March 08, 2010

The Lord and the Tattoo Maker of Panchavati

Hanuman was omnipresent every which way I turned my face in Panchavati on an overcast Dussehra day last year.

Statues large and small, in varying poses, left little doubt of the imprint Ram’s presence had left behind on Panchavati in the years he lived here during his exile from Ayodhya. It was here his resolve was to be tested on Ravana’s abducting Sita. It was here the die was cast, eventually shaping the consciousness of a people and the values of a civilization.

Dedications to Hanuman, sometimes simply carved on stone blocks left standing in the open by temples dedicated to Lord Ram, or along stairways leading to the river Godavari channeled along stone masonry on either bank, and other times located at corners of passageways bridging the river, were easily identifiable from the bright orange Sinduri applied to the deity.

Among the largest statues of Hanuman in Panchavati, the 15 feet high representation standing to attention, his mace facing down, was getting a fresh coat of Sinduri by a devotee using a ladder for the purpose as we walked along the eastern bank of the Godavari towards the vegetable market adjoining the Dhobi Ghat downstream of the Ram Kund.

On the opposite face, at the same height, the mace rested on his shoulder while a demon cowered under his foot.

Even in the bright colours of tomatoes heaped in cane baskets in the vegetable market located among the many temples dotting Panchavati, Hanuman’s steadfast pose was easily discernable.

While Hanuman famously ripped his heart open to show the deities Ram and Sita residing within, children from rural areas were busy debating which of Hanuman’s best known poses to tattoo on their forearms from the options available with an elderly villager’s tattoo shop spread out in the open area fronting the famous Naroshankar temple.

The temple is adjacent to the Ram Setu spanning the river and is considered unique for its 18th century architecture constructed in what is known as the Maya style. Intricate lattice work in stone graces its outer walls.

A large bronze bell hangs in a bell tower above the entrance in the eleven feet high stone fortification enclosing the temple on all sides.

Arched entrances in the fortification on the outside apparently opening into a passageway along the front of the temple have been boarded up with cheap tin and evidently function as commercial outlets, disfiguring the stone façade of the historic temple built by Naroshankar Raje Bahadur, a Jahgirdar in the reign of the Peshwas.

A board above one such enterprise identified it to be a Brass Band.

After Chimaji Appa, the younger sibling of Bajirao Peshwa, won the fort of Vasai from Portuguese invaders with considerable assistance from Naroshankar Raje Bahadur, the bronze bell was removed from the Portuguese church in Vasai and marched on an elephant to Nashik as a token of victory over the Portuguese before presenting it to Naroshankar Raje Bahadur for his bravery in the campaign.

I walk along the periphery on the inside looking for a tap to wash my hands and wet my neck. On the steps leading up to the platform where Nandi, Shiva’s bull, kneels in attention, facing the deity, a man in white Kurta and Pyjamas, a shiny brass plate pinned to his chest and identifying him to be a tourist guide, awaits pilgrims stepping into the temple.

“Do you need a tourist guide to take you around?” he asks me. His white kurta-pyjama are crisp, and pressed well. They do not show the wear of a guide called upon to show pilgrims around, at least not the day I met him. Inevitability of a circumstance makes a virtue of patience, eventually!

I decline, and before long I step out and go down the stairs to where the tattoo maker has set up shop in the open space in front of the temple.

The elderly tattoo maker in Gandhi topi and dhoti had spread the implements of his trade before him. Designs sketched on paper and protected by plastic cover were held down with stone paperweights. The battery powering the tattoo machine sat alongside.

He sat in the way the elderly in the hinterland of Karnataka and Maharashtra sit – knees lifted and held together by hands locked at the palms in front of the knees, legs usually crossed at the shins, the back curving in the relaxed pose. A quick glance at his face and I walked over to him. He sat still, unmoving as I bent down to see the designs he offered.

He does not look at me, nor does he proffer to show me the designs as I leaf through them. He knows I won’t be getting a tattoo from him. There’s very little that faces do not reveal in India.

Fate had etched his face with deep lines. In the furrows stretched weakly across his cheek, stories hiding from the glare of the Sun over the years refused to surface even as clouds overhead blanked the Sun out, filtering the light to the soothing grey of a monsoon month threatening rain on an ancient corner of what must have been a paradise once.

Each page held sketches of deities in neat rows, depicting Hanuman in several forms. Ram and Vishnu were equally represented. And so were Lord Krishna and Ganapati. A young boy stopped by the tattoo maker and quickly selected Hanuman in a standing pose from the options available before extending his arm to the tattoo maker.

The sketch of Hanuman the boy chose to have tattooed was similar to the statue we had passed along the way to the tattoo maker.

A quick rub of the arm and the tattoo maker got down to work, the young boy watching as the needle began to trace the contours of what must surely be India’s most favoured deity among the young, favoured as much for his strength, as for his daring exploits deriving from his loyalty to Lord Ram.

The boy grimaced as the needle punched his skin, welts rising along the outline. A dash of haldi (turmeric powder) over the tattoo and the old man was done.

About then a large group of children visiting Panchavati had stepped out of the Naroshankar temple and made for the tattoo maker out of curiosity, and just in time to see the kid getting his tattoo of the deity, Hanuman.

He got to his feet, dusted his behind, and paid the tattoo maker ten rupees before stretching his hand out to show his tattoo to his friend who had tagged along with him, watching patiently as he got his tattoo done. The friend did not get a tattoo. I’m not sure if it was because he did not want it or because he could not afford the fee.

The crowd surged forward to examine the tattoo. The kid held out his fresh tattoo while several children from the group took turns to examine it, exclaiming their approval of the Lord.

Lord Hanuman has many admirers, and possibly none more so then those who’re prepared to have him grace them every living moment of their lives.

It is not just the belief that drives them so. And nor just the faith. It is the legacy of the culture bequeathed them that they carry forward, even if they’re too young to know it themselves or understand its import.

If you do not question it for yourself, you’ll not question it for others. And it is in this convergence of faith and belief that India continues to survive its contradictions.

And sometimes it takes a tattoo to realise it.


Anjuli said...

I was reading along and looking at the pictures- and then when I read "the battery powering the tattoo machine..."....I read it twice...I've never known of a battery operated tattoo machine- this is the amazing thing about India- and other such countries- there are always innovations.


Riot Kitty said...

That temple is amazing.

I have two tattoos, but here in the U.S., you have to be an adult before it's OK to get them.

Ugich Konitari said...

"....And it is in this convergence of faith and belief that India continues to survive its contradictions..."

Spot on.

Simply loved the way you described a little childs faith and his delight. And the photo of the the gentleman's gnarled hand holding and tattooing the childs arm spoke so much......

Cate said...

The boy getting a tattoo looks so young. I'm like you not one for tattoos and would not even hang around to take pictures. The noise of the machine, the pain on the face, not for me. But I do like the battery operated machine. Now that is something.

Talon said...

Anil, I learn so much reading your posts. And I love your photography. Thank you for that.

The stone work on that temple is magnificent. And it was really interesting to read of the significance of the tattoos.

Mumbai Paused said...

I had been to this place some years back during the Khumb Mela. It was filled with some of the most amazing mishran of people in this part of India. After seeing your images, I want to go back and see the place once again, minus the crowd.

Anil P said...

Anjuli: Thank you. I've shown the battery in one of the pictures in the post.

Back here they call innovation Jugaad, improvisation would be more apt.

I used to see the tattoo makers set up shop in village fairs, and the Lingayat women would get their tattoos from them, a few that is.

Riot Kitty: Yes. The architecture is unique to say the least. The stone roof, as if laces with reliefs, slopes away in parts. Very similar to the Trimbakeshwar temple not far from there.

The elderly villager, possibly a farmer or a farm-hand before, might've taken to tattoo making now. Or maybe he has always been a tattoo maker all his life.

I do not know if there's a law in India governing the tattoo business. I haven't heard of any.

In recent years there might've been an ordinance directing tattoo shops in India to adopt safe practices while making tattoos for fear of transmitting HIV.

Ugich Konitari: Thank you.

Yes, the hands will speak much. Looking closely, those of us who have travelled India much, might even be able to tell the community the elderly tattoo maker might belong to from the way his wrinkles have formed, on the face an elsewhere, and by consequence even the destiny he might have shared.

The boy was thrilled on getting the tattoo, and had no hesitation in choosing Hanuman to grace his hand.

Cate: Yes, he is very young. Possibly 8-10 years old. The other children in the picture crowding the tattoo maker are aged similarly.

Strangely the noise from the tattoo machine as he outlined the design o the skin was barely discernible where I stood, except maybe a low hum that was lost in the excited group that happened upon the scene later.

Talon: Thank you. It's a pleasure to know it and to have you read the posts.

The stone work in the image in just a small part of the temple. Seen in its entirety it is indeed stunning for the intricate lattice work and figurines that cover the temple on the outside.

There's not as much religious significance to the act of tattooing as there is in wanting to tattoo the image of one of India's many gods on the arm.

It's very much like Christians in Goa, and elsewhere in India likely to have the cross tattooed on where their thumb meets the wrist.

In certain communities in India, specifically the politically powerful Lingayat community, the women will tattoo a bindi on their forehead, usually seen when they give up wearing the Sindoor on being widowed.

Rural youth might have their names tattooed on their forearms, and so do women.

Mumbai Paused: I can imagine the scene that must've have greeted you during the Kumbh Mela there. I believe there was a stampede in the narrow approachway to Panchavati that led to some pilgrims losing their lives.

Now it quieter there.

Anu said...

very beautifully written.... my visit to nasik was a hurried one, just to visit temples, and we had no time to even look around... after reading this one, i now want to make a leisurely trip so that i can really get a feel of the place..

radha said...

Very beautifully written. And the pictures. You somehow find the words to bring the most ordinary picture to life. ( in the sense - what we see everyday, but do not think necessary or important to capture on film )

Lynn said...

What a wonderful glimpse into your world again. Your photographs are so descriptive.

Anil P said...

Anu: Thank you. It might well add a new perspective. Slowing pace in India often does that.

Radha: Thank you. I'm encouraged to learn you find joy in these posts, in the little things actually.

Lynn: Thank you. Much remains. Much will remain eventually. At least some of it will survive here, hopefully.

Coffee Messiah said...

What a fascinating story, and appreciate reading the story.

I've always wondered why (at least here in the usa) what the real point of tattoos really are.

Although many of us think the world moves with us, as evidenced by the great photos, it doesn't and what a good thing.

Always interesting!


Shyamanga said...

Simply love the way you look at the world around you and present it.

"And it is in this convergence of faith and belief that India continues to survive its contradictions"'ve said it.

kenju said...

Very interesting, Anil. I have never seen a person from India with a tattoo, so I was unaware that they are popular there.

Anil P said...

Coffee Messiah: Thank you. I've been seeing folks with tattoos out here since my childhood. At that time maybe there were'nt so many tattoo designs to choose from, but the basic tattoo designs of Om were in use.

And to tattoo their own names, or names of their spouses was not uncommon either.

But I did see women with a tattoo on their foreheads where their bindis sit, in instances if I remember correctly they wear the actual (usually vermillion) bindi over the bindi shaped tattoo underneath. Widows, not so much brahmin women, would display the tattoo on the forehead where they once wore that traditional bindi when their husbands were alive.

Even then tattoo of Indian gods / deities were to be seen in use as well. Hanuman tattoo was fairly popular before as well, as Hanuman is associated with strength, and a protector from bad / tough times.

Shyamanga: Thank you for your kind words. It's pleasing and encouraging to know you like reading these accounts.

India's diversity means there're many little things that abound around us that are meaningful and satisfying to explore and experience.

Kenju: Thank you. Especially designs involving India's gods / deities and other religious symbols ar popular among the non urban population.

Cait O'Connor said...

I enjoyed visiting your blog, great photos and writings.
I like the header quote too.

karen said...

Hi Anil. I've been away from blogging for a while. Just doing one of my catch up sessions at the moment,and enjoying going back through here! Great informative post about Lord Hanuman, and the young tattooed boy. I love the ingenuity of the battery powered machine - it's a lot like Africa in many ways...

Enjoyed reading more about the Premier Padmini earlier, and the wonderful "shocker" sign - once again, very african, too! Weekend greetings from over here :)

Anjuli said...

I came here and thought I will comment, and I nearly got a heart attack, seeing that I have already commented here!!!

I could never imagine anyone else with the same name! spooky it is!

by the way I like the pictures on your blog :)

Anil P said...

Cait O'Connor: Thank you.

Karen: Welcome back. Ingenuity is referred back here as Jugaad, also synonymous with improvisation.

Like someone once said: Necessity is the mother of all inventions, and they make for interesting stories.

Anjuli: You had me taken aback as well :-)

Always encouraging to know the pictures are liked. Thank you.

लावण्यम्` ~ अन्तर्मन्` said...

The feet of the wanderer are like the flowers,
His soul is growing & reaping thee fruit;
And all his sins are destroyed by his fatigue in wandering.
Therefore, wander!

The fortune of him who is sitting, sits;
It rises when he rises;
It sleeps when he sleeps;
It moves when he moves.
Therefore, wander!”24
[ From Rig Veda ]
Enjoyed so many of your posts today Anil ji.
Lost track of time....
wonderful Blog / amazing writing.
Good Luck & God bless !
- L

Anil P said...

Ms. Lavanya Shah: Thank you for the invocation from the Rig Veda.

The portion below is so apt.

The fortune of him who is sitting, sits;
It rises when he rises;
It sleeps when he sleeps;
It moves when he moves.
Therefore, wander!

It's a pleasure to learn you enjoyed reading the posts.

I wander so I may wonder.

Ms.N said...

I was there last year with my parents visiting panchvati, alhough you have a story where i could see none. :) i would have thought to get a tattoo roadsie or not woule be more expensive than 10 bucks! all said and done, the pain seems too scary. prefer piercings instead :D

trimbakeshwar said...

hi, i am from nashik itself ..but settled in i saw ur blog ...n my old memories come in front of me...
thanks a lot...

Anonymous said...

Hiya : )
Why do women and men (society in general) still pre-judge people who have body art. women commonly?
I am a twenty six year old F, have got 9 tats, many of which can not be noticed on my day to day travels. 5 - 6 during the summer are pretty much constantly on display. I do not work for notice and i also have a loving boyfriend Without Any TATTOOS .I get the impression that many people believe that tattooed people are blind, once we get stared at, even if we return a glance people continue staring. When will society change?

Anil P said...

Ms. N: It's a nice place to unwind, on the ghats, the buzzing market that functions out of makeshift stalls.

I'm not sure if the boy suffered much pain getting the tattoo, at least it didn't look like he did.

Trimbak: Thank you.

Anon: Maybe they associate women with tattoos as daring, or maybe even rebellious, hence maybe the allure.

Or maybe it's not as common yet, hence the attention. I can only guess.