Naga tattooing tools

Sangtam and Konyak Naga people, Nagaland, India

[b]Above and below left:[/b] Collected by James Philip Mills by 1923 and donated by him in 1928; 1928.69.1658–.1560[br][b]Right:[/b] Collected by Henry Balfour in 1922 and donated by him in 1936; 1936.4.14Above and below left: Collected by James Philip Mills by 1923 and donated by him in 1928; 1928.69.1658–.1560
Right: Collected by Henry Balfour in 1922 and donated by him in 1936; 1936.4.14
These implements, collected in the early 20th century, were used in traditional tattooing techniques amongst the Naga people of north-east India. Today, widespread conversion to Christianity and Western influences has largely reduced the practice.

The Nagas made tattoo pigment by mixing the soot from burnt tree resin with rice beer. The pigment was kept in blackened bamboo containers from which it could be scooped and applied with the flat palette-sticks shown. They are different widths to suit the size of the tattoo pattern required. The main method was to use a mallet to tap the pigment-stained skin with a thorn-headed implement and rub a blue pigment into the resulting wound. The tattooist would have an assistant on hand to pull the skin tight during this process.

The needle head, here made of four lemon thorns, would be removable so the artist could use different arrangements and numbers of needles for different effects. The spare needle attachment shown here, consisting of a bundle of more than a dozen thorns wrapped in plant fibre is a 'comb' or chisel needle and was useful for tattooing large areas of the body. This tapping technique is known all over Asia and Oceania and is performed very quickly and efficiently by skilled tattooists. Occasionally he or she may notch the handle of the tattooing tool to record the number of people they have tattooed.

In some cultures, tattooing symbolises certain types of status that are not otherwise attainable by any other means. This is not the case with the Naga people, for whom tattoos serve to make a statement that could also be made with other ornaments such as jewellery or woven cloth. The attainment of a tattoo nevertheless constituted a rite of passage and many of the tattoo designs are seen on carved wooden figures, particularly the male face and chest tattoos associated with warrior prowess.

Although in decline today, tattooing was restricted to certain eastern and northern groups such as the Konyak, Ao, Chang, Santam, Kalyo Kengyu and Phom and much could be determined by both the presence and absence of tattoos among these groups: the Thendu Konyak tattoo their faces, but not their chests and arms, whereas the neighbouring Thenkoh Konyak do the opposite. Other groups are tattooed on the same parts of the body but in different styles; among the Ao women for example, Mongsen and Chongli women are both tattooed on the arms and legs but with different patterns. These obvious visual differences enable separate groups to distinguish themselves from their neighbours.

In general among the Naga, female tattoos tend to be geometric in pattern and signify life stages, whilst male tattoos are more representational (such as the outlines of tigers, humans, feathers or horns) and are related to status. For the two Naga groups who made and used these objects, it is the women of the Santam who are tattooed (on the limbs), and if a Konyak woman has a small tattoo behind her knee it means she is married. This not only deters other men from pursuing her but proves that she is eligible to wait for her husband in the afterlife should she die prematurely. In this respect the tattoo functions as a kind of 'divine passport' and is considered important enough to warrant the tattooing of corpses in some instances.

© 2011 - The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, England