Weird and Wonderful Tribal Body Art Traditions From Around the World
The Padaung Tribe
The Padaung are a sub-tribe that is part of the Red Karen tribe. They are indigenous to Burma but also live on the Tibet - Burma border. They are most famous for their neck rings which are placed on the woman when she is a child. The tribe is known by many different names but the most recognisable are the Long Neck Tribe or the Giraffe Tribe.
Not all of the Karen tribe use neck rings as part of their tradition.
The neck rings are made from brass and are added each year the child grows. An adult woman can wear as many as 25 rings around her neck.
There is a myth about how long the neck will stretch as the rings are applied. In fact, the neck itself does not stretch, its just a visual illusion.
The reason for wearing the rings is a bit of a mystery, but when asked, the women told that it was because they didn't want Tigers biting them! Others have said that it makes them look attractive for their husbands.
The downside of wearing the rings is that over time their neck muscles become weak, and this is used as a form of punishment for adultery. Once the rings are taken off, the woman's neck is so weak that she has to lie down for the rest of her life. Not surprising then that the divorce and adultery rates are very low in the tribe.
Other members of the Karen tribes wear large earrings that are made to make the ears look big and heavy. But it's the neck rings that make the Padaung tribe famous.
The Apatani People
The Apatani are a tribe of people who live in the Ziro Valley which is in the lower Subansiri or district of Arunachal Pradesh in India. There are over 26,000 of the tribe living in the valley and across the country. Their language is Tibetan and is called Sino-Tibetan, also known as, Tani. They have no written history, so their stories and lifestyle are passed down from generation to generation.
Body modification is an ancient art form, and many tribes around the world have practised these strange and sometimes bizarre form of body art for centuries. To us, they look strange and unfamiliar, but to them its part of their tradition and holds many parts of their tribe together, as time passes and the world begins to intrude on their lives.
In the Apatani tribe, women wear nose plugs. This is an ancient tradition, but these days you will only see the elder women of the tribe wearing them as the art has died out ever since the 1970s.
The story goes that the women were said to be the most beautiful in all the land, and were constantly being bombarded by other tribes trying to steal their women. So they came up with the idea of the nose plugs to try and make themselves unattractive.
There is definitely a pattern between tribes of the world with this in mind. Along with the Apatani, the Long Neck women above also said this was part of the reason why they added the neck rings. The nose rings are known as yaping hurlo and are made from local wood, though when researching this I couldn't find the exact method or wood that they used. It's possible that some of the nose plugs were made from bamboo. The women also tattoo their faces to complete the art.
African Mursi Tribe
The Mursi tribe are an ethnic people who live in Southwestern Ethiopia. The area is close to the Sudan border. According to the national census of 2007, there are 7,500 Mursi. The area in which they live is surrounded by mountains and has one major river named the Omo. It is one of the most isolated regions in the whole country.
Their language is part of the Nilo-Saharan and is simply called the Mursi language.
Once again we see that the body modification art is commonly used only by the women of the tribe. In the case of the Mursi women, it was believed to stop slave traders from taking the women. But there are probably many other reasons too that have been lost over time.
The lip plate or plug is inserted into the top lip or lower lip through a hole that has been pierced. Over time, the plate is removed, and another one is inserted to make the hole bigger. This is said to be most painful to the women, and each time it is stretched it causes it to bleed. The actual term is labret, which means pierced lip ornaments.
The plate or plug is made out of clay or wood. Women place the plate in either the top lip or lower lip, depending on the region the tribe is from. It has been said that it is a form of status, the bigger the plate the more important the woman. The disturbing thing about it is that when the plate is put in the lower lip, the women has her two lower front teeth knocked out to accommodate the plate. Sometimes up to four teeth are taken out.
In the Mursi tribe, the tradition of lip piercing is usually undertaken a year before the marriage ceremony. To begin with, the bride to be's mother will pierce the hole with a knife and then a wooden peg is placed in the hole. Once this has healed, the peg is removed, and the first plate is inserted.
As you can see, many tribes around the world have lip piercings. In some parts of the Amazon, it is only the men who have their lips pierced and a plate inserted. The Suya tribesmen pierce their lower lip purely to make themselves more attractive. The women go for a more startling look with two plates.
Suya Indian Washing Lip Disk
One of the most fascinating rituals that I have ever seen is the Gerewol Festival which takes place in the Fulani ethnic group who live in Southern Niger, but are also known to live as far away as Nigeria, Cameroon and the Western region of the Central African Republic. They are a nomadic tribe of cattle herders and traders.
There are said to be more than 45,000 tribesmen and women, and like other nomadic tribes, they do not have a written language. They speak Fula which is their dialect and pass down their traditions in dance music and art. The actual name, Wodaabe, is translated as 'People of the Taboo.'
Their marriage arrangements are somewhat different to other African tribes. The family is based on the man and women having an arranged marriage where the woman will then live with the man until she becomes pregnant with her first child. When this occurs, she returns home to her mother and stays there for the next three to four years.
At this time she will be regarded as a boofeydo which translates as 'someone who has committed an error.'
The husband will not be able to have any contact with her or the child within this time period. After this time she will be able to visit her husband but not take the child with her, and she is not permitted to live with him. This doesn't change until her mother has supplied all her marriage goods or dowry.
The Beauty of The Gerewol Festival
The Wodaabe are promiscuous and can have as many partners as they wish before they marry. This includes the women being able to choose partners for long or short term relationships, even changing them when she becomes tired of her partner.
At the end of September every year, the tribe holds one of the most beautiful and bizarre ceremonies. It's the end of the rainy season, and the Wodaabe tribes gather at several different locations to meet, trade at the salt market and meet men and women for relationships. One of the most famous of these places is the Toureg Festival.
These are the traditional locations where the tribes have met for hundreds of years. And this is where the young men change into the most colorful and amazing costumes. With feathers and makeup, jewelry and adornments they practise for what for them is the most important day of the year.
Like beautiful birds of prey, they dress up and practice the ritual dance which includes the main features that make them the most desirable. Rolling their eyes to show the white as much as possible, standing as tall as they can because height is important to the female, and showing their teeth to prove they are fit and healthy.
Wodaabe tribes then join in the week-long Gerewol that includes bartering over marriage and a series of contests and various skills that are judged by the young women of the tribe.
A Documentary Film by Sandrine Loncke
Gerewol Festival Footage
Tribal Art, Jewelry and Dance
The beauty of tribal art, dance and makeup is one of the most amazing things about the human spirit. The way we show our face to the world may not be your idea of conventional beauty, but it is beautiful in the eyes of the people around us.
To the tribes in all the different countries and on far away continents, beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder. Whether it be a neck ring, nose plug, a lip plate or multi-colored makeup, each and every one of them is unique and has a history that goes far back into the reaches of time and our primordial consciousness.
People around the world are beautiful.
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Nell Rose