The Guga, or Kouka, are a Naga people who live in the Sagaing Division of Myanmar. They are one of the less populous Naga peoples and have only a few villages in Lay Shi Township. They live high up in the mountains and bring many of their essentials, including firewood, from the valleys below.
Tattooing was common for both men and women in the past. While many Naga peoples have a strong relationship between headhunting and tattoos, the Guga people I spoke to offered a very different history for their people’s tattoos. Primarily, I was told, it was tied to animistic beliefs. Good fortune was said to befall those who tattooed certain patterns and many would add ink to their bodies for good health and plentiful harvests. Although nobody now remembers what specific pieces of the tattoo mean, they all agree that in generations past, it was used for good luck in this life and identification in the afterlife.
Guga elder Dere told me of her younger days when all the women were covered from head to toe in tattoos. Now, she is the only one with a significant number of tattoos. She recalls that there were names for every single tattoo and the girls collected them as they got older. The first tattoos a woman got were her facial tattoos and they were done at a very young age. From there, tattoos were added one by one.