Fading forms


After a long and tiring bus ride, we finally reached the Tharu village of Meghauli in the western part of Chitwan district, in Nepal’s hot, southern plains. I was working with a Belgian documentary photographer then.  We were there to take pictures of the colourful Holi festival but Holi was still a day away.

In the harsh sunlight, we’d halt our work. I was walking around the village when I came across these tattooed women. I noticed that only aged women had tattoos. Younger women didn’t have any of it. The patterns looked somewhat like waves of water; some even looked like plants.

These women were the last generation of tattooed women in the village. They themselves complained of how painful the process was, and how they screamed. Up to six or seven needles tied together were dipped into ink made of coal mixed with human milk. According to them, if a bride didn’t have tattoos, her new family would refuse to eat what she cooked. Meaning it was compulsory back then. But things change.

When we were planning the trip, I expected to find women wearing the elaborate silver jewellery that we usually associate with Tharu women. But there was little jewellery to be seen. No one had a full set of traditional jewellery – or even a half set. Women of all ages wore only a nose stud, ankle cuff or bangles (often made of glass), though some still kept a long coin necklace at home. Almost all their jewellery had been sold off during times of hardship, especially around the turn of the millennium, when the civil conflict was at its height. During this time, some women had their valuables stolen by opportunists from both sides of the border. Others thought it best to sell off these assets at low prices rather than risk them being stolen or seized. As in so many villages I’ve visited, there were few men to be seen.


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