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Apatani women’s traditional face tattoo: The nexus of cultural identity

Apatani women’s traditional face tattoo: The nexus of cultural identity

The cultural practice of face tattooing among Apatani women, once a symbol of protection and identity, is now a rare sight due to modernisation and past discrimination.

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A woman from the Apatani tribe, walks through a paddy field in Arunachal Pradesh's Ziro. (Photo: Biju Boro / AFP) A woman from the Apatani tribe, walks through a paddy field in Arunachal Pradesh's Ziro. (Photo: Biju Boro / AFP)

Apatani women's face tattooing serves as a prime example of how cultural practices are intrinsic to identity politics. This intricate art form, known as tiipe or piiding, originated among the women of the Apatani tribe, who reside in the Ziro Valley region of Arunachal Pradesh.

This cultural phenomenon warrants study for its implications on individual and collective identity formation through interconnected processes of distortion, assimilation, and reclamation.

The tribal tradition, expressed as an art form, has various interpretations and narratives. It is believed to have originated as a response to Apatani women being targeted for their beauty by men from neighboring tribes.

This purported practice of "uglification" is paradoxically viewed as a form of beautification by Apatani women. The coexistence of such contrasting narratives reflects how traditions evolve within communities over generations, with the original purpose often obscured by ritualistic repetition.

Over time, these tattoos have come to symbolise protection, maturity, cultural heritage, and more. Older women traditionally tattoo young girls in the tribe.

These tattoos are crafted using thorns from a specific bush, with ink made from natural ingredients. The design typically consists of a straight line from the forehead to the nose tip and five lines on the chin.

Despite being a tradition, this practice is now rare among recent generations of Apatani women. In 1974, efforts were made to discourage the continuation of this practice due to discrimination faced by tattooed women in various aspects of life. However, a shift in perspective is evident as some Apatani individuals seek to reclaim their cultural heritage.

Nevertheless, the discontinuation of the tradition over the years and the influence of modernisation and globalisation pose challenges to its revival. It is no longer as prevalent, as it does not conform to mainstream beauty standards.

Amidst these narratives, the identity of these women becomes exploited, whether positively or negatively. With their origins not firmly traced, they become societal markers of identification, ironically involving bodily distortion, the very subject of identification.

(Written by Santa Roy)

Edited By: Ashmita
Published On: Jun 12, 2024