Here I am in Baiga country, sporting, satisfied (so far so good), a little of their culture under the sore dermis of my left ankle. But before I could go to visit the Baiga in person my tattoo needed to be treated and the pain induced by this deep-poking soothed. I decided, rather reluctantly, to take it easy for a few days and take a daily picture of the healing process. This photographic ritual lasted only three days since I ran out of the courage to watch my new tattoo in full light on the fourth day.
Morning and evening I cleaned my new body decoration with water and then applied this mixture of turmeric and mustard oil. The first day, my foot was sore and somewhat swollen, within normal limits. The second day it was still swollen and the pain had increased. The third day was a continuation of the first two: a little more swollen, a little more painful. The fourth day was the last day I dared to look at my foot in full light, the skin surrounding the tattooed area had taken on a disturbing reddish colour. The foot was as swollen as the day before but was very painful and limping became my walking style. My flip-flops “Relaxo” (LOL) had the colours of Brazil but I was not in the mood to dance the Samba. From that moment I cleaned my foot in the dim light of my small bathroom without any windows on the outside, opening only one eye to stealthily check the condition of my foot to make sure that it hadn’t got infected. By the fifth day the whole area of the tattoo, and a little beyond, was blackish, just like my thoughts. And it was going to last. Alone, in this little village, the fear of gangrene would last three weeks, as long as the physical pain lasted.
On the tenth day, following an article written by Dr. Chourasia and published in a regional newspaper, in which he gave me the lovely nickname “Pardesi Babu” (Mr. Foreigner, Mr. From Abroad), I was contacted by a team of journalists from a regional television station, News Express. They wanted to report on Shanti Bai and myself, and invited me to accompany them to the village of the Maravi, Lalpur. I was ok, I had something to show this family of tattoo artists, and the somewhat catastrophic condition of my foot had not seen any improvements. I climbed on board with the reporters in their 4×4 Tata Sumo, also accompanied by Doctor Chourasia who had no explanation for what was happening to my foot. Auuuuum Shanti Auuuuum.
Once at the Maravi’s place, I showed my ankle to Shanti Bai and her husband Chamar Singh, who, in deadly silence (all relative in India) stared at my tattoo with some surprise. Not very reassuring, I told myself. They had no explanation for mes. The only proposal they made to ward off fate was to call in a local “shaman”. The little man, dressed in too short trousers and a stained tank top appeared ten minutes later, a handful of dried plants in his hand. A few moments after the arrival of Mister Miracle, my only hope, my only somewhat deflated lifebelt, he knelt at my foot and began his incantations while waving his dried plants. All this of course under the eager lens of the News Express cameraman. Half-way through the incantations, the other journalist interrupted the shaman to ask him to move a bit or something like that, which irritated me exceedingly. Interrupting the potential miracle that was going to save my foot was more than I could emotionally bear. I then ordered him furiously to shut up or leave. And then the prayer kept on going. This “rescue” mission turned into burlesque.
Then the reporters interviewed Shanti Bai, surrounded by half of the village who were only too happy that an unexpected event was happening in the neighbourhood. When everything was recorded, in the box, the journalists were satisfied, and I a little dubious and not much more reassured than when I had arrived, We went back to the car and decided to go to meet the Baigas, in a village about thirty kilometres from there. Halfway there, our team stopped in front of an isolated farm. The Baigas are generally humble, poor farmers, I noticed that immediately. With the background of the farmyard and a Baiga peasant woman accompanied by her four children, Dr. Chourasia was interviewed by our three journalists.
Then we kept going on our way for a few more kilometres, on a winding road in the middle of a pretty dry countryside in this month of January. Once we arrived in a rather miserable village, the doctor, accustomed to the place and its inhabitants, allowed us to chat amiably with some members of the community. At this long-awaited moment, my camera broke down after only twenty photos. The curse was still at work. Fate has a sense of humour that I do not always understand.
Fortunately, during those three weeks of limping in the Dindori district, my daily discussions with Dr. Chourasia provided me with many insights into this unique Baiga culture. Here are a few of them:
The Baiga people form a very old ethnic group of about 300,000 people whose DNA is close to that of the Australian aborigines. They are mainly found in Madhya Pradesh but also in Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.
Sometimes nicknamed “The Sons of Nature”, because of their proximity to it, they used to live in the forest that fed them. They then became farmers practicing slash and burn agriculture. They do not plough because their beliefs lead them to think that you do not have the right to skin Mother Earth. Over time they refined their knowledge of plants. Their remedies and poisons, but also their diagnostics have a reputation for excellence, so they are considered very effective homeopaths.
Inspired primarily by nature and inked only on women (men do not even have the right to attend a tattoo session), Baiga tattoos have three main reasons. Firstly, they clearly indicate their clan identity. Secondly, the pain caused would prepare women for the pain and the vagaries of the world (childbirth, work …). Thirdly, only tattoos accompany the deceased in the afterlife, the ultimate memory of this world. But there are a few additional reasons: embellishment of the body and, of course,, social status. The Baigas also believe that this practice works in the same way as acupuncture and these “bites” would greatly improve some functions of the human body. Finally, another belief encourages women to be tattooed here and now: if they did not do it, once in heaven, God would energetically take care of it with the help of a big iron bar.
Baiga women do not tattoo each other. They usually involve women-tattooers from other social groups, mainly Ojha, Dewar or Bad(n)i (such as Shanti Bai). The generic term used to name these professionals is “Godharins” (“Godhna” meaning “tattoo” in Hindi.)
The designs are not chosen at random. The different parts of the body receive their specific patterns at a specific moment in the life of the women: the first tattoo is the one made on the forehead. This is the “V” as well as some vertical points and lines. This happens around the age of 7 to 8 years and can be inked up to 16 years maximum because beyond the frontal tattoos bleed too much, rejecting the pigments. Then comes the back around the age of 16. After the front and back and according to the different Baiga groups, before or after marriage they will tattoo legs, thighs, arms, throat and lastly the chest. It will take 20 to 25 years for the entire body (except the buttocks and belly) to be tattooed.
The recurring patterns, very geometric and stylized will be related to nature (grains, bullseyes, hives, peacocks, chickens, flowers, trees…) and the elements (mountains, fire, sun, moon…).
But today, as in most tribal cultures, such practices cease with the new generations. School and television are the two main factors in this slow but sure disappearance. Moreover these body marks are too ostracizing for youth from these ethnic groups at the bottom of the social ladder, who are aching to blend in with the main culture.
To finish with that story, let’s come back to my ankle. Following this last meeting with Shanti Bai, I decided that changing the treatments might be more helpful than the incantations of the shaman. After cleaning my tattoo with water, in the morning I applied the local recipe, turmeric and mustard oil, while at night I applied a mixture of Homéoplasmine (a basic French skin care cream) mixed with a few drops of essential oil of lavender, a recipe that I usually use for all my tattoos. After this latest tattoo had shed two successive scabs of ink, I could finally walk almost normally. Due to the fact I had run out of time and had a broken camera, I had to leave the area to reach Raipur, further east, the capital of Chhattisgarh, and an urban eyesore. It took 15 days for me to retrieve my Canon camera, and in that time I used the opportunity of a loaned camera to go and discover another fascinating tattoo culture from Chhattisgarh: RAMNAMI.