Ātman (Soul)

Although religion and culture are so seamlessly intertwined, we sometimes overlook context and study history as a singular subject of academic exploration. Ātman is a photo series that explores the relationship between body and soul by looking at tattoos in India through both a religious and cultural lens. A reminder that looking into the past has the ability to explain the present and to speak to the future.

Within Hinduism, there is a separation of body and soul, or ātman. The soul is thought to be eternal, invisible, imperishable, unchanging and exists beyond the grasp of the mind and the senses. Death and decay are for the body, not for the soul, which is immortal and indestructible. At the time of death, the soul leaves the body and its accumulated karma dictates the nature of the soul's rebirths in futures lives. The soul can be reincarnated into another human body, an animal body or the body of a supernatural being (angels, demons, etc). Making progress on the spiritual path and neutralizing all negative karma eventually leads to the soul achieving the highest spiritual state in which case it is reunited with the eternal essence of the universe.

Tattoos have a rich cultural significance in India that can be traced back hundreds, if not thousands, of years to the tribes of the nation. It is a common belief across the country that tattoos stay with the soul even after someone dies. Since tattoos were a way to identify the soul once it leaves the physical body, tribal men and women got tattoos as a form of protection. Among the Santhals of central India, tattoos were believed to protect them from purgatory after they died. In South India, many tattoo patterns around the early 20th century were derived from Kolam designs, which resemble labyrinths and are associated with magical functions. Kolam tattoos were considered necessary for women in order to avoid punishment in the land of the dead because demons only devoured the unmarked. From a historical context, tattoos essentially became a method of connecting body and soul. Understanding our present landscape is incomplete without taking a deep look into our roots. All roads somehow lead back to the indigenous people and how they integrated human, spiritual and environmental worlds through bodily rituals and cultural practices.

+++ In collaboration with BLUEPRINT, a design label based in Chennai, India. Featured above is their Bandhgala Jacket which showcases a modern take on traditional brocade, a woven fabric often made in silk with silver & gold threading. The richness of a brocade textile juxtaposed with a more western aesthetic complemented the overarching theme of this series - how daughters of the diaspora are interpreting their religion & culture daily.

photography cheri roohi@cheriroohi
styling & art direction reva bhatt, @hybridhues