There are many unique sights that capture a traveler’s eye when they arrive in Myanmar. One that sparks the curiosity of many people new to the country is the yellow patterns painted on people’s faces.
The yellow circles, squares and lines seen on cheeks, noses and foreheads of people throughout Myanmar is thanaka, a yellow-white cosmetic paste produced by grinding the bark of the thanaka tree on a flat, smooth stone with water. The milky yellow liquid dries quickly when it is applied to the skin.
Women, men and children apply thanaka to their faces, arms and legs for a variety of reasons. Thanaka is valued as a sunscreen and as a beauty product that keeps the skin cool, stops oiliness, tightens pores, improves the complexion and adds a pleasant, soft fragrance to the skin. Thanaka is also used as a medicinal product to treat acne, fungus, skin sores, measles, epilepsy, poisoning and fever.
Nowhere else in the world is thanaka so widely used.
In rural areas men and women apply thanaka thickly on their arms, legs and whole faces like a mask before they go out to work in the sun to prevent sunburn and sun damage to their skin. Men and women working outdoors in urban areas do the same.
Urban female office workers who spend less time in the sun wear thanaka for its beauty and cosmetic purposes, often applying it with make-up artistry, creating circles, squares with fine lines and leaf patterns on their faces.
Yangon resident Aye Aye Kyi said she uses thanaka because she likes the look of it applied lightly to her cheeks in a neat pattern.
“The yellow colour suits our Myanmar complexion and it also keeps my skin feeling cool,” Aye Aye Kyi said.
“I usually put some make-up foundation on my skin first when I am going to work, just lightly and then I put thanaka on top of that. It helps my skin stay dry and not get too oily when it is hot during the day,” she said.
“I also use it at night. In fact, everyone in my house uses thanaka at night – my mother, father, aunties, uncles and the children. After I have an evening shower I apply thanaka to my arms and legs as well as to my face and it gives me a cool, clean feeling. It helps me to have a good peaceful sleep because the fragrance of thanaka is really pleasant. It helps me feel calm and cool.”
Aye Aye Kyi’s friend Myat Myat Khine said some of her friends had stopped wearing thanaka to work but still wore it when they were at home on weekends, at night and when they were spending time in the sun.
“In my office some girls have stopped wearing thanaka to work. I guess they don’t think it is a modern look and also some think it is not good to use in the air-conditioning because it can dry the skin too much,” Myat Myat Khine said.
“But I still do put a thin layer over the top of my make-up. It makes me feel protected from the sun and helps me stay feeling cool. And I like how it looks – the yellow colour looks good on our Myanmar skin,” she said.
“On weekends when I am just staying at home I use more thanaka than when I am going to work. It feels good on my skin.”
Modern times are hanging the way thanaka is prepared and sold.
Myanmar women have been using thanaka for more than 2,000 years, buying the small Thanaka logs in the market and grinding them into a paste on a stone at home. Today, many commercial preparations of thanaka are available as branded creams, pastes and powders that are being sold in Myanmar supermarkets and being exported, sold mainly to Myanmar people living outside the country. Some Thai spas have begun using the commercial preparations in their treatments.
Myat Myat Khine said she still preferred to grind thanaka the traditional way because she had more control over the quality of the thanaka wood she used and the amount and thickness of the paste. But she admitted the jars of Thanaka cream were convenient.
“I like the ritual of grinding Thanaka, but it does take a bit of time to make it, so at night sometimes I use the Thanaka I can buy in a jar at the supermarket. The smell is as good as the Thanaka bark and it still keeps my skin feeling cool and clean. You just can’t be as sure that it is the pure, natural Thanaka, straight from the tree without anything else added,” she said.
Thanaka trees grow slowly and abundantly in central Myanmar’s dry zone. The tree can grow without a lot of water and varieties that grow on dry, rocky soil, blended with sand and laterite produce hard, thin bark that is durable and fragrant.
The most famous areas for Thanaka production are Shwebo, in SagaingRegion, and around Shinmataung in Pakokku District, Magwe Region. Thanaka blocks 10-20 centimetres long from trees in the Shinmataungarea can cost up to 9,000 kyat (about US$9) in a Yangon market.
It can take up to 10 years for the tree’s trunk to reach a diameter of two inches. Quality thanaka bark is believed to come from trees that are at least 35 years old. Thanaka plantations have been established in Myanmar’s dry zone in response to continuing demand for the tree’s products and the commercial production of thanaka creams and powders.
The trees also grow in Thailand, the Himalayas and some states of India. But nowhere else has thanaka had such a history of use than in Myanmar.
The best known thanaka legends involve royalty. Some believe that the legendary queen of Beikthano who lived in a Pyu city 2,000 years ago was a lover of thanaka.
Legend has it that thanaka from Shinmataung acquired its prized fragrance when King Alaungsithu of Bagan was touring the area and his queen’s thanaka container spilled to the ground, scattering her small blocks of thanaka and spreading the precious fragrance throughout the whole forest, forever improving the fragrance of Shinmatuang’sthanaka trees.
One of the oldest thanaka relics is a grinding stone dating to the mid 1500s that is thought to have belonged to Princess Razadatukalya, the eldest daughter of King Bayintnaung. The stone was discovered when the Shwemadaw Pagoda was destroyed in an earthquake in 1930 and can be viewed at the Shwemadaw Pagoda Museum in Bago.
The earliest written references tothanaka in Myanmar are in 14th century poems written by a consort of King Razadarit, who reigned between 1384 and 1422, and in poems written by a revered novice monk and poet, Shin MahaRatthasara, who lived from 1486 to 1529.
As well as being used for beauty and sun protection thanaka has a variety of medical uses. Thanaka for medicinal purposes is made by mixing thanaka paste with ingredients such as lemon, bark of lemon apple, roots and other herbs to produce a compound for smoothing the skin and removing fungal infections, acne and skin discolourations.
The leaves, root and fruit of the thanaka tree are also used to treat various illnesses. The leaves are used in a poultice for healing skin sores and have been used in treatments for leprosy, malaria and epilepsy.
The sour, bitter fruit has been used to treat poisoning and the thanaka root is believed to be good for stomachache, heart disease and rheumatism.
Thanaka is a tree with a long history that the people of Myanmar have used with versatility. It has been a part of people’s daily lives for centuries. In 2013 the natural log and stone set are still found in most homes and remain part of many people’s daily bathing, beauty and health regimes. As the world shows interest in natural products and ingredients perhaps thanaka will be seen in more homes outside Myanmar as commercially made products enter overseas markets.