A thanaka photo-session

22 Mar 2019

One of the lasting impressions you’ll take away from your photography tour of Myanmar will be of smiling faces decorated with thanaka.

Nothing says ‘Myanmar’ like thanaka. It’s iconic of Myanmar: the Burmese love it and although not everyone wears it, it lights up the faces of men, women and children everywhere you go in Myanmar.

The use of thanaka [“ta-na-KA”] seems to straddle Myanmar’s socio-economic classes. The airline pilot emerging from his cockpit after landing to bid you farewell could be wearing thanaka — as could the gent who taxis you to your hotel. The fishmonger at Yangon’s Theingyi Zei street market and the general manager of your Mandalay hotel are almost equally likely to be sporting the distinctive patterns and whorls of thanaka.

So what exactly is thanaka?

Thanaka is a cosmetic paste, a simple mix of fragrant tree-bark scrapings and a dash of water, applied to the face, throat, arms and, in some cases, all over the body. The paste is applied wet and translucent but soon dries to a crumbly yellow crust that wears off over the course of the day.

The tree-bark is traditionally from the thanaka tree (Hesperethusa crenulata) or the wood apple tree (Limonia acidissima). It’s widely sold in the form of small logs or, more recently, as a manufactured, ready-to-use paste.

Thanaka is decorative and photogenic but also more than that. It’s a classically Burmese tradition going back more than 2,000 years. Thanaka users believe it cools and protects against the hot Burmese sun, fighting skin ageing while toning, lightening and smoothing the skin. It’s believed to be anti-fungal and a defence against acne; its scent is light and pleasing, sandalwood-like; and it’s completely natural and cheap enough to be accessible to everyone.

A thanaka photo-session

Clients on our Myanmar photography tours often ask us for an opportunity to get up close and personal with thanaka. It makes for great shooting and gave us another fun opportunity for chat and banter with the local people and to learn more about them.

At a village near Bagan where we are known and made very welcome, we fall out of our air-conditioned car into the mid-morning heat, greet old friends, congratulate mums on how last year’s babes-in-arms have become this year’s bouncing toddlers, and take some tea with the charming and proud grandmothers. And when we declare that we’d love to discover more about thanaka, the smiles become even wider: mock-urgent commands are issued to family members to assemble the makings and get ready for our cameras.

Word spreads quickly through the small village: the visitors have asked to borrow a child to photograph for thanaka. What was intended to produce a couple of cute five-year-olds ends up stopping all productive activity in the village: amused by our interest, the people assemble a little pageant of eager children, the parents jostling and vying for position to ensure that their little protégé isn’t overlooked as the potential star subject of our cameras.

It’s a little embarrassing for us: we’re here as guests, not as an X Factor selection committee, and how could we possibly choose this dear little face over that one? But good humour and Burmese charm prevails amidst the gentle competition, and finally a little girl is chosen to be the focus of her mother’s thanaka skills and our cameras.

The kyauk pyin is brought out. This is the traditional smooth, flat grind-stone on which the thanaka logs are rubbed with a little water to produce the cosmetic paste. In a few seconds, the milky mix is ready and our little model sits patiently as Mum turns her head this way and that to apply her chosen thanaka design. The little girl is simultaneously bashful and delighted at all the attention from Mum and the cameras.

Today, thanaka has to hold its own against the tide of foreign cosmetics flooding into Myanmar’s cities. Young women in particular are drawn to the looks and the brands featured in glossy magazines and billboards. Even so, a young urban Myanmar woman is more than likely to be wearing trendy lipsticks and eyeliners with, rather than instead of, good old thanaka.

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