Visiting Myanmar’s Chin tribes

15 Mar 2019

Myanmar’s Chin State sits on the southern end of the Patkai mountain range. 600km to the north are the mighty Himalayas, for which the Patkai range acts as the extended, jungled foothills. Across the length of the Patkai is some remarkably rich shooting featuring the mountain tribes of India’s Nagaland and Manipur in the north, and Myanmar’s Chinland encompassing the southern reaches of the Patkai.

A while back we touched briefly on a particularly noteworthy member of one of the mountain tribes of this region of Myanmar — see our post about the last of the Burmese nose flute players. This post digs a little deeper into some of the other Myanmar Chin tribes we’ve worked with in that region of Myanmar.

The Chin peoples have seen three separate foreign incursions into their mountainous homeland: the colonial Brits in 1885, US missionaries in the 1890s, and the Imperial Japanese Army in 1943. Only the Christian proselytisers left any lasting trace in this rugged and impoverished backwater: they did God’s work so well that even today, the Chin are overwhelmingly Christian. The little plastic-pewed tin churches one finds here are uncannily reminiscent of those we see in Nagaland.

The Chin people are made up of six clans: the M’uun, the M’kaan, the Yin Du, the Dai, the Nga Yah and the Uppriu. One of the visually distinctive cultural styles shared by all six clans is the facial tattooing of their women — well actually, of their young girls, as it was the custom for girls in their early teens to undergo these painful day-long marking sessions as a rite of passage. Each tribe has its own unique tattoo styles.

Both visually and metaphorically, the tattoos are a fading phenomenon. Back in the 1960s, a policy of Burmanisation and cultural modernisation resulted in a Government ban on the practice of facial tattooing. Which is why that it’s rare indeed to see a tribeswoman under 60 sporting facial tattoos. A few younger women have chosen to ignore the distant threat of central government laws and have stuck with the tradition, but in general the younger folk have moved on: the tribal traditions they grew up with would be an embarrassment in their search for work and career in Myanmar’s big cities. A recurring theme, we find: blame books, computers, the internet and the trendy allure of Yangon fashion.

If you’d like to capture this piece of social history before it fades away completely, talk to us soon about a Myanmar photography tour. And do check out the additional images and alternative takes in our Myanmar tribal photo-gallery.

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