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. Nearly one of every 10 women that I saw working in shops or strolling down the street bore facial tattoos in Mindat. Clearly, whoever stated that this was a dying practice, was wrong. I can only assume that even more women wear the spiritual blessings in remote villages away from the township of Mindat. There are of course more Chin women who don’t wear the facial tattoos, like this farmer I met who wanted me to take a hit from her pipe! #portrait
I was so humiliated by my behavior the first few times I saw Chin women with facial tattoos. 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. This woman hails from the M’unn tribe, which can be identified due to the P shape of her lifelong markings.
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 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.
Even though the Chin people have converted to Christianity they still rely on shaman and follow ancient animist beliefs. I met this shaman briefly who is from a village nearby to Mindat. He’s wearing a sacred necklace of chicken ankle bones!
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.
I was very honored when Yaw Shen 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.
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. - 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.
The moment I arrived in Mindat I set off to visit the home of Yaw Shen, a 92-year old woman of the M’Kaan tribe. I was pointed towards the school where her son-in-law is the principal and was thrilled to learn he spoke English as I had many questions I was eager to ask to uncoer the truth about Myanmar's tattoo-faced women. - 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 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.
My favorite temple in Bagan, Myanmar was the off-the-beaten-path Tha Beik Hmauk Gu Hpaya. It’s also known as the Singapore Golden Pagoda as it was restored by Singaporean Buddhist devotees in the 1950s. I found the structure to be stunning and the artwork inside otherworldly. I love that the sign here stated a welcoming message for everyone who passes through, May Lord Buddha Bless You.