On The Verge Of Extinction.
By Nerriza Ballee
Published by South East Asia Backpacker Magazine.
An image provoked a reaction in me. Her face covered in ink, not your typical modern day representation of how beauty is defined but a strikingly beautiful image nonetheless of an exotic older woman whose face was concealed in art, yet poorly represented by its caption. As a human being first, then photographer, this shouldn’t be the way someone’s culture gets defined. I was intoxicated and needed to know more about her culture, history and ultimately meet this brave soul.
Later that year, I decided to venture to Myanmar with a friend, thinking I’d just show up with my camera in hand and make this endeavor a reality. To my dismay, traveling to Chin State required a reason beyond tourism and supporting documents. The additional time and unexpended funds required made the expedition impossible.
I had to be realistic without giving up my vow. It would take a bit of creativity, so I made a silent promise that one day I’ll return to Chin State and feature its tribes. My initial thoughts of starting an Online Magazine was sounding better with each passing day. I closed my eyes and imagined how many other lesser-known parts of the world would benefit from such a tool.
A month before leaving Thailand, I was put into contact with Philip, a friend of a friend who would lead me through Chin State. Once he’d heard of my intentions for the tribes, he was eager to assist me. With my determination and his expertise, we made a tentative itinerary of how we would make my dream into reality.
Fate intervened! March 2014, reality set in, obstacles were overcome and I was finally on my way for the second time to meet some amazing tribes.
After landing in the scorching heat of Mandalay, I got on the free shuttle to the city. Ten minutes later, looking like a pregnant woman from both end with my heavy load, drenched in perspiration and being told “I’m sorry we’re full” at every hotel, I began regretting my decision about saying no to those motorcycle taxi as I turn the corner to sanctuary.
I couldn’t wait to be on the boat to Bagan the following morning. The 5am boat ride unfortunately was over my allotted budget, so I opt for a much affordable 9am bus ride to Bagan. As it turns out, traveling to Mindat or Kamplet from Bagan wasn’t an easy task. Three days later and a private jeep that cost more than my plane ticket finally got me on the way. Driving through the region covered in several layers of sand one can see its state of neglect. It gave you the feeling of being in the white desert of Egypt with added mountains longing for its once lush forest; now, burnt and replace with black soot and hints of brown, with scattered villages along the way.
Twelve plus hours later, Mindat was in sight and instantaneously I fell in love. Without bothering to take a shower to wash off the layers of sand accumulated on me, I grabbed my camera and went off to explore this picturesque town. Soon after, I found myself in someone’s backyard trying to capture the sunset as it descended behind a mountain. What came next was the beginning of how inviting and friendly these people were, letting a random stranger into their yard and taking selfies with a Muun woman and her daughter, as they prepared dinner. I bid them farewell as I went on the hunt for my own dinner. I stumbled upon a little hole in the wall, family owned, which soon became my favorite spot. I was eating the freshest of greens and vegetables for a mere 500 kyat a meal, which is equivalent to .50cents USD. ‘A bargain to boot’. The following day I found a cute little teashop that sits at the edge of a mountain, which overlooked the valley of Mindat and its surrounding mountains. Once again, I was not only welcomed with smiling faces; they refused to be compensated for my milk tea not only once but every visit that followed.
After endless communications with Ngun Khar Philip, we finally met. Words cannot express his generosity and kindness. He assisted in every conceivable way, gathering all the necessary information and guided me in the right direction. Again, a random stranger showing this level of kindness was a rarity I wasn’t used to but had become acquainted with in this part of the world; to quote Philip “We are a world village.” Just imagine if we all could think this way.
At last, how very lucky I felt to have been given the opportunity not only to photograph these women but also to have a “one on one” interview with several of them.
The women belonged to six tribes in the southeast region of Chin State, specifically in the townships of Mindat and Kamplet. Once upon a time, there were about twelve Chin tribes that practiced facial tattooing, spanning from the north of Arakan State and southeastern Chin State. Being in the midst of these almost extinct tribes, I felt the urgency of having to tell their story because the world they knew is rapidly coming to an end before their eyes.
The tribe’s woman each had various characteristic tattoos:
The chin people have lived in isolation for generations and because their only form of communication is verbal to this day little is known of their mysterious culture. They are renowned for their exceptional weaving and being skilled hunters.
The art of facial tattooing has been outlawed since 1960s. Surprisingly I saw a few women who seemed to be in their late 30s with said art. The ink for facial tattoo was made from a special plant with dark green color and soot; thorns are aiding as needles. The name of the enigmatic plant is unknown. The Art of facial tattooing is no longer in practiced, even in the remotest areas of Chin Hills.
Unfortunately, the folklores surrounding the mysterious origin of facial art varied amongst the tribes. During conversation, the women had much to say about their recollection of the origins of facial tattooing. Khainhlu (Daai) from Mindat said “I don’t know the origin but I was told it was to prevent the Burmese king from Bagan from taking us.” She continued reminiscing that her mother and grandmother were both tattooed, which made her wanting it too because it was beautiful. Lingkhui (Ngagah) from Kampelet said, “I was told that the tattooing started in order to differentiate the Chin women from the Burmese women and to prevent being captured by other tribes. Also, everyone I knew before me was tattooed.”
It was crystal clear that the fear of being captured by other tribes was a major concern amongst the tribes’ people but to take that fear to the extreme practice of tattooing their entire faces I guess we’ll never truly know. There aren’t any written records to support any of these tales.
In my interview with these women one consistency is that they were very proud of their heritage and saw themselves as individual tribes not as Burmese.
Here’s an in depth interview with Hlainaing from Kamplet. She’s seventy years old and belonged to the Yin Duu Daai tribe. She is the mother of twelve children, six girls and six boys.
How do you identify yourself (in terms of your ethnicity, racial background, heritage, or culture)?
I will always see myself first as Da.
What is important for others to know and understand about your background or culture?
I would like for others to know our traditional clothing is very important to us and I also hope the younger generation keeps it up.
What country were you in born?
I was born in Mawchung Burma.
How long have you (or your ancestors) been in this country?
I think we’ve always been in Chin State but my ancestors moved around a lot.
What language did you first learn to speak? What language is used at home?
I speak Da and I know some Burmese. I can’t read or write.
What is the role of spirituality, faith or religion in your life? Do you identify with any form of religion or beliefs system?
I am now Buddhist before I used to pray to the spirit god. Now I’m one hundred (100%) Buddhist.
What customs or traditions are important to you and your family?
We have a tradition when someone is sick we give him or her crush ginger and water to drink. It’s out secret cure for everything they will be ok.
What does your culture, religion, or heritage teaches you about aging, growing older, elders or older people?
I was told to work hard and live comfortable. I must always respect my elders.
What has been the biggest adjustment for you and your family about life in this country?
The construction from our simple homes to now. The way people feel the need to show their riches when they have accomplished something like a new home.
I continued my interview in an attempt to better understand the Chin women and their dying art of tattooed faces, with questions about tattooing traditions and why these women choose this art form:
When did the tradition of tattooing women’s faces start and why?
I was told the story of the king plus everyone I knew was tattooed and I wanted to be tattooed as well. I thought it was beautiful and strange not to be tattooed.
At what age is a young girl considered for tattooing?
I think around the age of twelve (12).
How long is the process?
The process took around two (2) years for me with the eyes being the last. Others vary.
Are you under any influence during the process to ease the pain?
No nothing was given to me.
What are the steps taken to avoid infections during and after tattooing?
No nothing was applied after to avoid infections.
Does each family or village have its own design?
No each tribe has one design.
Do the designs have any significance or they are just ecstatic?
I am not sure if it has any meaning or who came up with the design.
Who is responsible for making the tattoos and does religion play a part?
The older women always did the tattooing.
How does the younger generation react to this tradition?
For Chin state it’s normal to see a woman’s face being tattooed but they do not want to be tattoo. However, if I go somewhere people stare at me. All ages.
Is the art of face tattooing dying out?
Yes it’s a dying but I feel no different things are changing.
Tell me your personal experience.
I had no choice in the matter but I also wanted to be tattooed I thought it was beautiful then and strange if I wasn’t tattooed because everyone was.
Tell me about your marriage.
My marriage was arranged. I was ok with it because I had to obey my parents. My husband was from London.
Your advice to the younger generation.
I want them to try and keep our culture alive. Lean our dialect and keep our traditional customs and clothing. Get an education.
What are your true feelings towards tourist?
I don’t like it when tourist comes and take my photo. I appreciate you asking me about my history and background because I want the world to know about my culture.
Sadly, this outlawed practice of facial tattooing is a dying tradition, and these women are the last of their kind. However, they are honored, and revered as Queens amongst their tribe, looked upon for guidance on a daily basis. Although they are slowly disappearing, and will be gone permanently in the years to come, their exotic and captivating look will never leave us, even as they depart this world. Their image will live on in captured images and they will be remembered through the storied they pass on.