Godna: The ancient tribal art of Tattooing

Tattooing is a long-standing custom in India and tribal communities in general. It is known as Godna, a name frequently used among tribals in central and eastern India. It is an art form that serves various purposes in various communities. Godna is a tribal adornment that represents the species' identity and rich heritage of antiquity. It is a practice based on religious beliefs, a desire for compassion, and human ambitions.

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Godna Tattooing is done by excavating the skin with the tip of the needle and then releasing vegetable juice such as beans or datura combined with oil and soot. Godna artists in some cultures use thorns as needles, while others use bamboo sticks linked together.

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Some tribes make ink using a combination of cow bile, soot, herbs, and pig fat. Others make ink by crushing and burning various grape seeds. A chati godai takes approximately a day to complete, but a godna covering the face, also known as a black mask, might take up to three days.

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Tattooing is found in many primitive tribal groups like the Saharias of Rajasthan, Buksas and Rajis of Uttaranchal, Kelas, Kumeubas, Paniyans and Todas of Tamil Nadu, Chenchus, Konda Reddis and Kuttiya Khands of Andhra Pradesh, Abuj Marias, Baigas, Hill Korwas, Bharias, and Sahariyas of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Asurs, Birhors, Korwas and Mal Pahariyas of Jharkhand, Bondos, Juangs, Mankirdias and Sauras of Orissa, Lodhas and Birhors of West Bengal, Riangs of Tripura and the Tribes of many other states."

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Among Kerala tribes Kurumbars, Irulars, Mudugars, Paniyans, Kattunaykans, Vettakurumans, Mannans, Muthuvans, Kanikkars tattooing is generally in vogue.


Godna tattoo designs serve as identification marks that distinguish one individual from another, one ethnic group from another, and one culture region from another. The women of the Oraon tribe, who live in the districts of Surguja and Raigarh, have three lines tattooed on their foreheads.

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Bhil women have a distinctive bird-like tattoo on the side angle of both eyes. This gives them a permanent long-lashed character. The bird and scorpion design is particularly common among the Bhils. The women of the Baiga tribe are distinguished by a 'V' shaped mark in the centre of their forehead between the brows.

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Floral and geometric motifs, horses, elephants with riders, scorpions, peacocks, and tribal myths are some of the most prevalent and popular Godna patterns. Girls typically tattoo flowers, whereas young girls prefer single dots in various locations on their faces or a horseshoe-like half circle around their forehead. Tattoos like scorpions, deers, peacocks, and floral designs on ankles and hands, and shoulders are popular among elderly women.

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Concerns have been raised regarding the decline in popularity of godna among tribals over the last decade, at a time when demand for tattoos in urban India has increased. While tattoo artists make money, godna artists fight to keep their art alive. A three-inch tattoo costs approximately Rs 1,500, whereas a godna of the same size costs only about Rs 20.

Many village tribal elders are proud of their godna customs, but the younger generation, particularly those who travel to cities for higher education, believe it distinguishes their origins, among their colleagues who sometimes label this as backward.


Tattooing has moved away from the body and onto paper, fabric, and canvas. Through exhibits and workshops, female tattooists have played a significant role in the dissemination of Godna painting in India and beyond.


Author: Akash Rupam Ekka Editor: Rachita Biswas

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