A discontinued cultural practice, facial tattoos were a marker of identity of the Apatani community of Arunachal Pradesh. While both men and women of the community had tattoos, the tradition of facial modification was more strongly associated with the women, who had more prominent facial tattoos and wore large wooden nostril plugs.
The facial tattoos, called tiipe in the Apatani language, and nose plugs, called yapin hulo, are associated with the concepts of beauty and uglification, and the traditions have gendered origins. According to one legend, these physical modifications were introduced to protect Apatani women from being abducted by neighbouring communities. According to another legend, men of the community who died in skirmishes with other communities returned as spirits looking for the wives they had left behind. Unable to find them, the spirits would cause trouble. A village priest advised the women to get facial tattoos as a way of rendering them unrecognisable to the spirits, so that the spirits would leave the villages alone. However, members of the community suggest that such tales are mythical, and the tattoos and nose plugs are likely to have served to distinguish the Apatani from other communities.
Individuals of the community received tattoos when they reached puberty, with women receiving them at the time of their first period. However, some accounts narrate that a newly born girl child would receive a smaller time, called a panyo on the forehead, believed to mark their gender. Men had a single vertical line tattooed along the centre of the chin, from the lower lip to the tip of the chin. Among women, the tattoo consisted of a line drawn from the top of the forehead to the tip of the nose, along with five vertical lines between the lower lip and the tip of the chin. Amongst women who have tattoos, a number of them recall the process as being extremely painful; however, in cases where the tattoos faded, they would darken them by getting re-tattooed.
The ink for the tattoo, called chinyu, was derived from soot mixed with animal fat. The needle was made by tying together several three-headed thorns, known as tipe-tere or iimo-tre, typically derived from the gum arabic tree, or Vachellia nilotica. A small stick hammer, called empiia yakho, was used to tap the needle and make an impression in the skin. The process was carried out in the winter to allow the tattoo to dry quickly.
Between 1971–74, the government, with support from the Apatani Youth Association, declared an end to the practices of facial tattooing and the wearing of nose plugs. These decisions were taken to avoid stigmas and the stereotyping faced by members of the community when they travelled outside the valley.
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