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Where Tattoos Tell Stories of Struggle and Hope

Updated: Jan 17

Tattoos serve various purposes all around the world, such as marking rites of passage, indicating status and rank, displaying religious and spiritual devotion, showing bravery, promoting fertility, symbolizing love, and providing protection.


But then there are those tattoos called the art of the poor: permanent marks that tell stories of struggle and resilience on the bodies of the less fortunate.


It’s scorching hot when we get off the bikes in front of the narrow alleys between the endless rows of clay houses. They belong to a tiny Maithili village in Dhanusha, a district in southern Nepal close to the Indian border.

We are thrilled to be here and discover more about traditional village life in Nepal. And it is right here where tattoos reveal the origin of its less fortunate women and their plight.


Privacy is no prerequisite


We have been invited into Subdi’s home, a simple construction with a thatched roof comprising two tiny rooms. These contain everything that Subdi and her family own, including sleeping and storage facilities, cloth racks, photographs, and kitchen utensils.


Three women sitting on a bed in a mud hut
Getting access to Subdi’s home was an invaluable experience (image credit: Bishal KC)

Subdi and her husband occupy the room where we gather, while the other is home to their 18-year-old son and his newly-wed wife—separated only by a thin mud wall.


We can hear voices coming from next door, which is merely a meter away.


There is no privacy here, is all I can think.


An antique fan spins below the ceiling, trying to move the hot and humid afternoon air. We are seated on the bare floor while more women arrive to welcome us.


Tattoos are more than a decorative piercing


Some of the women's forearms, hands, and necklines are covered in tattoos. Faded and blurred over time. Subdi notices my curiosity and is quick to explain. "Some of these tattoos are like unique name tags we had since we were children,” she recalls while pointing at her left hand. "This way, we couldn’t get lost. Or if we did, we could be returned to our parents while checking the tattoos.


As children, we knew nothing, the same as our illiterate parents. Getting tattooed was a precaution. Yet, somehow, they’ve always labeled us as being illiterate. And stupid.

It’s like a birthmark we can’t wipe off"
A grey-haired old Nepali woman in a red covering her head and bare chest with a red and creme colored sari
image credit: Bishal KC

We fall silent.


These tattoos remind me of those burnt into cattle skin, permanent markings for identification in case of loss or theft. But these are women and not cattle. I try to imagine the excruciating pain Subdi and her fellow village sisters must have experienced as kids while getting their forearms and hands pierced.

And as if Subdi is sensing my thoughts, she waves her hand.


"It was a long time ago, and to be honest, I have endured more pain than getting tattooed."


Poverty isn’t a lack of character


Our visit is a welcome occasion for Subdi to relax for a moment. She’s had a fever for a week, and the IV cannula is still stuck in her arm. Reason enough to stay in bed, but with all her duties, she can’t afford the much-needed rest.


Subdi reveals that she never had the opportunity to learn to read or write. There was no school here in the village where she was born and grew up. Today, she manages to scribble her name, which her daughter taught her years ago. Besides that, she struggles with writing anything else.


“Life is difficult without these basic skills,” she admits.


“But when I was a child, times were different. My brothers are also illiterate. Since childhood, all I ever knew was running household chores, cooking, herding cattle, and serving the family,” she carries on while looking at me with probing eyes, testing if we are judging or even condemning her.


"We’re not bad people. But we’re poor."


Some are headed off into a better future


The phone rings. It’s Subdi’s daughter who got married and moved away to a better life.


Subdi is quick to hand me the phone so that I can have a chat with her. She takes pride in letting her daughter know the family has international visitors. For the first time. From women who ride motorbikes. The video call is shaky, and I struggle to see the face of the person I am trying to speak to. The call ends abruptly. The power is gone for the rest of the day.


I ask Subdi if her daughter had been tattooed the way she had. She nods slowly.


“But some of our daughters will live differently from now on. They have an education, and some live abroad and earn money. Life is easier for them compared to what we have to endure.


And I am glad these days are finally ending for some of our children."


A young Asian woman in a sari sitting in front of a clay stove cooking
Daughters-in-law are crucial in Nepali society as they take over chores from older women in the household (image credit: Bishal KC)

But Subdi smiles painfully at her daughter-in-law cooking outside in the courtyard. Just like herself, she will likely spend her beautiful youth here in the village, taking care of her aging in-laws, with more and more children of her own, shouldering the most notorious household chores.


Even though she’s been to school for a few years, she may not have the chance to experience how much the world has to offer.


Recreation does not exist in these women’s lives


"Look at us women here," she continues. "We’re trapped. It’s a circle of the same old we can’t escape. I have done my duties. Got tattooed and married, had children, and now even have grandchildren. But I have not been anywhere; I have not learned anything. There’s nothing to enjoy in life.


So what’s left? That's a question I fail to answer.


"Here, society decides we must stay home and work while you can roam around, even without a husband.“ She briefly glances at her better half outside the room to ensure he doesn’t listen to what she has to share with us.


"She also has a tattoo," Subdi says after a while, pointing at my friend’s upper arm, which is ornamented with a colorful snake.


„Does that mean Laura's illiterate, too?“ She giggles and checks her phone once more, maybe wondering how long until lunch, though she can't read the time.


The best memories are made when we open our hearts


Our mere presence brings a sense of joy to the women's homes. Although our lives are incomparable in so many ways, we share similar stories.


Stories of injustice and exclusion. Of slipped chances and failures, but also of love and hope. And when we sit down and listen to each other, we realize how much we have in common.


As we prepare to leave this welcoming place and its incredibly strong inhabitants, I make a pledge to come back with more women riders and continue the crucial dialogue across cultures. Perhaps we may even return with an idea in our saddlebags that could eventually benefit the women of this village in the long run.


For now, Subdi is entrusted with the lunch money to commemorate the arrival of the first foreigners in her home and village.

 

Thank you for taking the time to read a new roadside story from Nepal. I came across this story during our recent women-only motorcycle tour. Our visit to this Maithili village was part of our efforts to combine adventure riding with exploring Nepal through the backdoor.

Much love, always

Kerstin


PS: Keen on uncovering Nepal with us? Get in touch today!


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