The face tattooed women, a slowly dying tradition

Lin Shwe Htang, from the Mun tribe is at her home with some of her grandsons. It’s their day off school, so they all hang together while their parents are working in the fields. When heavy rains starts to pour, everyone goes inside. As her grandchildren sit down around her, Lin Shwe lights an old pipe with locally grown tobacco and starts smoking, slowly. She’s been a smoker for a very long time. Lin doesn’t know her actual age, but explains that she started smoking as a child, to scare mosquitoes away and to warm up in winter.

Lin Shwe Htang smoking a pipe at her home.

When Lin Shwe was around 14, she got her face tattooed with natural ink made with a mix of black charcoal and green tomato leaves, a very old tradition in her area. The process was so painful that other women had to held her down while the tattoo artist was carefully marking her face. The eyelid area was particularly hurtful, she recalls. However, she went through it twice more, to get the tattoo stronger and make it last longer, because the ink wasn’t good enough. 

 The outside of Lin Shwe Htang’s home, a small one-room dark bamboo hut, is full of animal skulls. She shows us some bows and arrows her family uses for hunting. Sometimes they perform animal sacrifices, like other Animist villagers. 

Animal skulls outside Lin Shwe Htang’s home.

 In Chin State, located in Western Myanmar, bordering India and Bangladesh, people were originally Animists, believing that all animate and inanimate things possess a spirit or an essence. But after the British colonisation in 1886 and the arrival of Christian evangelists, a vast majority  of people in Chin State converted. Nowadays, 90% of the population is Christian, with the Chin State being the only part of the country were there are more churches than pagodas. That is something rare in a country predominantly Buddhist. Still, there are other villagers holding Animist beliefs. In a home near Lin Shwe’s, there’s a long wooden post with an egg placed on top of it. We’re told it’s because a member of the family is sick, and they believe the egg has healing properties.

Like with the Animist religion, female face tattoos has been a tradition for a long time in the Chin state, but it is not clear how and when it originated. A widely believed story tells that, at the time when Myanmar had Kings, they used to travel around the country to look for wives-to-be. They would choose the most beautiful girls and take them to his personal ‘harem’, far away from their home and families. Since Chin women were renowned for their beauty and their families didn’t want to see them taken away, they came up with a solution: tattooing the girls’ faces, so the King wouldn’t find them beautiful any more. 

However, as the tradition persisted and became the norm, face tattoos made the women feel beautiful and proud, becoming pretty much necessary to find a husband. And today, the pride of having face tattoos can still be seen in the elder generations of Chin women.

 Every Chin tribe has a different tattoo pattern. This is why 67 year old Ning Shen shares Lin Shwe’s tattoo. However, the marks on her face are surprisingly clear: it’s because she got the tattoo done when she was 35. Her parents didn’t want her to get tattooed, so she waited until both of them had passed away. All her female friends and villagers had face tattoos, and she wanted them too. She didn’t want to be different, she wanted to be beautiful like the rest.

Ningh Shen posing outside her home.

 In a region of farmers with low income, the tattoist was usually paid with animals because the families had no money. In fact, according to the 2017 Poverty Report produced by Central Statistical Organization with support from the World Bank and UNDP, Chin state is the poorest of Myanmar’s states and regions, with almost six out of ten people living in poverty. 

To get her tattoo, Ning Shen had to give away two chickens and two blankets. After getting it, her face was swollen for a week, and she didn’t let anyone outside her family see her. Five years after that, she got married. Now she has 9 children and several grandchildren, and continues to work as a farmer.

Views of the Chin State.

The tradition of faces tattoos has been banned for some time. In 1960, in an attempt to “modernise” the country, the government declared this practice illegal. However, it hasn’t been until recently that it has become less and less common, with most young people not carrying on the tradition, but not because of the law but because of a change in the mentality. The youngest tattooed woman of the Mun tribe is 27 years old. She hasn’t tattooed her daughters and says she won’t do it. Parents don’t want their daughters to go through the painful process, and girls, having received an education and having been in contact with the outside world -especially thanks to phone reception-, don’t find face tattoos appealing anymore. What inside their villages was once the norm, is now slowly disappearing. Some elders are worried about this tradition dying with them, and complain that now they cannot differentiate the Burmese from the Chin villagers.

 One of the oldest woman with face tatooes is 92 years old Yun Eian, from the Magan tribe. She has almost become a celebrity by playing the flute with her nose, something her mum taught her many years ago. Nowadays Yun occasionally plays the flute for tourists in exchange of some money, which helps the economy of her family. 

After playing a song for us, she complains: at her age, she cannot blow the flute like before. We’re also in the school where her daughter works, so there’s a lot of students’ background noise, and the melody is soft. We don’t care. It’s like with her face tattoos: the ink faded over the years, but she is still beautiful.

Yun Eian playing the flute.
Articles, Culture

A selection of articles

Articles

Here is a selection of my articles, of diverse topics. Some were written as assignments during my time at university, others were published on blogs or websites.

Most of them are in English, but there are are links to reports, interviews and short pieces published online in both Catalan and Spanish media.

Scroll down to start reading my work.

Short selections

Sin categoría

What you’ll find here it’s not some beautiful pictures you could find on your tourist guide. Not the top 10 places to visit, not the most famous sights, not the biggest temples or highest mountains. What I want to share are some photos I particularly find interesting, for what they make me think, remember or feel, more than for what they show. A personal selection that, I believe, can more or less sum up my experience in each of these countries.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

JAPAN

INDIA

MYANMAR

SRI LANKA

NEPAL

Reports in Catalan published online

Spanish and Catalan

Below there’s a couple of links of reports published in the online Catalan media Vilaweb, with infographics and video as well.

  • Report on pederasty: after a teacher of a private school in Barcelona was denounced for several abuses, many other pedophile cases emerged. With a colleague, we researched the topic: the difficulties that victims have to denounce the aggression, the problems that this denounce can generate, the profile of the pedophile, ways to detect the abuse and preventive measures. We also interviewed a survivor who opened a center to help victims.
  • Report on the ‘wagyu’ meat and all the myths surrounding it. We discovered what makes this meat so special, and how to know if it’s the real one. We went to a dairy farm where some local cows were inseminated from wagyu bulls, and the farmers explained their “experiment”.

Articles in Spanish published online

Spanish and Catalan

Below there’s some links with a selection of articles published in different online Spanish media, written while I was an intern in the Spanish Media Outlet Agencia EFE.

INTERVIEWS

  • Samantha Villar, a popular TV journalist, talking about her recent controversial book.
  • Sergi Santos, a scientist who put “a brain” in a sex-doll but affirmed it didn’t deshumanize woman.

REPORTS

  • Article about Aeham Ahmad, sirian pianist that became famous for playing in his destroyed city and in a refugee camp. He came to play in Barcelona and some journalists (including myself) had a few minutes to interview him.

REVIEW

  • Review on the film Victor Frankenstein, for an online cultural website.

About me

About me

Hi there! My name is Núria Falcó and I’m a journalist, editor and passionate traveller from Barcelona.

I am a bachelor of Journalism graduate from the University of Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona), and also completed a  course in TV Journalism in Denmark.

I’ve spent the last couple of years travelling, volunteering and working online. I’ve visited Japan, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka; stayed a year in Australia with a Working Holiday Visa, and more than six months in Nepal (in late 2017 and early 2019). There, I joined a British NGO helping street children in a small rural village near the Indian border, creating online content for their website and social media. I wrote articles, took pictures, filmed and edited short videos, and basically gave a hand in their home for street children.

At this moment, I am the Marketing Manager of St. Julien Tea, a recently born company in Melbourne, and I write film reviews for an Australian website. For the past two years, I have been working as a Freelance Editor for a publishing company based in Spain. Last year I already did a book for them, with its second edition being published soon, and also directed, designed and edited a magazine for the 25th anniversary of a Secondary School.

In Barcelona, I have two years of experience reporting for a local magazine and co-directing multiple issues. I also completed an internship for the Spanish news agency Agencia Efe, writing articles, chronicles and interviews published in several Spanish media outlets.

Overlooking the Badi Lake in Udaipur, India.

Contact me:

An explosion of colours

Articles, Human Rights, Street children

Visiting the market in Parwanipur is amazing, every single time. In Nepali they call it “bazar”, and it’s a chaotic mix of people, smells and food items. I particulary enjoy watching the saris that woman wear, which create an explosion of colours.

Portrait at the market.

Getting there takes about 20 minutes walking from the childrens’ home. It’s the fifth time I’ve come to the house but I’m still as mesmerized by the town and its people as when I first arrived. I enjoy the peacefulness of walking through the path in between the fields, with no more company than the birds singing, the blowing of the wind, the people working the land and occasionally a bicycle or motorbike.

The people from the town are now used to seeing me, so besides “Namaste” and smiles, the kids also have the courage to come next to me and shake my hand with amusement. As I walk by, I hear a symphony of bye-byes that always makes me smile

Children of the village.

When I arrive to the market and I take my camera, what happens is kind of magical. People stare at me with curiosity and when I ask someone for permission to photograph them, they always say yes with a warm smile. Once I’ve shot the first picture, more and more people come asking me to photograph them as well, and then their families or friends. I love it. Visiting the market is truly a unique experience.