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When foreigners first arrive in Myanmar there is much to catch the eye. The crumbling colonial cities, the roads flooded with taxis, the gilded pagodas. Yet among these unique oft-glittering gems perhaps the most striking novelty is the people themselves. Most are coated in a milky yellowish paste that is applied in varying patterns on their cheeks, noses and chins.
This stunning, creamy concoction is a unique local tradition known as Thanaka.
It is made from tree bark and used as a natural cosmetic, sunscreen and medicine that is applied in various patterns to suit the region, the climate and the wearer themselves.
The paste is eponymously named for the tree from which it is made, the Thanaka tree, farmed in the arid central region of the country. Most Myanmar people claim the best Thanaka comes from the Sagaing area, and the absolute cream of the crop is said to come from Shinmataung and Pakokku. The trees are grown to maturity, cheaper logs are grown about 7 years with the average being 12-15 years and the highest quality reaching up to 20-25 years of growth, before being cut down and sectioned off into small pieces of bark which are shipped thousands of miles to be sold at local markets countrywide.
The purchased pieces of bark are then brought to peoples’ homes and workplaces where they are ground in a circular motion with a dab of water on a round accent stone, the kyauk pyin (pronounced ‘jow-pee-in’). A thin layer of the resulting paste is applied to the whole face and body which is then topped with a bold, distinct pattern applied with fingers or brush on the user’s face.
Like the tree which is grown in the central Bamar majority region of the country – the tradition is an ethnically Bamar practice. It is fabled to have started over 2,000 years ago when a Bagan queen dropped her parcel of Thanaka and exposed the secret behind her smooth, youthful complexion which was owed to the all-powerful bark and trusty kyauk pyin both of which were gifts from a faithful servant.
The Bamar tradition is rumored to have been passed down the royal line. The oldest relic is a kyauk pyin believed to belong to Princess Razadutukalya daughter of the infamous King Bayintnaung, who is known for amassing one of the largest kingdoms in Southeast Asia. Her ancient stone can be seen at the Thanaka Museum in Bagan along with many other related artifacts and Thanaka specimens from across the county.
Though ancient, the tradition of Thanaka is by no means extinct, it is alive and prevalent throughout each and every state and region in Myanmar. Application begins in infancy, continues into adulthood and even sends revered Buddhist monks on to their next life in cremation ceremonies.
Myanmar mothers apply Thanaka to their baby’s young skin as early as 7 days after birth, though most wait until the child is about 40 days old. Mothers continue application well into adolescence, applying fresh coats of Thanaka two to three times daily. Application is usually a full body effort with a thin layer applied to arms, legs, neck and body topped with a tidy pattern on the cheeks, chin, nose and forehead. Though many mothers adorn their children with patterns similar to their own, most apply “cute” designs on their infants and toddlers including rabbits, bunnies and circles.
Mothers also commonly feed their babies a bit of the paste while applying it. It is said to protect their young stomachs from harsh cooking smells – which if you’ve ever gotten a whiff of peppery garlic smoke from a Myanmar kitchen you will fully understand the need for internal fortification.
The most common design seen in Myanmar is called ‘pa kwat’ or ‘wa lone’ – big circles on the cheeks meant to incite images of the full moon. Full cheek squares, ‘pa chit’, are also quite popular especially among women. Patterns are sometimes passed from mother to child but many young children experiment with patterns when they begin self-application around the age of 6. This rite of passage for Myanmar youth typically parallels their entrance into the education system.
Once self-application begins, gender differences soon follow. Mothers, caregivers or siblings typically apply Thanaka to their sons or male family members until late adolescence while girls can begin applying their own designs as early as age 5. Girls tend to try more patterns than boys and to see it more of a tool for beauty than their brothers. Depending on the region, boys also regularly stop wearing Thanaka patterns while girls wear distinct patterns until they become elderly.
These breaks in Thanaka typically coincide with major life events. Young men commonly cease pattern application in their late teens, upon entering university, or when they get married. After these times they see Thanaka as feminine or a cosmetic rather than a necessity. Thanaka application can also be tied to male homosexuality in some areas which further contributes to the decline in use among heterosexual men. This trend of course changes by region and occupation. Many men who work outside in the blistering Myanmar sun need Thanaka and apply thick coats and patterns multiple times a day. The gender divide is also more extreme in rural non-Bamar regions where the paste is not native or climatically necessary.
You may be wondering, how did this Thanaka even reach areas where it is not climatically necessary? In a country of 135 recognized ethnicities why do non-Bamar participate in a Bamar tradition? To answer these questions, you have to wade through a very sticky history.
In some regions Thanaka came as a welcome cure for common ailments. Take the Palaung villages as an example. The 12 Palaung tribes live deep in the heart of the Shan mountains and were until recently fairly isolated. They claim to have first discovered Thanaka through their shamans who trekked down rugged mountains in search of cures for ailments plaguing their communities. These shamans discovered Thanaka from the Bamar and then prescribed it to their patrons for common conditions such as rashes, acne, and insect bites as well as to promote a fair complexion, which most Myanmar people aesthetically prefer.
Among other ethnicities, Thanaka is a modern adaptation for traditional ceremonies and customs. The Pa’O once spent hours making rice paste that was worn decoratively for ceremonies and festivals. Now they have replaced traditional rice paste with Thanaka, a less tedious adornment. Similarly, ethnically Indian-Burmese citizens who once wore traditional masks of turmeric now mix turmeric with Thanaka creating a bright yellow hybrid that reflects their dual contemporary culture. Hindus too grind traditional Chandan bark with Thanaka on a kyauk pyin integrating their diverse heritage. Even Naga youth in the far northwestern corner of the country have incorporated Thanaka into their ancient festivals.
However, with the onset of military rule after independence schools became a function of the government and as such an arm of soft power; and tucked under that arm was a Thanaka log.
Yet despite these cheery antidotes, there is a darker side to Thanaka. As mentioned it is a Bamar tradition that is not native to most regions. And though Thanaka may have made its way peacefully to some regions it also aggressively carved its way into others. One area of forcible permeation is the education system where Thanaka application and cleverness now go hand in hand.
School children in Myanmar are easily recognizable. They are dressed in neat white tops tucked into emerald green longyis. They also wear the unspoken yet required part of their uniform on their cheeks, a neatly applied coat of thick buttery Thanaka. Education in the mostly Buddhist culture of Myanmar was once monastic. Therefore, beautification was neither required nor desired which remained with the influx of colonialism. However, with the onset of military rule after independence schools became a function of the government and as such an arm of soft power; and tucked under that arm was a Thanaka log.
As the Bamar majority junta warred with and eventually conquered many ethnic regions they established their own mandatory education system. In came the white and green uniforms, out went the indigenous dialects and ability to question. With these changes came many Bamar teachers and institutionalized Bamar values – including Thanaka.
This irreversibly altered the culture in many regions. Mothers and caregivers who have never worn Thanaka themselves must now wake up early to grind fresh bark with which they prepare their children to learn the required curriculum. Children who come to school without Thanaka are thought to be “lazy” or “unprepared” and can even be punished, sent home, or made to apply it in school.
Thus for better or worse, Thanaka is both figuratively and literally blanketing the future generation in Bamar culture. Ironically though, the future of Thanaka is itself in question; it’s trajectory is dependent upon the same youth who are made to wear it.
When the previously isolated country opened its doors to the world in 2010-2012, they also opened the population’s eyes to global culture. This new lens brought images of faces without Thanaka. Many youths now model their outward image to mirror the popular culture they see streaming on their smartphones, that of other countries like South Korea and Japan. Young girls are increasingly reaching for modern make-up over a Thanaka log.
The development of reliable air conditioning also threatens Thanaka use. Thanaka is meant to absorb sweat and oil, keep dirt off your skin, and keep the body cool. In air conditioned spaces it dries out skin and becomes uncomfortable to wear. So as more and more people begin working in offices and retail spaces with steady streams of manufactured cool air, less and less of them will wear their native cosmetic.
Global business also presents a barrier to the future of Thanaka. A business owner in Shan State says she cannot wear Thanaka to meet with international partners because it becomes a distracting topic of conversation which she feels separates her from her colleagues. She is not the only one that feels that way.
Many international brands entered Myanmar using Thanaka in advertisements as a way to ingratiate their product into the culture. But billboards and ads that once exclusively showed Thanaka-clad models are slowly changing their strategy, showing less Thanaka; a change that reflects the population. Urban populations, especially, are quickly evolving and rapidly adapting to international standards. Those standards and images rarely include Thanaka.
Urban populations, especially, are quickly evolving and rapidly adapting to international standards. Those standards and images rarely include Thanaka.
Ultimately, like most things in Myanmar, Thanaka culture is as complicated as it is charming. With beautiful patterns come a rich yet bitterly disputed past and an uncertain future.