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.
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