Godna Art and the Tattooed Baiga Tribal Women of Madhya Pradesh, India

The villagers rejoiced, just when they saw our bus reaching closer to their village of Silpidi in Madhya Pradesh, India. The entire village was in a mood of celebration because it is seldom that outside people come here and visit them due to its offbeat location. Silpidi is so off-the-wall that you wouldn’t even find its location easily on google maps but then the question arises, why you should visit it and what’s so special about it?

The Baiga tribe people ready for their dance performance

The Village of Silpidi in Madhya Pradesh and why you should visit it?

The Silpidi village falls under the Dindori Tehsil of the Dindori District of Madhya Pradesh and is known as the tribal hub for Baiga, which is known as the forest-dwelling indigenous tribal community of central India. Approximately two and a half hours of drive from our stay in Amarkantak took us to this village and both my Airtel and Jio sim stopped working, as we were reaching closer to Silpidi. A look at the village and you are quick to understand that the villagers preserve its raw setting and are yet to be hit by the commercial world. The Baigas tribals are mainly known for their traditionally minimalistic ways of life but most importantly the ancient culture which is still practiced by the community and preserved in its utmost form: known as the Godna art, the ancient tattooing tradition among the Baiga where local tribal women get inked on her entire body, including the face at a particular age. And as I met the tattooed Baiga Women of Madhya Pradesh, I got inquisitive to learn more about this ancient art.

The Tattooed Baiga Women in Silpidi Village of Madhya Pradesh

Who is the Baigas Tribe of Madhya Pradesh?

If the mythological saying of the region is to be believed, the Baiga tribe of Madhya Pradesh is considered the original inhabitants of the earth. They are identified as a primitive Dravidian tribe, which is known for their traditionally minimalistic ways of life.  Found mainly in the state of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Madhya Pradesh, the Baigas tribal believes in living in close sync with nature, which is quite prevalent in the adoption of their daily traditional techniques to manage their work. For example, Baiga’s tribe farming system is called Bewar, which is mostly practiced on hilly slopes, where contour bonding cannot prevent soil erosion. The Baiga also possesses the in-depth knowledge about herbal medicines and is known to cure any form of ailments on their own.

The Baiga men in their traditional attire

Godna Art: The Ancient Tattooing Tradition amongst Baigas Tribals

​The Baiga tribal women of Madhya Pradesh are known for their art of tattooing the entire body. Known as Godna in their local language, it’s a practice that has been an integral part of Baigas. The interesting part about this tattooing culture is that every age and body part has a specific tattoo reserved for the occasion, where they would ink the different parts of their body with different tattoo marks. Usually, the Godna art patterns are drawn which signify fire, crops, grains, peacocks(amba), pair of hens, chariot, flowers, trees, and eyes, which are considered the symbols of good luck in the Baiga tribe. Interestingly, the patterns drawn have remained unchanged over the years due to a certain belief.

The tattooed Faces of Baiga tribal women

The Tale of Badnin and Baigin. How did Godna tattoo culture start in Baiga Tribe?

There are a lot of tales associated with the origin of tattoo culture in Baiga tribal women. In Baigas, the female who gets tattooed is called Badnin, and the one who the tattooing for the Baiga women is called Baigin. There is one interesting folklore associated with the origin. It is said that once Lord Indra was furious and, in his anger, refused to send rain to the earth. As a result, the drought situation was created and upon seeing this Lord Shiva got concerned and requested Naga Baiga and Baigin to persuade Indra to shower rain on the earth. The female Baigin did not possess any ornaments at that time and the Badnin were given the task of decorating the body of the Baigin with tattoos.

The smiling face of a Baiga tribal women

This is the same belief that has been carried down for generations, that the full-body tattoo on the Baiga woman is her ornament and will make her look beautiful. They also believe that these tattoo marks are the only things that are certain to go with them till the grave. Baigas have a firm belief that the soul doesn’t carry anything with themselves once dead but rather these tattoos which go with them to heaven. The Baigas also believe that the pain they endure during tattooing prepares them for labour pain during childbirth.

The first tattoo is generally applied on the forehead of a Baiga girl at the age of 9 or 10, without which they are not considered to be a part of the tribe. More tattoos are added, to the other parts of the body, as the girl grows up. The last godna called chhati godai is done on the chest once she delivers.

The procedure of Inking the Baiga Tribal Women

Strangely, the procedure to conduct the tattoo ritual is conducted in a forest since it is considered an omen for the men to see the blood while going for their work. The tattoos are inked using a kajal, which we were told is a powder obtained from crushing Ramtilla (Niger seeds). They are burned and the black chunk is used to make the kajal.

After the initial patterns are drawn using a bamboo stick, there are needles of numerous sizes that are used to make it a permanent mark.

It is said that the tattoos have to be protected for several days from water and dust since they are organically made and have no chemicals for protection. I am also told that the women do get a fever for at least a day and tattooing amongst the tribes begins during the winter season and continues until summer.

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