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The Dying Body Arts of the Terai

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Pano Devi Chaudhary (66) from Malhanama, Saptari had a unique feature on her hands, not only was there a tattoo with her name on it, there was one with a small pond surrounded by trees and a home as she pointed out. The scenery drawn from black ink is of the perfect settlement that everyone is familiar with in the village. The tattoos in the hands of women, specially older ones, are intricate and represent more than a settlement, sometimes they are in Mithila art form portraying tigers or bears, sometimes it’s about the symbols that make up the overall philosophical identity of the people of the Maithili speaking region in the Terai, and sometimes they even tell stories of the Mithila woman Sita from Ramayan.

Some believe that you carry only your tattoos with you when you die, and it is like a mark that helps your mother to find you so that she can take you to the afterlife. Generations after generations the tattoo culture has been kept alive, and now it is under threat as unplanned development and progress is seeping into the oasis of culture and intricate body art, the traditional and cultural forms are slowly losing their meaning.

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The body art is done with naturally produced black dye with sharp pointy objects, unlike tattoo machines it is excruciating and painful and is done in many cycles slowly over days, months and years for it is the henna that stays in the skin forever and maybe beyond.

Some say the tattoos are done to replace jewels, some say it’s to meet their mother in heaven who will recognize her with the tattoos while some say, the tattoos started to stop men from kidnapping and trafficking women as they these body marks make them appear less attractive. But all the theories are now useless since Pano Devi’s granddaughter would not be doing the tattoos anymore because she has aimed to be in Nepal Police, and the department does not accept people with tattoos on their bodies.

 

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Though Nepal hosts one of the largest tattoo conventions in Asia and while western tattoos are becoming more and more famous in the cities, the root of the tattoos the story of one woman and her dream of a house and a settlement beside a pond, that story of simplicity, or the story of an old woman who depicts the God she worships or the intricate designs and symbols that has kept the Maithili speaking people so culturally vibrant are becoming things of the past.

By Sarker Shams Bin Sharif

The writer is a Honours Graduate in English from Rajshahi University and is currently working as an Editorial Intern at Glocalkhabar.com