Asian Geographic - - Front Page - 2. Pre­serv­ing Tra­di­tion 5. Bold Beauty

cen­turies, indige­nous tat­tooists work­ing across Asia have marked hu­man skin with pow­er­ful de­signs and sym­bols in their quest to sig­nal ethnic iden­tity and ren­der the body sacred. Car­ried through life and on­wards into death, th­ese marks of hu­man­ity tes­tify to an an­ces­tral legacy that is in dan­ger of grad­u­ally fad­ing away.

The Marks of the War­rior It’s early April on the In­dia-myan­mar bor­der and the Konyak Aol­ing fes­ti­val is in full swing. Here in the vil­lage of Longwa, vol­leys of mus­ket fire ex­plode – pop, pop, pop – and clouds of heavy smoke in­ter­rupt the blue sky. Throngs of plumed, tat­tooed, and tra­di­tion­al­ly­garbed Konyak war­riors jump, chant, and re-en­act their for­mer ex­ploits on the bat­tle­field in a con­certed at­tempt to honour and at­tract the at­ten­tion of Wang­wan, their divine spirit of bless­ing.

Aol­ing is a new year cel­e­bra­tion of sorts, mark­ing the end of win­ter and the com­ing of the new agri­cul­tural year. All

Men who had par­tic­i­pated in com­bat and who had taken a hu­man life were en­ti­tled to unique tat­toos

of the fields have been planted by now and the Konyak ea­gerly await the ar­rival of the re­ju­ve­nat­ing rains. Through elab­o­rate feast­ing they give thanks to all of those friends and rel­a­tives who pro­vided them with as­sis­tance in the pre­vi­ous year, in­clud­ing the spir­its of the an­ces­tors. But above all, they cel­e­brate and give praise to Wang­wan un­til the six-day fes­ti­val ends.

In by­gone days, Aol­ing was also the time for tat­too­ing boys and girls who reached adult­hood. Th­ese ethnic mark­ers were ap­plied to var­i­ous parts of the body by skilled fe­male tat­tooists. Men who had par­tic­i­pated in com­bat and who had taken a hu­man life were en­ti­tled to unique tat­toos, usu­ally on the neck or face, which pro­claimed their sta­tus in Naga so­ci­ety.

One of th­ese men is Lalang, a strik­ing Konyak el­der who is now blind. He is un­cer­tain of how old he is, but puts him­self at around 90 years old. De­spite his great age, he springs into com­bat mode with ease: crouch­ing, track­ing, cir­cling, then thrust­ing his spear into the chest of his make-believe en­emy. Once in­jured, his imag­ined vic­tim is be­headed with a swift blow of his ra­zor-sharp, ma­chete-like sword or dao – a tool he has used to this pur­pose three times be­fore the Naga stopped head­hunt­ing in the early 1960s.

Across the Naga re­gion, April was a month for war. Able-bod­ied men were com­pelled to take hu­man heads be­cause they be­lieved them to be a source of fu­ture pros­per­ity. For the Naga, th­ese macabre to­kens were like con­tain­ers of seed that, upon ger­mi­na­tion, could in­crease the fer­til­ity of the crops and of the men and women in the vil­lage com­mu­nity. In or­der to re­ceive this life-giv­ing power, vil­lage shamans per­formed rit­u­als through­out the year to ‘please’ the heads, which even­tu­ally came to rest in men’s houses ( morungs), caves, log­drums, or in sacred banyan tree groves that can some­times still be seen in th­ese re­mote vil­lages.

The last Kalinga tat­too mas­ter Whang-od Og­gay (left) and a hu­man skull shrine in a re­mote Naga vil­lage (right)

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moun­tain or­ange and other va­ri­eties of lo­cal cit­rus thorns. They are ex­pertly hand-tapped into the skin.

Fe­male Kalinga tat­too pat­terns are in­spired by ev­ery­day ob­jects and na­ture: rice bun­dles, rice ter­race steps, bam­boo shelves, wo­ven grass mats, ferns, rat­tan fruit, a star or moon, and snake or centipede scales are used. The lat­ter two de­signs are dom­i­nant in both men’s and women’s tat­too­ing be­cause of their sig­nif­i­cance in Kalinga myth. Whang-od re­ported they were “friends of the war­riors” ( bu­lan ti man­gayaw) be­cause of the pow­er­ful omens they once de­liv­ered on the warpath.

Al­though mis­sion­ar­ies com­pelled many tat­tooists to cease their work decades ago, Whang-od and her much younger ap­pren­tices con­tinue to tat­too tra­di­tional Kalinga pat­terns. But today, her clien­tele is largely non-kalinga in ori­gin and in­cludes flocks of do­mes­tic and for­eign tourists who visit her vil­lage nearly ev­ery day through­out the year to be tat­tooed by a liv­ing leg­end.

She says, “If Kalinga tat­too­ing stops, we will lose an im­por­tant part of our cul­ture that has been handed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. Whether it is shared among us or with out­siders, to us, it is our an­ces­tors’ legacy, and it de­fines who we are as a peo­ple, so we must con­tinue.”

Inked into the af­ter­life Un­like Whang-od, most of the indige­nous tat­too artists liv­ing on the is­land of Bor­neo have not prac­ticed in decades; mis­sion­ar­ies com­pelled them to dis­card th­ese cul­tural tra­di­tions in the 1950s. Nev­er­the­less, sev­eral tat­tooed fe­male el­ders re­counted their ex­pe­ri­ences and de­scribed the elab­o­rate cer­e­mo­nial prac­tice once at­tached to this an­cient tra­di­tion.

Be­fore Kayan tribal tat­too­ing was elim­i­nated, women be­lieved that tat­too de­signs acted as torches after death, lead­ing them through the dark­ness of the af­ter­life to the long­houses of their beloved an­ces­tors.

Kayan tat­too­ing was largely fe­male­cen­tric, al­though male war­riors were tat­tooed, too. The process was a long and painful one, some­times last­ing as long as four years. Sev­eral el­ders ex­plained the im­pli­ca­tions of flow­ing blood re­leased dur­ing the rite. “It at­tracted evil spir­its,” said for­mer Kayan tat­tooist Ping Saram. “So there were pro­hi­bi­tions to reg­u­late this.” For in­stance, girls could not be tat­tooed dur­ing men­stru­a­tion or when a corpse was present in the vil­lage.

“Kayan tat­tooists worked un­der the tute­lage and pro­tec­tion of two spir­its,” said Hun­yang Lisang, a fe­male Kayan priest, or day­ong. “They were in­voked

Opened in 2016, Godna Gram, a state-of-the-art tat­too stu­dio and re­search cen­tre, was founded by one of In­dia’s most tal­ented tat­too artists, Mo­ran­ngam Khal­ing (known as Mo

Taku Oshima from Tribal Tat­too Apocaript has been ma­chine tat­too­ing for nearly 20 years and is widely con­sid­ered to be among one of the very best tat­tooists work­ing in Asia today. Renowned for his strik­ingly bold black­work styles, his in­flu­ences in­clude In­dian Mehndi (henna), Poly­ne­sian, and indige­nous Bor­neo and Ja­panese de­signs. Oshima firmly be­lieves tat­too­ing is a spir­i­tual act and strives to bring out one’s in­ner soul though his award-win­ning de­signs. AGP

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