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Godna : inscribing Indian convicts in the nineteenth century
chapterposted on 20.03.2014, 10:20 by Clare Anderson
Tattooing in Asia has a long history. In the fifteenth century, the traveller Nicolo Conti recorded how inhabitants of the Irawadi Valley (Burma) ‘puncture their flesh with pins of iron, and rub into these punctures pigments which cannot be obliterated.’ A century later, Tavernier wrote that the women of Banjera (East Bengal) tattooed their skin ‘in such a manner to appear as though the skin was a flowered fabric.’ The origins and meanings of such tattooing, commonly known as godna (or godena) are both obscure and diverse. Decorative tattooing amongst the indigenous, tribal (adivasi) populations of the Indian subcontinent has existed for centuries. Nomadic communities tattooed themselves as a mark of identity, assuring their recognition as they wandered from place to place. Nineenth-century anthropologists detailed how tribal gond women, for example, patterned their legs with a variety of symmetrical tattoos in indigo or gunpowder blue. Designs were said to include animals such as tigers, monkeys and birds, which had totemistic connotations. Banjara (traders) and gadia lohar (ironsmiths) in Rajasthan wore a particular design on the face. Marking the body was also said to be a sign of ritual status. Among the tribalabors of Assam, the presence of a tattoo was necessary to marry. The absence of tattoos on young Burmans’ thighs was emasculating. Male dhangars, an adiviasi group from the Central Provinces, branded - rather than tattooed - five marks on the lower arm with a hot iron, as a sign of initiation to manhood. Tattooing and branding were also used as a curative for physical ailments. Some communities branded themselves with burning wood, in the belief that it would make their joints supple. [Opening paragraph]