We were enjoying a boat trip up Myanmar's Irrawaddy River. I looked at the other foreign women aboard the boat. Some had eyes heavy laden with mascara while others had rouged their cheeks. Some even had their lips painted red. So who was calling the kettle black? Every society from the most "primitive" to the most advanced has their own customs regarding beauty and health, India and Pakistan, for example, practice rnenhdi, the decoration of hands and feet with henna American Indians, Polynesians, ancient Egyptians and African tribal peoples have also used makeup for a variety of purposes.
These days however, traditional face painting is in decline, and mostly done for tourist shows and special rituals.
Not so in Myanmar. Women with their faces powdered yellow can be seen all over the country. But what is its purpose of this distinctive tradition - is it sun block, you might ask, or is it cosmetic? In fact, it's both.
The practice of applying thanakha is rooted so strongly in the villages as to defy the impact of time. Thanakha has many uses, but its most widely used simply to cool and refresh the skin. Thanakha means both "cosmetic for beautifying the face" and "cleansing agent". Country women also wear it as a sunscreen, and their faces are usually thickly plastered. New mothers wear thanakha mixed with turmeric powder to keep a golden look after childbirth.
The production of thanakha is fascinating. It does make me wonder where the large cosmetic companies got the sun block idea from as this people use it for centuries.
It's simple enough, however, and the method hasn't changed in centuries. The bark and roots are stripped, soaked in water, ground and pulverized, using a mortar and a flat stone, into a fragrant paste this yellow substance is then applied to the face. Most women prefer to paint their face just after a bath. Many women even take thanakha and a small stone mortar with them when traveling.
Unlike the face powders used by women in the West, thanakha stays fresh, keeping its fragrant smell for a long time In Myanmar's tropical climate, moreover, with the humidity and relentless sun, the foreign women on our boat struggled, mascara running, to keep their makeup from melting; the Burmese women were having no such problems with their thanakha.
Thanakha has a rich history in Myanmar. It's used not only in daily life, but in ceremonies where face paintings bear cultural associations of nobility and purity. When royalty ruled Myanmar, maidservants and handmaidens sat for hours each day preparing thanakha for the royal family. The complexion Burmese consider most beautiful is clear and light brown with a tinge of gold. Thus princesses favored by their father might have gold dust sprinkled and ground into their thanakha. Commoners, on the other hand, used golden pollen of the gant gaw flower, as hey do still. The blossoms of this flower also have a perfume.
In Mandalay, this writer witnessed a ceremony at the pagoda of Mahamuni Buddha. This the most revered pagoda in Mandalay, and the early morning ritual of washing the face of the Buddha image with towels of thanakha draws a: daily crowd of devotees.
These towels are then given as gifts to the devotees to keep as relics. Another interesting ceremony takes place in the village of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, on the eve of the Water Festival. Despite the fact the Rakhines are similar to the majority Burmese people in many ways; they are ethnically distinct, with a history going.back thousands of years. On New Year's Eve, in the evening, young women grind thanakha bark to a fine cream while young men play musical instruments and dance. Once the thanakha is ready, all go to nearby pagodas and wash the Buddha images with it as a way of making merit.
It appears that the custom of applying thanakha to the face is here to stay, an age-old tradition that has endured into the modern world.