The face-tattooed ladies are a distinguishing feature of the tribes in the Chin region of Myanmar. This practice was outlawed in 1962 by the government supposedly on humanitarian grounds so witnessing this fading tradition is a unique experience and an honour.
Brief history of the Chin State
Chin State has been isolated and discriminated against politically, socially and economically by the government and development actors. It is reported that the Chin State is the poorest area in Myanmar.
Animism was the original religion of Chin Tribes. Missions of Christian evangelists started Christian religion in Chin State after 1886 when Britain colonized Myanmar and now Christianity is the predominant religion across the State.
Legend of the inked Chin women
There are three trains of thought as to why the Chin women are inked, however, our guide explained that this has only been passed down by word of mouth and has not been written down.
One reason given for this custom is that Burmese Kings would travel to the Chin State and select beautiful girls for his harem so making them undesirable was a way to protect their daughters.
Another narrative is that neighbouring tribes would kidnap girls so giving them distinct tribal markings was a great prevention tactic.
Some say that pastors told the Chin people that only the tattooed women would go to heaven. As strong believers in Christianity, this would be a plausible reason.
Either way, the tribes got creative to make their females look ugly but now the women are proud of their designs. As it is no longer permitted, you will mainly see this on the older generation although some remote hill tribes still perform on their younger females.
Each tribe has varying designs across their faces, neck, and some on their arms. In rare cases, they will cover their faces totally, devoid of any patterns at all.
KANPETLET HILL TRIBES
In Dai village they have created a bamboo building to house tribal artefacts such as jewellery made from agate, hollow mython horns used a drinking vessels and shields made from elephant skin.
We met 3 ladies in the village, Daw Phuithant (aged 74), Daw Pan Thang (aged 60) and Daw Lee Hlie (aged 55) who told us how they would tattoo each other from a young age. The painful process happens over many hours by using natural inks from the sap of leaves and the inked in the face with bamboo. I’m sure the more delicate areas under the eyes wouldn’t be the most pleasant experience!
The face tattooed women gave us a performance with the nose flute which is generally done if they are either grieving for their husband or thinking of him if he is off hunting. The other instrument is thought to sound like the wings of the Great Hornbill.
In Kantharyone Village, we met 70 year old face-tattooed lady, Daw Hmumana. We were welcomed into their hut where many people from the family and the village were sat cross-legged glued to the television. They got electricity 5 months ago so this was still a big novelty.
Hmumana has 4 sons, 2 daughters and sadly lost her husband last year. She met her husband at 18 or maybe 19 after she tattooed her face. One of her sons is the Preacher at the village Christian church and seemed thrilled when I said I was of the same faith, at which point I thought it best to omit I was non-practicing.
She was curious to find out more about us and having a TV has given Hmumana some reference about the outside world knowing about some of the nationalities in our group. She asked if we have paddy fields in our country and wondered how we get our rice.
Well what can I say about 94 year Daw Nay Kui? This face-tattooed woman from the Yindu was an absolute legend! She had bags of character and just had us in stitches as she gave us kisses and tucked up laughing.
She has 3 sons and 2 daughters who all work away but she is happy with that as she wants to do everything herself including the cooking and chopping wood.
MUUN TRIBES IN NAT MA TAUNG NATIONAL PARK
Mother Earth Mountain, also known as Mount Victoria, a term left over from the colonial days, is now better known in Myanmar as Nat Ma Taung or in Chin language as ‘KhawNauSone’. Mt KhawNauSone is a protected area in KhawNauSone National Park which was established in 1994. Covering 279 square miles, the park offers you virgin forest, wild orchids and colourful butterflies.
As we drove through the KhawNauSone National Park, we passed many bamboo houses with face-tattooed ladies from the Muun Tribe who came out of their homes to greet us. They design of semi-circles of their cheeks represent the moon, lines on the nose and chin represent sun rays and the dots are the the stars.
We were heading for a less accessible village to see Chin life in all its glory. We trekked one hour to meet both men and women from the Muun tribe dressed in their colourful traditional outfits. They offered us rice wine from the hollowed horn of the mython. Whilst the practice of face-tattooed women is disappearing in the Chin ‘Wild Hill’ tribes, we did come across one inked lady who was only 28 years old. I’m guessing it is much harder to police in such hard-to-reach areas.
INFAMOUS DAW YAW SHEN IN MINDAT
Daw Yaw Shen from the M’Kaan Tribe a well-known legend in Mindat. She is now 96 years old and was 15 when she received her face-tattoos, it is very common for this to happen before marriage. Yaw Shen proudly show us her gauged earrings which had been beautifully decorated with bright beads and were surprisingly light. She played us a tune on her nose flute and had nothing but big smiles and a twinkle in her eye!
WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT VISITING CHIN STATE
Local guides in Chin State
To visit the tribes in the Chin State a local guide was required as most do not speak Myanmar language, only that of their region or tribe. They would let the tribe know that you will be visiting rather than turning up unannounced. I was on a group trip with Trekkup Dubai where the local guides were sourced for us!
Travel Insurance is a must!
Always make travel insurance a priority for any adventure! World Nomads is my go-to guys, I’ve learnt this from experience. You can buy and claim online even when you’ve left home. I love that they give a little back too and support community development projects in various countries.
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