Officially, the Myanmar government recognises 135 different ethnic tribes in Myanmar. Yep you heard that right, there are around 135 different languages spoken in Myanmar by these different ethnic tribes. And that’s without even mentioning the unrecognised tribes. Imagine trying to be a translator here?
Of these, one of the largest groups is known as the Chin people, and you’ll generally find them in the aptly named Chin State. Like many groups all over Myanmar, the Chin people have some fascinating traditions that are still carried out to this day. The most well known of these is probably the Chin women and their remarkable face tattoos.
The Legends Behind the Facial Tattoos
It is believed that this custom began in the eleventh century and there are several stories about the origins. Chin legend talks about a Burmese king who travelled to the Chin region, and was mesmerised by one of the daughters, so kidnapped her to take as his own bride. Following this, it was decided by the elders to tattoo the faces of their daughters to dissuade any further suitors from kidnapping them.
Another Chin tale has it that the tattooing defines the beauty for Chin women and also to differentiate them from other tribes in case a daughter is kidnapped by another.
The final story is associated with religion. Since the colonization of Myanmar by the British, many Chin people have changed their religion from being animist to Christians. As a result, their local pastors taught some Chin people that only those who had tattoos would go to heaven when they die.
Although the facial tattoos tradition was started to make Chin women less appealing, or to differentiate them, over time it took on a different meaning. Face tattooing became the symbol of beauty and bravery for Chin women, with the women carrying their tattoos with great pride.
Different Tattoo Patterns
There are six facial tattoo patterns in the Chin region and each differs from the other depending on the tribe. The M’uun, M’kann, Yin Du, Nga Yah, Uppriu and Dai tribes all have contrasting symbols and patterns which are used when tattooing. For example the M’uun women are recognizable by their large looping D shapes, while the Yin Du tribe have distinct long vertical lines that cross their entire face.
The Making of the Tattoos
There are a couple of different methods that are used to create these tattoos. Generally the most common technique is by using a cane thorn to apply a specially concocted liquid to the face. This liquid is made by combining the bark of green pine trees, soot, and bean leafs. After applying the liquid, the face must be washed for two days, and if the markings are not clear enough following this period, then the process must be done all over again.
One thing is for certain, the process is extremely painful. Imagine a sharp thorn poking your face hundreds of times in the course of several hours and you’ll get some kind of idea. It might even take several days or weeks before the entire process is finished. Usually this ceremony is performed on girls that are between 11 and 15 years of age and following the ceremony, they are considered a Chin lady.
The Fading of the Tradition
The custom continued until the 1960s, when the government banned the practice of face tattooing in the Chin Region. They believed it to be barbaric while also wanting to usher in a new era of modernization in Myanmar. Due to the region being remote and far away from the former capital, Yangon, the practice did continue in some areas however.
With the growing access to computers and the outside world, the tradition has further suffered with younger generations considering the tattoos ugly and unfashionable.
Today, the elderly Chin women over the age of 60 are the only women who carry the tradition of face tattooing and are considered as the last of their kind. The tradition is now only faintly alive thanks to these elderly Chin women, but after they are gone, their tradition, which was once very precious, will soon be found only in history books and photographs.
If you’re at all interested in finding out more about the Chin women and their face tattoos, or wish to visit the villages where these beautiful women live, then check out our Mrauk U Day Trip.