Books

‘We Take Our Ornaments to Heaven’

Getting a godna, a tattoo on her forehead and cheeks, is an initiation for young tribal women in Jharkhand. It’s a vanishing practice, however, described in this excerpt from Nidhi Dugar Kundalia’s new book, The Lost Generation: Chronicling India’s Dying Professions.

THE LOST GEN_neeraj.inddA tribal hamlet appears a few kilometres into the jungle, about thirty thatched huts scattered about like drunken men after a merry revelry. A gathering of women have formed a circle in a cleared patch of land, some with chubby babies hanging at their waists. Two musicians from the village – a drummer and a man plunking at a stringed instrument – sit in a corner outside the circle. There is a volley of hooting cries and then a rattle of drums, the soundtrack to which a mother from a nearby hut drags her squealing daughter by the arm. Thick tears of protest flow down the child’s cheeks and on to her sleeveless frock as she is pulled to the middle of the circle.

‘This is the child’s godna ceremony,’ Salim, a local from Ranchi who has agreed to escort me through this Naxal-infested jungle, whispers as we watch from a distance. If a girl child is old enough to walk, she must be tattooed; the tattoo is known as ‘godna’. Rarely is the ritual deferred until the early teens, and in any case it must be accomplished before the girl is married. Tears drip down the face of the child, her shoulders shaking with quiet sobs as her mother whispers something in her ear—perhaps the promise of rice boiled in sweet milk to be prepared for her later in the evening. The mother rocks her rhythmically, soothing the harsh, painful thoughts in her daughter’s head; perhaps she is hoping the next child she is carrying in her visibly pregnant belly is a son who can escape this pain. The malhar, or the tattoo artist—who will engrave the godna—pulls out the tools with his soot-covered hand.

The crowd cheers as he picks up a three-pronged metal implement and meticulously begins to make a tilak on the child, Nekka’s, forehead—a teardrop-shaped mark between her eyebrows. With each rap of the malhar’s old instrument, droplets of blood begin to form around the lesions. They converge to form a stream of blood that spills down the child’s cheek. A few women break into song and dance, a ritual, going round and round in circles, the child momentarily distracted by them.

Ningan koy Nekka pello kakro parmiya
Ningan pelo ne chhorabao
Ninghai joodi jonkhas koda raji keras,
Ningan pelo ne chhorabao … Nekka

The crab is nibbling on you dear girl, Nekka,
Who will save you from it?
Your boyfriend has left for foreign lands
Who will save you from it?

They sing obscene songs about loose pyjamas that falls off a man’s smooth backside and then another about a cat chasing a dog up to the river, diverting the child’s attention with the debauchery. The child cackles with laughter, even as tears hang precariously on her jaws, like dewdrops from a leaf.

A few more songs later, the singers plunge down on to the dust with arms stretched out, signifying the celebration of the girl’s definite journey to heaven after death and her reunification with her ancestors. Just then, a needle slips and digs a bit too deep into the child’s skin, pulling it upwards like an earthworm on a fishing hook, making the child scream in pain. The singers sit up, shaking their heads, disapproving of the child’s weak will. An old lady— tall, lean and bent at the waist, with tattoo marks folding into a graceful network of fine wrinkles along her neck and face—jumps up and the drummer steps up the rhythm in anticipation.

‘The road to the Lord is full of obstacles,’ she addresses the audience in Kurukh, a Dravidian language. ‘The door is guarded heavily by large, black demons,’ the old one narrates, clawing her fingers and sticking her tongue out to signify the demon. The child quietens down, drawing images of the dark, the perilous dungeon of the Lord, in her head. ‘Those without the godna,’ the old lady roars, ‘will be branded with hot coals in hell, thrown on cacti and pushed through sugarcane extracting machines.’

This purgatory has been described to the child before, in the old folk tales and legends of the evil men who steal sweets from the village kitchens. The child sits quietly through the rest of the ceremony, wincing every now and then, as if wondering which woman in the crowd looked most like the demon that was just described. The rest of the ceremony is carried out on the instructions of the old lady, Nowri  Tikri, who turns out to be the child’s grandmother. There is more song and dance, and bananas from a wild tree nearby and tea are passed around to the assembly of about fifteen people. It is afternoon by the time the malhar finishes tattooing the child’s forehead, and even cheeks—on the insistence of the grandmother—to prevent evil spirits from casting their eyes on the child. The tattoos look more like angry, swollen welts than works of art; it will be another few weeks before they become dark, pigmented symbols in the shape of fat bellied raindrops, symbols to promote safe delivery during childbirth.

Nowri Tikri displays an array of Godna tattoo art on her forearm. Source: Nidhi Dugar

Nowri Tikri displays an array of Godna tattoo art on her forearm. Source: Nidhi Dugar Kundalia

The musicians and dancers have long retired to their fields, and the child is tired—dried blood congealed on her cheeks and eyes drooping with sleep. But she has to be washed, according to the grandmother, before being taken back inside her hut. ‘The malhar is from a lower caste,’ Nowri tells us as we arch closer. She bends over the child, closely monitoring the mother as she smears turmeric paste all over the child’s body.

‘Careful, now! Use the turmeric sparingly,’ Nowri spits, baring her remaining teeth. ‘My son works hard for this money!’

The touch of the lower-caste malhar on the child is believed to have caused contamination and requires a purging of the dirt with warm water and haldi. Nowri reminisces that as a young girl, when malhars came to the village for godna, they would use the route along the village that passed through the jungles. These untouchable men were not allowed footwear once inside the village and were barred from wearing clothes above the waist and below the knees, even in the cold winters of the forests. In those days, if the malhar or their womenfolk, known as malaharin, were given food for their services, the bowl which they had touched would be cleaned with cow urine (which was considered auspicious) and then heated over fire to be purified.

Nowri herself had never allowed a malhar into the house for each of her three daughters’ godnas. ‘We still don’t,’ she says assertively, slapping on some fresh gobar—a natural cooling agent as well as an antiseptic—on to the child’s wounds to prevent infection. Her thick silver bangles clang together like ancient temple bells, louder than the soft, clinking sounds made by the shiny glass bangles her daughter-in-law wears. Beneath the silver bangles, one can see the faded green marks of a tattoo all the way up her elbow.  

‘The ladies of the village envied my godna. I would sit still like a statue whenever I got them done. The more godna you get done, the stronger you become— both in terms of spirit and physical prowess,’ Nowri explains.

‘Children are weak these days. I got an entire arm done by a malhar when I was all of eleven years old. But Nekka’s godna will be split over the years till she gets married,’ she speaks of the child. ‘When the God of Death, Yamraj, approaches her during her time of death, he will immediately identify her and not confuse her with her husband. In a way, Nekka gets these tattoos to protect her husband from Yamraj.

A year later, we can get one done on her back, then another on her neck and some on her arms,’ she mutters, slapping another layer of fresh green gobar on to the now-sleeping child, her head resting on her mother’s lap.

‘More tattoos?’ I ask.

‘Yes.’

‘Why?’

‘These are our ornaments, our assets. The only things we take with us to the heavens.’ Nowri smoothens the wrinkles on her hand, revealing a complex pattern of dots and lines, like binary codes, engraved on her hand; an octagon with a dot in the middle near her elbow is a lotus – the pedestal of Goddess Lakshmi, the distributor of wealth; triangles along her upper arm represent Yoni – the goddess of femininity or womanly strength, translating literally to vagina or womb; and a set of concentric circles down to her wrist represent the nine planets that control the destinies of the wearer.  

‘It has healing properties too. Look at this,’ Nowri says, pointing to a dark mole-like tattoo on her throat. ‘I got it done a couple of years back to cure my goitre. It disappeared for a few years,’ she says, snapping her fingers, perhaps hinting at the acupuncture effects that godna is rumoured to have, ‘but then it came back … Pakhi, the village medic, suggested eating a medicine made of pig’s throat, and Durki, the old witch whom villagers prayed to, made me stand on my head every day for hours,’ she scowls.

‘But nothing worked. It is the work of evil spirits, that is it . . .’ She pauses, her face contorting into a frown as she spots something, pursing her lips and distending her nostrils – a grimace that her daughter-in-law immediately appears to recognise as threatening, for she holds the child closer. ‘Ai you,’ she screams at the malhar, hobbling rheumatically towards him. He is washing his face at a well near her dwelling. ‘Do not go near my well,’ she screams, hurling a few Kurukh curses at him. With a hand covering his mouth, making an irrefutably urgent excuse and offering an unspecific apology, the malhar scuttles away.

‘Defiling the water in my well, that mouse …’ Nowri mutters under her breath.

‘Does he live here?’ I ask her.

‘No, no, they have no homes. They are nomads.’

‘So how did you catch a hold of him for the godna ceremony?’

‘They travel from village to village performing godna and making copper utensils in their free time. My brother told me that he had spotted this malhar, Dubru, near the village. He saw him while coming from the fields and summoned him immediately. We give them a bag of rice or a few coins in exchange. Dubru will stay here in the shed for a night and leave tomorrow morning. Unfortunately, the shed is near my well. I hope the midget doesn’t defile my well. Oh, it’ll be the curse of the Gods if it happens …” she says, disappearing into her hut, murmuring a curse about constipation plaguing him for the rest of his life.

Nidhi Dugar Kundalia is a journalist and the author of The Lost Generation: Chronicling India’s Dying Professions (Penguin-Random House India, available from January 5, 2015).