I left the plains of Bagan sitting among a flock of local villagers and animals in a rickety shuttle van headed towards the remote Chin state of northwestern Myanmar. The journey to the simple hill town of Mindat took nearly 8-hours as we climbed to 4,860 feet above sea level. As we weaved along dirt roads we’d often go long bouts without seeing any sign of human life. Along the way, the driver managed to land the shuttle directly into the ditch leaving the vehicle hanging in the air at an unnatural angle. We all clambered out and after quite some time of pushing the van in vain and gunning the engine two military personnel pulled up on a motorcycle. They simply stood there with their hands on their weapons without offering any sort of assistance. I was worried I’d be questioned as the Burmese military are notoriously aggressive and the Chin state has only opened up to foreign visitors in recent years–a permit used to be required to visit this area. Luckily the encounter was short as the soldiers quickly got bored and moved along. Shortly after our van was freed and we were on our way deeper into the mountainous region.
The close call made me question my motives for this journey to a part of the country that’s rarely frequented by local or foreign visitors. I had my hopes set on trekking through remote tribal lands with a translator in order to search for the truth about the ancient custom of indigenous women from this area tattooing their faces. Unfortunately, I had gotten into a nasty bicycle accident along the dirt and sand roads of Bagan which resulted in my left leg being out of commission. I wasn’t so sure I’d end up being able to meet any of the women who declare their tribal loyalties through the markings on their faces, let alone learn their personal stories about the importance of this tradition.
I’d heard that there were anywhere between a dozen and 2,000 Chin women left who bare the facial art. I quickly learned that everything that had been published about these mystical tattoos was quite false, including the number of women who still wear them today. I hadn’t even made it all the way to Mindat when I saw two elderly women wearing traditional colorful clothing, head decor, jewelry, and face tattoos. They were sitting at the bus stop restaurant at a table directly across from me. I was so humiliated by my behavior as I just couldn’t pull my eyes away from their enchanting beauty. It wasn’t just due to their mysterious tattoos. I love textiles and was enamored with the heavy layers they wore despite the heat and what appeared to be handmade jewelry made of natural elements. Even from a distance, I could make out the details of the dark network of lines that had been drawn on across their faces many moons ago. I’d later learn that these women hailed from the M’unn tribe due to the P shape of the lifelong markings.
I asked to trade spots with my travel mate so that I’d stare at the wall and not these women, he refused to switch seats with me and laughed as he told me the women were staring right back at me. Our lunch continued this way, both myself and the women taking shy yet curious glances at each other. I didn’t want to bombard them so I didn’t strike up a conversation. As they left I pondered my own initial reaction to the elaborate markings. I was shocked, but more so by how mesmerizing and powerful these women appeared, and less by the western mentality of facial tattoos being taboo. The astonishing facial inkings made me reconsider my perception of beauty, a theme I find common in my travels to remote areas as I discover the very many different ways to live a life.
My initial awe of the unique tattoos didn’t fade quickly. We arrived in Mindat and as we rolled through the town I noticed that nearly one and of every 10 women working in shops or strolling down the street bore facial tattoos. Clearly, whoever stated that this was a dying practice, was wrong. I found the practice to be quite prominent as I saw at least a dozen tattoed women from various tribes within my first hour of being in the Chin state. I can only assume that even more women wear the spiritual blessings in remote villages away from the township of Mindat.
As someone who wears 20 tattoos myself of both cultural and personal significance, I’ve always been keen to learn about traditional tattooing methods. There isn’t any available information about the centuries-old tradition of tattooing women’s faces due to a lack of written Chin history. Their heritage is quite mysterious as no anthropologists have ever attempted to research the customs of the Chin people which are made up of at least 50 different tribes. A few photographers have made the quest to take portraits of Chin tribal women and have documented at least eight facial tattoo patterns, but even their reports repeat questionable information.
This is largely due to the many different dialects in the Chin state, among the tribes there are over 40 languages spoken. Imagine trying to be a translator here? The day that I arrived in Mindat I met with several local fixers who told me that they could serve as both guides and translators. As we attempted to converse in plain English over noodles at a tea shop I quickly realized my attempt to find a fixer who could introduce me to tattooed women who wanted to share their stories and also translate the various tribal languages to English, was moot. I was especially forlorn when they all started to repeat the same stories I had read online and would later learn are false. Even the most experienced guide seemed completely unable to answer any of my questions. I decided to head out to meet the one Chin woman I knew had accepted guests into her home in the past.
I set off to visit the home of Yaw Shen, a 92-year old woman of the M’Kaan tribe. Although travelers frequently visit Yaw Shen I couldn’t find any information about the location of her home. I asked a few locals to point me in the right direction and ended up at a convent school and thought surely I was in the wrong location. A few school girls came out and giggled as I failed to communicate with them. Soon I was being escorted through the school and dreaded that I was going to be taken on a tour and disrupt classes. But we whizzed through and I ended up in the principal’s office where I was introduced to the headmaster of the school who also happens to be the son-in-law of Yaw Shen.
He also spoke excellent English and I was beyond thrilled to finally be able to ask a local Chin person to share information with me about their rich cultural practices. I was taken down the road to the family home and introduced to Yaw Shen who was sitting on a low wooden stool near a boiling pot where a large family-style dinner was being prepared. Meeting Yaw Shen was astonishing, from her gentle demeanor, intoxicating laugh, and strong yet frail stance. Her aging face was striking and etched with an intricate pattern of tiny dots all over the entire face. Oddly, this pattern is typically reserved to women from the Dai tribe, while M’Kaan women typically have lines on their foreheads and chins. Her papery skin creased as she smiled and laughed yet she told me with certainty that the tattoo had allowed her to always look young and beautiful. She pointed out that I probably couldn’t see her wrinkles due to the ink!
Yaw Shen is incredibly proud that she endured the pain of receiving a facial tattoo, which is called ming in most Chin tribal languages. She was 15 when she received her sacred markings and couldn’t have imagined that the practice would ever become less common. At the time every woman in her village, which is about 80 miles from Mindat, wore the tattoos. It was a sign of beauty, bravery, and strength that was bestowed on girls as they came of age. The tattoos are exclusively reserved for women, and the ritual art must always be created by a woman. The Chin women must also endure the pain of getting that tattoos alone with their artists. Yaw Shen recalls that it was unlucky to let someone watch the process and that they believed having an audience would make the whole procedure even more painful.
It was important that Yaw Shen, like the other village girls, get their tattoos before marriage. She can’t recall the payment method for the tattoo, or if anyone ever paid for them at all. She does remember the excruciating pain she felt as she was given this tattoo that covers almost every crevice of her face. She got her tattoo in one day, some other women take weeks, or even years to finish their designs. When I ask her how she managed with the pain she chuckled and told me she drank an entire bottle of rice wine but reminded me that the pain faded, but the pride she has for baring the tattoo is eternal. She also remembers being very hungry as she couldn’t open her mouth to eat for a week after she received her tattoo.
When we met Yaw Shen was wearing the colorful traditional clothing of her ancestors including an abundance of necklaces made of shell, stone, and seeds. She also wore the large gauged wooden earnings that are traditional to the Chin people. Both boys and girls get their ears pierced during their naming ceremony which usually takes place a week after their birth. The gauged earrings used to be handmade wood that was cast with gold and passed down from one generation to the next. When I asked about her textiles she simply told me she wears them for beauty, but her son-in-law pointed out that her earrings are quite rare as the military junta has also banned Chin people from wearing the large gauged style. They weren’t sure why the earrings became illegal–many men and women in town still wear them. It’s likely due to body modification being considered grotesque and a continued attempt to suppress Animist customs. Those that don’t wear the earrings in public often opt to use the holes in their ears as tiny storage space for their pipe tobacco.
Yaw Shen learned to play the traditional tribal nose flute around the same time that she got her tattoo. Once she was married she stopped practicing and didn’t continue with her musical talent until after her beloved husband passed away. I was very honored when she offered to play the wooden nose flute for me, a tradition usually reserved for grieving. I was overwhelmed by the sorrowful tune of the song but amazed by the ability of this tiny old woman to hold a large enough lung capacity to be able to create such a beautiful sound through her nose. The song was incredibly emotional and changed the atmosphere of the room as we all got lost in her music. Her ancient eyes continued to sparkle with the charm of someone who’s lived a long life, but an unmissable mistiness filled them as she recalled memories of her late husband. Her daughter, who didn’t continue the tradition of wearing facial tattoos, has learned to play the nose flute as well and treated me to a playful tune. When it was my turn to try I couldn’t get a single note to escape the long wooden instrument, my nose doesn’t seem to have the special touch.
After my failed attempt to create a song with the nose flute Yaw Shen decided it was time for a smoke. I hadn’t expected that this woman who’s lived for nearly a century would be an avid smoker! Her pipe was unlike the small devices men and women around the village used to smoke tobacco. Instead, her massive contraption looked like a bong and was just as decorated as she was with brass wire up the body of the pipe. Yaw Shen and her family members took turns smoking tobacco out of the pipe but when it came to be my turn I politely declined as I tried to explain that I have asthma and can’t smoke. Yaw Shen broke into a hysterical laughter and her son-in-law told me that her secret to a long life was plenty of rice wine and tobacco!
It was a privilege to sit with Yaw Shen and her family and learn about their unique history. Yaw Shen gladly answered my questions and although we spoke through her son-in-law who served as a translator I believe we shared a special bond. As I was leaving and gently embraced Yaw Shen she held my face and murmured apuyea, nabuni, nabuni, nabuni. I repeated the words, assuming they were a sort of loving farewell. Thankfully her son-in-law translated for me and I was able to learn the two Chin words that would help me communicate over the next few days. Apuyea means beauty and nabuni means thank you.
Not all of the women who wear facial tattoos in Mindat are elderly. The Burmese military banned the facial tattoo practice in the 1960s sighting health risks but it’s a common belief that the ban was placed to further eradicate the Chin people’s Animist beliefs. Many publications that have written about the custom assume that the ban is strictly enforced and refer to the tradition as one that’s “quickly dying out.” Phrases like this glamorize the cultural phenomena but it simply isn’t true that no women younger than 80 wear facial tattoos anymore. There are certainly fewer women undergoing the painful tattoo process today, but the elders who bare them will not likely be the last to do so. Several locals that I met told me of cousins as young as 17-years-old wearing the tattoos in their distant tribal villages. It wasn’t until recent years that the road to Mindat was even accessible from other states. A local I met told me it used to take up to 8 days to make the journey from Bagan to Mindat, the same journey which took me 8 hours. The military junta’s ban on the tattooing practice, and resulting fine for any young woman with face tattoos, didn’t quickly reach the remote areas of the Chin state.
The youngest tattooed woman that I met was in her early 30s and wore her inked face with pride and grace. She’s from the M’unn tribe and has circular tattoos along her neck which are particularly painful to receive. Although the younger generation isn’t keen to keep up the tradition it is still customary to view those who do have the tattoos as the most beautiful and brave women in the region as they were able to perform extreme self-sacrifice and restraint. A rightful statement considering how painful it is to receive the wearable talisman.
The tattoos are applied by skilled female artisans who create the patterns by hand using cane thorns to puncture the tender facial skin with a natural ink concoction made of leaves and soot. The first parts of the face to receive the incisions of ink are the forehead and cheeks, then the delicate skin around the mouth. The eyelids are reserved as the last spot to be tattooed as they’re the most excruciating. There’s no doubt that the women who’ve gone through this sacred ceremony are extremely fierce.
Each of the Chin ethnic groups has their own distinctive tattoo pattern making it possible to discern where the tattooed faced women are from based on the spiritual iconography they wear. The M’uun tribal pattern consists of semi circles on their cheeks which represent the moon, lines on the chin and nose for sun rays, and dots to recreate the stars. This is the most common pattern to see in Mindat and my personal favorite due to the celestial meaning. As the Chin tribespeople were Animist it’s very likely that all of the designs are inspired by flora and fauna. Some of the other known tribes are the Lay Thu, Yin-Du, Nga Yah, Uppriu. The Yin-Du and Dai tribal women wear long vertical lines down their faces while the Nga Yah pattern has both dots and lines. The women whose faces appear to be completely black with ink are from the Uppriu tribe who wear thousands of tiny dots. The spider web pattern is most common in another area of Myanmar–Mrauk U. While the pattern is generally the same for women from each tribe the designs are customized to the woman’s specific facial features. For all of the tribes, the more tattoo coverage a woman has, the more beautiful she is.
The women themselves aren’t certain about the origins of their tattoos. The sacred body modification in the Chin state is believed to embody a protective power against evil spirits and is exclusively worn by female tribe members and the tattoos themselves are always made by women. In the Chin state the tribal people were Animist, relied on shamen, and believed in the power of nature and spirits. The majority of Chin people weren’t Buddhist, and neither are their tattoos, similar to Sak Yant in Thailand which also have Animist roots. Animist worship and culture seized to exist when Christian missionaries from the United States entered the area with promises of education and healthcare. Most of the locals I met in Mindat are Christian and told me the conversion was peaceful. Yet through the influence of the Church and western mentalities locals were forced to abandon most of their Animist practices–including facial tattoos which the Americans found to be barbaric. Certain things, such as animal sacrifice, are still allowed today in the Christian town. However, one may only sacrifice an animal for happiness, not as an offering to any spirits.
Each woman I was able to converse with told me that they wore the markings as it was the custom in their tribes for beauty and that it was never intended to make any woman appear ugly. They laughed when I asked about the myth that tells of a greedy king who would kidnap the prettiest Chin villagers and make them marry him. The legend says that parents would force their daughters to tattoo their faces to make them appear ugly and less at-risk of being abducted. The myth was probably syndicated by the Burmese government as a part of their efforts to eliminate Animist practices amongst the Chin people. These stories are likely fabricated considering tattoos are common in many indigenous cultures with animist beliefs and shamanic societies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
To learn more about the unique customs of the Chin people I visited the family-operated Chin Antiques and Culture Exhibition Centre. The museum is organized in a single room which displays artifacts from the region that were collected by the owner’s grandfather, who was a shaman. The family chose to display their ancestor’s collections and possessions in order not to lose their cultural traditions and opened up the antique showroom in 1994. The room is a true cabinet of curiosities with tribal necklaces that were hand beaded over 600 years ago made of 100 incisor teeth from deer. The wearer had to kill each deer themselves in order to be allowed to wear the teeth which were considered to be a good omen and frighten away dangerous animals due to the sound of the teeth hitting each other when the hunter walked. I showed the owner a portrait I had taken of a man earlier in town and he confirmed that he’s a shaman from a nearby village and is wearing a sacred necklace of chicken ankle bones.
There’s a pipe which I’m told is 2,000 years old, fossils from the stone age, and more mixed in with propaganda and regalia from WWII. Everything is left out in the open and the owner encourages guests to hold and admire each piece. An entire wall is lined with skulls from various animals–including hornbills, monkeys, and tigers. As the family comes from a long line of shamen they also have may sacred tools such as handmade poison arrows, a horn for wine drinking, and the hornbill feather headdress worn by tribal leaders. There are plenty of handmade guns too, which shamen would shoot in order to alter spirits when an offering is about to take place. The curator of the collection proudly shows me portraits of his mother and grandmother, who both wore facial tattoos. His wife doesn’t wear the ink, and he won’t allow his children to do it either. In addition to managing his family museum, he is a Christian pastor. He also confirms that the legend about the women wearing the tattoos to appear ugly is not historically accurate.
One elderly lady who wore the markings of the Dai tribe seemed to be following me as I strolled around and kept giving me mischievous glances. I stopped by a shop to speak with a woman who I had a brief conversation with before in English and asked her to invite the woman over. She seemed overjoyed and had many questions for me about where I was from, what I thought about Myanmar, and what I would tell people from my village about her land. Her persona is best captured in this sly photo she let me take. Her cloudy eyes struggled to adjust to the screen of my camera as I showed her the portrait but she burst into giggles and covered her face as I offered her compliments of apuyea, apuyea, apuyea. The shop woman told me that the Dai woman said she hadn’t expected to look so old. Perhaps this has to do with the sentiment of the tattoos preserving beauty against the odds of time?
Within a day or so seeing facial tattoos began to seem normal. It’s incredible how quickly we can adapt to new scenarios and customs that are outside of our own. Without being able to secure a reliable guide I walked around on my own and spoke with any locals who seemed interested in chatting with me, tattooed or not. My search for band-aids to tend to my wounded leg actually resulted in me meeting many of the tattooed faced women as they were all deeply concerned about my injury. The woman who owned a pharmacy I went to in search of coated bandaids also wore a tattoo and happily obliged when I asked if I could take her portrait as she was deshelling peas from their pod.
I left Mindat on the road to Mandalay which was being hand laid brick by brick. I couldn’t help but wish that the process would take an extraordinarily long time. I fear that if access to the Chin hilltribes becomes easier more tourists will flock to the area and snap pictures of these women without trying to learn about their customs. As always I made sure I had permission before taking anyone’s photo as I never want to exploit anyone. The women featured here are only about a sixth of the women with facial tattoos that I saw or spoke with in Mindat. Many didn’t want their portrait to be taken, which is entirely understandable. Those who allowed me the honor of taking their photos were proud to be photographed and asked me to make sure to tell the world about their at-risk culture.
It’s hard to tell if there will be a renewal of facial tattooing among Chin tribal women. If the tradition does become common again I hope it will be for the cultural significance, and not for the benefit of ethnic tourism similar to what has happened with the Padaung tribal women from the Kayin state who elongate their necks with golden rings in the name of beauty.
I’m humbled to have been able to get a glimpse into the unique way of life in the Chin state and am glad to have been able to have made short yet meaningful connections with many of the villagers. Meeting the Chin tattooed women completely challenged my definition of beauty.
Have you had the chance to witness any fascinating cultural practices during your travels? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!