Travel Photographer Lopamudra Talukdar is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this documentary photography. From her project ‘The Vanishing Face: Tattooed Women of Myanmar”. To see Lopamudra’s body of work click on any image.
The remote mountains of Chin state of Myanmar, are witness to one of the fast vanishing tribal traditions of tattoo faced women. The older women of the Chin tribe still bear the scars of a barbaric ancient tradition. Chin legend has it that when a Burmese king travelled to the region, he was so impressed by the women’s beauty that he kidnapped one to take as a bride. Because of this, Chin families began to tattoo their daughters to make them look unattractive, thus preventing them from being kidnapped or forced to become a concubine during the time of the Burmese king.
Other Chin tales say that the tattooing was done for beauty, while some others say, to differentiate between the various tribes in case one was kidnapped by another.
As tradition stood, young girls aged between 12 to 14, had their faces tattooed in a painstaking process. They also wear enormous earrings which stretch their skin.
" These women are the last generation to all bear facial tattoos; when they die, a chapter of Chin history will be relegated to the books."
The Burmese socialist government banned the practice of face tattooing during the 1960s as part of their programme of getting rid of the old and ushering in modernisations, with missionaries in the Chin state also criticizing it as barbaric. These women are the last generation to all bear facial tattoos; when they die, a chapter of Chin history will be relegated to the books.
"The concoction is applied to the face using sharp cane thorns, which prick the skin to create the pattern. The process is extremely painful, especially the tender eyelid area ..."
The ancient practice involves using tattoo needles made by tying three pieces of bamboo together or using thorns to draw the design. The ink is a mixture of cow bile, soot, leaves, grass shoots and pig fat. The leaves give color, the soot acts as a disinfectant and the grass shoots are added at the end, acting as a bandage and natural healing cover. The concoction is applied to the face using sharp cane thorns, which prick the skin to create the pattern. The process is extremely painful, especially the tender eyelid area and it normally takes one day to finish, it can be extended to two days depending on the complexity. With a variety of styles and designs the detailed markings have a deep rooted cultural significance. The six Chin tribes wear an array of different tattoos. The M’uun women are the most easily recognizable, with large looping “P” or “D” shapes on their faces and “Y” symbols on their foreheads. The M’kaan women have line tattoos on both their foreheads and chins. The Yin Du and Dai tribes feature long vertical-line tattoos across the entire face, including the eyelids; similar to the Nga Yah who have dots as well as lines. The U Pu tribe has the incredibly rare whole face tattoo; this is one of the most impressive styles as the entire face is inked up.
But times are changing even in this remote corner and young Chin who are getting education and some travelling as far as Yangon no longer see face tattooing as fashionable or beautiful. In fact, many of them are embarrassed by their grandmothers’ seemingly out-of- date markings.
By Lopamudra Talukdar