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Taylor Nam

Ziro Valley, India.

When the last tattooed Apatani woman of Arunachal Pradesh passes, the tribe will lay to rest one of the most significant and intrinsic parts of their culture. Called the tani, the coming-of-age ritual of nose plugging and facial tattooing have historically defined what it meant to be an Apatani woman.

The 1974 government ban on the tani coupled with a movement by younger generations of women to seek employment in surrounding cities means that what has so long physically identified an Apatani as Apatani will disappear.

For as long as anyone can remember, Apatani girls around the tender age of seven were forced to plug their noses with cane and tattoo their faces from hairline to nose and then across the chin using a tipe tere(local thorny plant).

In this northeastern Indian state also known as the ‘Land of the Rising Sun,’ nose plugs and face tattoos were much a part of the journey to womanhood as was finding a husband and starting a family.

News organizations have reported in the past that these physical modifications were made so that enemy tribes wouldn’t steal the famously beautiful Apatani women during tribal disputes. However, an Apatani woman named Manu gave another reason for the tradition as it was taught to her years ago: “If you don’t have tattoos and nose plugs, no boys will be attracted to you. If you want to get married, you need these.”

Manu also expressed that when it came time for the tani, she resisted as best she could. “At the age of seven, I had a small nose plug. But I didn’t want the tattoos,” Manu said, “I tried to hide beneath the house where we keep the pigs, but my parents pulled me out and tied my hands and legs, carried me to the house and tattooed me.”

Now, Manu says she is proud to have undergone the tani. “They tell me, we have instruments to remove the tattoos, but I do not want to. I am glad to have the tattoos because then everybody knows I am Apatani.”

Another Apatani woman, Tamo Lulyo, told a different story. She said that she saw her friends getting nose plugs and tattoos and actually looked forward to undergoing the ritual. “I wasn’t thinking about the pain or anything,” she said, “I knew it would make me very beautiful and I was jealous of my friends.”

While no one is absolutely certain about what caused the government ban in 1974 on tani, the arrival of Christianity as well as the migration of younger generations to the big cities to find work no doubt contributed.

An Apatani woman named Papi explained that when the Christian missionaries arrived at her village 20 years ago, the young people quickly started attending services, taking on Christian names and forsaking their former religion, Donyi-Polo. Although Papi did not explicitly state that Christianity and the Christian ideals caused the young people to abandon tani, historically the introduction of a new religion to a group of people has caused cultural shifts and changes towards that religion’s way of living.

Additionally, with the influx of trade and technology to India’s bigger cities, the young women have started to seek their fortunes beyond the local villages. In an effort to fit in, they have embraced the ban.

Some of the older Apatani women, like Papi, expressed their gratitude that the rituals have been banned; they do not want to see younger generations go through the physical pain of plugging one’s nose and tattooing one’s face.

Other women disagreed. They see the ban as a suppression of their identity. Tamo Lulyo commented, “I want the younger women to keep on the tradition, because God has given them some kind of sign that they must follow the culture.”

Yet, even those who disagree with the ban seemed to have reached a sort of individual peace with the changing culture, expressing a trust in fate, destiny, God or organization to the way of life that goes beyond the physical world.

The ban represents both the movement towards modernization as well as movement away from what has always been. For as long as history has been passed from generation to generation, to have the plugs and tattoos is to be Apatani. Now, going forward, these women must decide what marks them as being distinct from the surrounding tribes and, really, the rest of the world.

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