The Story Of How Tattooing Came About (Ao Folktales)

In ancient times in the Ao villages, unmarried girls would sleep in  the spinster’s house at night. Girls from both rich and poor families  would meet each other and mix there and they would tell stories and  laugh together and spend the night there with the old lady.

Amongst the group there was this rich girl and there was also a girl  from a poor family who was intelligent, beautiful and popular with many  of the other girls. The rich girl grew quite envious of the poor girl  and she disliked her. During the evenings the rich girl would make fun  of the poor girl saying things like, “You cannot even laugh loudly, you  are so weak. You from a poor family, what do you get to eat? Even when  you speak, it sounds as if you haven’t had enough to eat”. She made fun  of her because she was beautiful and popular.

The poor girl happened to be the child of a single parent and as her  father was dead, she lived alone with her mother. In the morning when  the daughter returned home from the spinster’s house “dzüki” we call it,  she would complain to her mother about the rich girl’s cruel taunts.  “Just wait! Relax! Mum is going to make sure you are not insulted like  that again. Mother is going to fix you up!” Her mother promised.

This went on for sometime until one day when the girl returned in the  morning as usual her mother said to her, “For the next week you are not  to go out”. “Why? What is your plan? Asked the daughter. “I have  thought of something” replied her mother.

She then went and brought something to her bedside, calling her  daughter to come over and sit on the bed with her. The mother made her  daughter stretch her legs out on the bed and then she took some black  stuff from a can and started applying it to her daughter’s legs.

“The daughter cried out, “Ma! Its painful!” and she tried to get  away, but the mother said, “Wait, wait, wait, you wont regret it! You  must bear this pain for a little while but then people are going to  admire you and you won’t feel insulted anymore.”

“Alright mum, I know you are not going to do me any harm, I know you  are going to do the best for me because you have always loved me”, and  replied the girl, remaining calm while her mother finished the work on  her legs. It was rather like hammering. We are not quite sure what she  did but it was quite painful.

Finally mother said, “Look, now it is done. Look at your legs, look  how nice it looks. It is sure to be a success so you must not go out  until it is healed You will feel pain for a while and I will only allow  you to go out in about a week’s time. The girl looked at her feet and  she saw black spots and that her legs had also gone red because of the  painful thing her mother had done with something that may have been a  needle – she had used a sharp, sharp thing to make those black marks.  “Its painful and it is red, but as you said it will be healed soon, I am  happy”, said the girl.

The mother bandaged up the girl’s legs with cloth and helped her to  climb into the loft where things are usually stored in a traditional  Naga house, telling her not to come down until she was instructed to do  so.

After a couple of days the girls friends came to the house to enquire  about her because they were missing her jovial company and they wanted  to know how she was. “She has gone out for a short trip but she will be  back soon”, the girl’s mother told them. “We really miss her”, repeated  the girls.

Even the daughter from the rich family showed concern, and the mother  said to herself, “you are really going to like her when she comes  back”. The mother was eager to keep it a secret. She fed her daughter  every day and imagined the envy that she would get from the other girls.

After a week she told her daughter to remove the bandages from her  legs and have a look at them. The girl looked at her legs and exclaimed,  “Mum, they are looking beautiful!”. “I feel certain it was a success!”  Exclaimed the mother and she helped her daughter down from the loft. She  saw that the girl’s legs were healed and the marks had set and the legs  were looking beautiful – black, black, black marks.

After that it was time for the girl to visit the “dzüki” in the  evening. Mother gave her a new shawl and the girl set out to meet her  friends at the spinster’s house were the Ao girls slept in those days.  There was no electricity then, only the light from the fire, so her  companions did not see her legs at first. They were so happy and they  exclaimed, “Our friend has come back at last!”, they were all very  excited to see her. They gathered around the fire and started to discuss  things and tell stories in the firelight.

The poor girl wanted to show off her tattoos, so she took up a  position close to the fire and sat with her legs forward. Everyone  suddenly saw the marks and exclaimed, “Why, what is this? It is looking  beautiful! What did you do? That is why you went away, how did you get  it.?” “I don’t know”, said the poor girl as she wanted to keep it a  secret. The rich girl especially wanted to know where she had got it  from and the tattoos were all they could talk about that evening.

The next day the whole village saw the new tattoos and they all  admired them and talked about the girl’s beauty. Everyone went crazy  over her, the boys too. The rich girl was furious and envious and she  was determined to know the secret. By now all the villagers were  offering all kinds of things to have their daughters tattooed too and  the mother could not say no, so she started tattooing their legs and  this is how it started. It began with legs but the tattoos spread to the  chin and cheeks. You know we have Monsen and Chungli in the Ao  community. This story I am telling you is in Monsen language. Anyway,  from that day on the villages started tattooing different patterns of  tattoos for the different clans. It would be easy to see a Monsen girl  from a Chungli girl by the patterns of their tattoos. The boys found it  helpful too, in distinguishing the girls they admired and tattooing  became very popular. It all began from that time when the mother of the  poor girl used her creativity to bring admiration for her daughter which  goes to show that you can be creative even if you are not rich.

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