Anthropological analyses prove that there are many cultural practices in the globe that use different forms of body art and ornamentation such as tattooing which is either permanent or temporary, scarification, and piercing for different reasons such as, ceremonial religious rituals, and tribal identification. The body art and ornamentation process represents a figurative death, as well as rebirth involving painful experience as a method to push for self-discovery, and establishing one’s position in the society. This paper will focus on different aspects of body art and ornamentation across certain cultures. The cultures to be analyzed are the Yoruba’s of West Africa, and Hindus of India.
In the historical setup of the African culture, anthropologists have identified a range of body markings among Africans. Scarification is the most permanent form of body marking. It has been realized that these people use these types of body markings to identify themselves from other communities. Among Yoruba tribes of West Africa, men were exposed to face scarification in the bid to separate their culture from other African cultures and denote hierarchy among the members of the community. Shortly after birth, infants are taken to specialists, who place desired facial stripes on his or her cheeks as a form of national badge. It is compulsory that the stripes follow a given artistic process, where the community insists on symmetrical stripes on each cheek of the infant (Orie, 2011).
Also, the Yoruba culture use facial scarification as a tribal identifier to protect its people from the spirit world, as well as prevent existence of mischievous children. The term “mischievous” among Yoruba people defines children who pass on immediately they are born, or for the surviving child of a mother who has previously experienced a series of miscarriages. Yoruba’s have a belief that such children are followed by an Abiku, which is a spirit that is responsible of infant’s deaths (Ojo, 2008). To challenge the effects of the spirit Yoruba children are marked with a single horizontal or vertical stripe on each cheek, or multiple incisions placed in the entire body of the child.
Apart from scarification practices among Yoruba people, another culture that has been using body art and ornamentation is the Hindu culture. Tattooing is one of the main forms of body art and ornamentation that the culture uses. Unlike other cultures, Hindu culture does not use body art and ornamentation as protection from the spiritual world. Hindu culture uses a non-permanent tattooing process known as menhdi or henna, which is a mixture of henna leaves and botanical oils ground up and made into a paste. This is mainly used to tattoo the hands of Hindu women. Centuries of cultural interaction and migration are major factors that have made it extremely difficult to identify the origin of menhdi. This form of art has been used in the culture for a longtime especially during weddings to decorate the woman. These women are tattooed in unique ways and functions as a representative of love among future Indian brides (Henna tradition, 2001). The culture believes that applying menhdi on the hand of the future bride, the love between the bride and the groom-to-be is strengthened. Hindu women have exclusive respect for the menhdi process, and it makes them throw elaborate parties before the wedding as a form of respect to the process. The application of menhdi during this ceremony enables Hindu women to bestow wisdom and blessings to the brides-to-be.
The other form of art and ornamentation that has been common in the Hindu culture is nose-piercing. In Hindu culture, the purpose for nose piercing varies from one region to another. In some India rural areas, certain castes use a septum piercing known as nathori was used in the bid to emulate the Hindu god Lord Krishna. Among othercastes in the Hindu culture, wide pieces of jewelry were used to embellish the nostril of a Hindu bride-to-be during a wedding ceremony, and are worn thereafter as a sign of marriage among other peoples. Also, there are some castes in the culture that use left-sided nose piercing known as mookkuthi, for healing purposes. The application of mookkuthi comes from the antique art of Ayurvedic medicine. This medicinal practice started with the revelation of Ayurveda which is known as life knowledge, and the three doshas at Hindu deity, Brahma (Carrier, 2011). Hindu culture defines that Ayurvedic medicine used in piercing the nose of young Hindu women would lead to easier menstruation, as well as less pain while giving birth.
Although, the Hindu and Yoruba cultures are different on how they use body art and ornamentation for self-expression, they have a given commonality as they incline toward modernization. Following an increase in colonization in the cultural lands, many people in these cultures have ignored the painful experiences of body art and ornamentation and have replaced them with less exotic methods of self-expression, like jewelry design and clothing art. For instance, in Nigeria, the unmarked ex-slaves of the Yoruba diaspora started taking influential positions within the African government, thus making the traditional Yoruba facial scarification process passed by time (Ojo, 2004). Although some Yoruba parents will still have their children scarified, they choose unique designs that suit design taste than cultural identification. Currently, most of the traditional designs used in facial scarification can now be found in the artwork of the Yoruba people, with Yoruba women applying the Yoruba body art designs on pottery and textiles.
Also, religious missionaries played critical role in setting up changes on how certain body art and ornamentation take place in these cultures. Christians believe that tattooing is evil and this could have been extremely influential in the livelihood of Hindu people. This has influenced the view of some Indians on the tattooing practice. This has led to use of tattoo in other sectors such as decoration of utensils. This has eroded the original use of tattoo in the Indian culture. Although, Christianity has not been able to challenge Hinduism completely, it has had a deal of influence on the religion in terms of cultural erosion (Ryman, 2004).
Westernization, and modernization in India, has extended massive influence to the Hindu culture. Although, mehndi is still being used as a ceremonial religious ritual, it is now evolving and it is evident being worn among different kinds of women in India without exemptions in terms of marital status and significance. It has become common to find young women sporting mehndi designs that act as more of a fashion accessory and not as ceremonial marking. In the past, designs were limited to lacy floral patterns but today there are new designs, which range from words to caricatures. In the present day, mehndi is not only being worn in the hands of young Hindu women, but they are worn on the face, feet, legs, and arms. It has become a natural, non-permanent, safe style for women to color their hair with no significance for the chosen style. Moreover, with the modernization of medicine in India, Ayurvedic medicine which was renowned as medicine in Hindu is fading out (Carrier, 2011). Also, nose piercings among Hindu women has lost its significance among Hindu women despite Hindu women continuing to practice the cultural activity. It has lost its medicinal meaning to beauty inclination.
Body art and ornamentation across cultures has been extremely useful among anthropologists in defining interests and history of people in the world. The role of body art and ornamentation in the cultures defined in this paper hold massive significance that ranges from cultural identification, tribal identification, and celebration of love. For instance, examination of facial scarifications of the Yoruba’s of West Africa, one can easily identify with the history of diaspora, where in most cases facial marks would be used as the only factors to differentiate between slaves and warriors. Following exclusive study for meticulous and precise designs of tradition pe’a one can easily define the transition of boyhood to manhood. Following beautiful and delicate designs of menhdi, Hindu women can portray acceptance of marriage, as well as indication of the love they possess for their grooms. Despite the ever changing world through processes of colonization, religious advances, to modernization, there have been challenges in keeping these traditions thriving with slight alterations of the practices that were originally in the cultures. Anthropologists, continue to dig the need for various practices such as body art and ornamentation in defining the cultural practices for different cultural groups.
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