


The Konyaks are a hill tribe separated across three different geographical locations. Some reside in the southernmost region of Arunachal Pradesh, some live in the hills of neighbouring Myanmar, and some, like the ones I spent time with, live in the state of Nagaland. The Konyaks have a rich history of being fierce and highly feared warriors and the tattoos that were adopted by the tribe were created to show this. The Konyaks became notorious across the region as headhunters, who believed that when they collected the skull of an enemy they could in turn harness the life force and soul that once dwelled inside of its original ‘owner’. Successful and prolific headhunters were then given the honour of being able to wear the mark, having their faces and chest covered in tattoos. The Konyak women however, would receive decorative tattoo designs (primarily on their legs) to signify various advancements in life. These tattooing practices would continue up until the late 1960s when Nagaland began to experience a cultural shift that would affect Konyak tattooing forever: Christianisation.


From the beginning of the 1940s Christian missionaries from America, Wales and New Zealand set out to the remote northeastern states to spread the gospel and attempt to convert non-believers. However, some of these envoys were of the opinion that many of the activities and beliefs that these tribes held were primitive or barbaric and preached to the tribesmen with a heavy hand. And as such, as Christianity began to spread across the region, many tribes began to lose sight of some of the ancestral heritage and original animistic beliefs that were once at the forefront of their very being.


This isn’t to say that Christianity did not bring some aspects of social prosperity to the region, in fact it was one of the main reasons that practices such as the violent art of headhunting were outlawed. But what is undeniable is that this shift in thinking began to have an impact on many forms of tribal art and expression, particularly tattooing culture. With the end of headhunting and a conversion to Christianity widespread, the Konyaks ceased all tattooing activities and with the number of tattooed Konyaks dwindling as their ages increase, the marks of the headhunter look set to be erased forever.

The women of the Apatani tribe however, had very different reasons for body art and modification. Believed to be the most beautiful in the region, the Apatani women were prone to being kidnapped and raped by the surrounding Nishi tribesmen. To stop this from occurring and protect the tribeswomen, the Apatanis agreed to begin a practice known as ‘imposed ugliness’. By ‘destroying’ the beauty that was so desired by these invading tribesmen, it was believed that they would no longer be at risk from attack. This practice was forced upon all Apatani women when they reached a certain age and began with facial tattooing: one single vertical line from the forehead to base of the nose and then five vertical lines beneath the lip to the base of the chin. Small incisions were then made into the sides of each nostril, and a plug, known locally as Yapping Hullo, were inserted into them. Over time, these plugs were replaced with larger ones in order to stretch the original incision until it was at an acceptable size.

However, it wasn’t Christianity that ended this bizarre form of rape prevention, but peace with the Nishi in the 1960s. Many Apatani women, distraught from having the practice carried out on them, chose to have elective plastic surgery to remove their imposed ugliness. But many embraced their modifications and a popular belief is held amongst many in the tribe that the larger the Yaping Hullo, the more beautiful the woman, inverting the original intention of the process.


There are still many other tribes in the region such as the Wancho of Arunachal Pradesh who still tattoo tribesmen, but as external influences begin to creep in at an increasing rate and globalisation begins to grip the region like an ever tightening vice, the art of tribal tattooing in Northeast India is beginning to slowly, but surely fade.

All images and text has been created by Christo, to find out more visit his website here:

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