In the heart of Southeast Asia lies Burma, a country of incredible beauty and diversity. Burma, also known as Myanmar, is an ideal country for cultural exploration, with generations-old traditions often surviving intact due to the isolation of many of its regions. The country is characterised by the unique landforms of mountains, high valleys and plateaus which mould much of the land. This landscape is home to many Burmese tribes of different religions, traditions and cultures. One of the most interesting and unique of these is the practice of the facial tattoo. This art form has become a cultural phenomenon of recent global interest and there is much is to learn from the facially tattooed women of Burma.
The facial tattoo culture attracts tourists, photographers and anthropologists from all over the world. Although the art of tattooing is practised in every continent today, amongst celebrities, religious leaders and tribes, the people of Chin State, located in the west of Burma, take the practice that little bit further. With patterns made up of squares, lines and dots, the face is covered with ink that will stay on them forever. Renowned for their extreme application of this art, the Chin people, who are one of the largest ethnic groups in Burma, have many reasons and secrets behind their tattooed faces.
Chin facial tattoo art is practised only on females at a young age. When a Chin girl reaches puberty, aged between 12 and 14, she is considered old enough to be tattooed and thereafter, she will enter into adult life. Being a tribe of age-old practices and traditional living, their facial tattooing is carried out in a very different way to how many of us know or have experienced conventional tattooing.
Firstly, a framework (or blueprint) is outlined on the face, consisting of hundreds of lines, marks and dots, making each facial tattoo unique. Coloured ink is then inserted into the skin through locally prepared cane-thorns. This requires great skill and experience, which is why the age of expert tattooists in the tribes is between 50 and 60 years old.
There are twelve Chin tribes that practice, or once practiced, facial tattooing. Although the Dai language varies slightly between sub-tribes, the origin of the word tattoo (which is mang in Dai-Chin), essentially means dream. Based on translation of religious readings, the Dai-Chin lady once dreamt of having a tattooed face. Nose, forehead and cheek tattoos all have different names, each carrying its own meaning and blessing. However, it is the final artwork on the face that has the most meaning and significance to this unique and fascinating tribe.
The Chin women practice the facial tattoos because of religion, tradition, culture and fashion. According to their faith, the facial tattoo is directly connected to animism – the traditional Chin religion. They believe that the Monuoi, (the judge who decides fate after death), gives the ones who have facial tattoos permission to enter Heaven. The tattoos therefore represent much more than just a pattern, they give the women spiritual safeguarding even after the passing life.
Although the Chin State may seem traditional in the way they live, the Chin women are still interested in modern society, in particularly beauty and fashion. This is another reason behind the practice of tattooing as Chin women are regarded more beautiful if they have facial tattoos. Beyond the tattoos, being individual in style, the colours used in the application are meaningful and evolving through time. For example, a Chin lady with a green and blue colour tattoo is now considered the most attractive one in the community.
There is something artistic, ancient and special about the Chin tattoo. The art educates and enhances culture and tradition and demonstrates unique ways of living that many travellers search the world to find. With facial tattooing only seen in this part of the world, the women of Chin state are determined to keep their religion and beliefs alive. With these beliefs as a base, there is much more colour and culture to be discovered behind the tattooed faces.
What can you learn from the art of tattooed faces?