By Shatabdi Chakrabarti
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The Apatanis or, as they call themselves the Tanis, trace their origin as a migratory tribe in the Apatani Plateau in Lower Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh, India. Today they are settled in the Ziro Valley of the area.
Known for their agricultural skills, the Apatanis have a rich oral tradition and hardly any written records. These oral accounts have been converted into folk tales over the years, which are passed on from one generation to the other.
One of those tales is the reason why many of the tribe’s women have tattoos adorning their faces and large nose plugs in their nostrils.
It is said that women of this tribe are extremely pretty and used to be abducted by men of neighbouring tribes for their beauty. In order to stop this from happening, the elders decided to start tattooing the faces of the women and inserting nose plugs from a very young age to make them look less appealing.
Barcroft reporter Shatabdi Chakrabarti spent a week in the home of an Apatani family to understand the mysterious practice.
Many of the women said that the tattoos and the nose plugs define them as an Apatani woman and some also agreed to the folklore associated with them.
Some gave accounts of kidnapping, where Apatani women would be taken away and made wives, and believe that’s how the practice was started - to hide their beauty.
But all of the women proudly displayed the nose plugs and the tattoos, saying that this is their identity.
Called Tippei, these tattoos were done when an Apatani girl is about 10-years-old by the elder women. The ink was made up of pig’s fat mixed with soot from the fireplace.
The girl’s head would be held in place by the elders while one of them hand poked the motif. The Apatani women have a thick straight line tattooed from the forehead to the tip of the nose and five straight lines on the chin. The Apatani men also have a small T shape tattooed on their chins.
The Apatani men also have a small T shape tattooed on their chins.
Every woman Shatabdi saw with these traditional markings was roughly above the age of 45, as in the early 1970s, the tradition of inserting the nose plugs and face tattooing were both banned by the government.
The tattoos create issues when people go out to the city for jobs and so the younger generation is not keen on carrying on with the practice.
However, the elder women of the tribe consider the nose plugs and tattoos as an integral part of being a Tani woman. Ones who have the largest nose plugs have even been awarded.
Over the years, this practice became a visual identification of being an Apatani woman. The remaining bearers of this practice appear to be proud of this identity.