Stolen Beauty - Tribal Tattoos of Burma's Chin Women

Collection with 29 media items created by Michael Biach

26 Oct 2014 22:00

The isolated mountains of Burma’s Chin state are home to a number of hill tribes that have been separated from modern world for centuries. Chin women used to follow the thousand-year-old tradition of tattooing their faces. The ritual, officially banned by the government in the 1960s, doesn’t attract modern Chin girls anymore. Soon the thousand-year-old tradition could be gone forever.

According to an old legend a Burmese king once traveled to the remote hill regions of Chin state, which was known for its beautiful women. The King then displaced a Chin girl, brought her back to his palace and made her his wife. The girl, desperate and unhappy with its situation, finally managed to escape and tried to make her way back home, always afraid that the king could eventually capture her again. In order not to get caught again she disguised herself by making incisions in her beautiful face using a knife.

“It was like she was stealing her own beauty in order to protect herself from the king,” Daw San recounts the old fairytale. The woman in her sixties belongs to the Muun tribe, one of the few Chin sub-tribes that originally practiced the tradition of facial tattoos. “Every little child knows this story,” she further explains with a smile. Anthropologists believe that it is more plausible that not the king but hostile invaders from other tribes kidnapped the girls. The tattoos then would allow them to identify from which tribe a girl originates. Myth or truth, the fact is that the adoption of facial tattoos became part of Chin culture nearly a thousand years ago and since then has been passed from one generation to the other. Until recently at least.

Today the Chin people consist of various sub-groups which are distinguished only by the women’s facial tattoos as well as differences in their language. The tribes are mostly situated between the north of Arakan state and the southeastern hills of Chin state. The Burmese government officially banned the tradition in the 1960s after the military took over power in a coup d’état. But the Chin-State has long been neglected by the far-away government or, as others say, the Chin state has long tried to avoid contact with outside rulers. In fact the Chin people were in a state of war with the military regime until June 2012 when a formal truce was announced after power was shifted to a civil government. For most of the isolated hill tribes these past events happened without notice.

The Chin-State is still one of the country’s poorest and most isolated regions, with a 73% poverty rate according to an official survey. Some areas are widely inaccessible. While this is the reason that local traditions have survived the past centuries, it also means that malnutrition, childhood mortality and the risk for women to die in child bed are tremendous. Efforts of NGOs to push for the construction of streets and the implementation of governmental action could bring an improvement to the people’s living and health standard.

“People are now hoping that they will profit from the truce and from the booming tourist industry in Myanmar,” says Nay Aung, a 28-year-old guide from Bagan who is regularly organizing trips into the area for NGOs and adventurous tourists. Traveling to hill areas of Chin state is quite challenging and by now still far off the beaten track. Areas are only accessible by four-wheel-driving jeeps on damaged rough tracks. The two-to-three days drive is halted by river crossings, mudflows or flat tires. New roads are currently under construction, often with the use of low-paid child labor, but are not to be expected before the next three years. “Part of the roads get damaged again during the rainy season,” says Nay Aung, “this makes it hard to finish the construction”.

The mountainous area has always been wild and inaccessible. The Chin accepted the harsh and inhospitable conditions of the mountainous regions for centuries by choice, so they could avoid foreign influence and invasion.

But times are changing and more and more Chin, especially the young, are willing to open their region for a better health care, maintenance and modernity. “All the faces with tattoos are those of old women,” says Daw San. Her striking face is graced with distinctive patterns that symbolize a pearl necklace and a dominant ‘Y’ that is illustrating a sacrifice trunk. The tattoo shows that she is a member of the Muun tribe. The differences in the patterns of the about twelve facial-tattoo practicing Chin-tribes vary from simple dots practiced by the Daai tribe or straight lines by the Yindu tribe to spiderweb-like tattoos of the Laytoo or even the full-face tattoos of the Ubun tribe where not even a single dot is spared. “Every tattoo has a spiritual meaning and defines the values of the tribe,” says Daw San. The sacrifice trunk in her face reflects the totem of her village. “So we know who we are and we can find our ancestors in the afterlife by identifying the tattoos,” Daw San is convinced.

The Chin, although most converted to Christianity by American Baptists a hundred years ago, are strongly committed to Animism. Every man or woman needs a ‘House of Spirits,’ a secure place for the afterlife. Once in his or her life, the tradition says, a member of the Muun tribe must hold a sacred ceremony to avoid harm by spirits and gain peace for the afterlife. During the week-long celebration the Muun will sacrifice one chicken, one wild pig, one goat and one wild buffalo and will divide the food with the tribe’s shaman and the remaining villagers. If the ritual is fulfilled one will collect flat stones from the river to build a ‘house of spirits’. After the death of a tribe member its remains are cremated and the ashes are laid to rest under the stone altar. “One is deemed to be alive until the bones have been disappeared,” explains Daw San. Only the most experienced hunters – or the wealthiest villagers – are able to repeat the ritual a second time in their life. “If this happens,” Daw San recounts further, “one is allowed to build the altar next to his or her home.” (See images of two stand-alone-altars next to home in photos 13 and 14, plus a ‘cemetery’ in pictures 19 and 20.)

The town of Mindat is situated five hours on foot through the mountains from the ‘house of spirits’ cemetery of this group of Muun villagers. The town doesn’t differ much from other places in modern-day Burma. Local boys play soccer as the sun goes down; some girls drive through the village on motorbikes; and trucks and jeeps park in front of the town’s market. The place is completely alien to the remaining tribe-members who live their lives quite isolated on the hills.

“Today the girls, at least in Mindat, see the fading custom as an unattractive relic of the past and they are aware of outside beauty standards,” says Daw San with a cautious smile. Decades ago it would have been out of question for a man to marry an un-tattooed girl. “When I was a little girl”, she says, “it would have been impossible not get tattooed. Every woman was proud of her tattoo.”

Daw San is aware of ongoing development in the remote corners Chin state where she lives, and this gives her hope that a better life is on the way. She is happy for this, but she also fears the consequences for the Chin’s traditional lifestyle. She doesn’t doubt that her face is one of the last with a tribal tattoo.

“Soon,” she says, “this thousand-year-old tradition will be gone forever.”

Burma Myanmar Women Tattoo Southeast Asia Girls Burmese Chin State

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Stolen beauty 02
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

The mountainous region where the Chin live is one of the poorest and most isolated regions of Burma, with poverty hitting a 73% rate according to an official survey.

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Stolen beauty 04
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

Tattoos of the Yin Duu Daai tribe consist of vertical lines, while the faces of the Uppriu tribe are completely covered with dark ink, and women of the Ngagah tribe have tattoos that are a mix of vertical lines and dots.

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Stolen beauty 03
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

Some areas in the mountainous Chin province are still inaccessible to the outside world. Malnutrition, childhood mortality and pregnancy-related deaths run rampant.

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Stolen beauty 07
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

Chin girls as young as 9 years bravely endure hour-long sessions where a citrus thorn is used to embed a liquid of pine bark and bean leaves under their skin. Sometimes, the tattooing can take up to a whole day. Applying the tattoo on oneÕs tender eyelid area is known to be particularly painful.

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Stolen beauty 09
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

A Chin woman from the Muun tribe inside her home. Inhabitants in the Chin province fear too much influence from government and the outside world, like the official banning of the traditional facial tattoos by the Burmese socialist regime in the 1960s. The practice was also increasingly discouraged by Christian missionaries.

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Stolen beauty 08
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

In the remote hill regions people of the Chin state live under modest conditions.

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Stolen beauty 10
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

Chin woman smoking tobacco made out of a dried local plant, the smoke is stimulative. Only Chin women smoke the traditional pipe and most of them use a towel as headdress, which protects from the sun and cold.

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Stolen beauty 11
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

Chin woman smoking a traditional cheerot cigar.

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Stolen beauty 12
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

The Chin people comprises various sub-groups and tribes distinguished mainly by the womenÕs facial tattoos.

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Stolen beauty 13
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

Today Chin girls see the fading custom as an unattractive relic of the past and they are aware of outside beauty standards. This young girl is using Thanaka, which is famous all over Burma, as a cosmetic paste and made from ground bark.

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Stolen beauty 05
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

Chin women from the Muun tribe with their traditional facial tattoos and colorful necklaces.

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Stolen beauty 14
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

Chin kids playing on a plain ground near their village in the isolated mountainous Chin province in of Burma.

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Stolen beauty 15
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

The adoption of facial tattoos became a part of Chin culture and developed into a symbol of beauty, strength, and pride.

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Stolen beauty 16
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

According to an old legend, a Burmese king once kidnaped a beautiful Chin girl and made her his wife. The unhappy girl managed to escape, but when she made way back home, she disguised herself by making incisions in her beautiful face using a knife in order not to get caught again.

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Stolen beauty 17
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

A Chin family in the isolated mountains of BurmaÕs Chin state, home to a number of hill tribes that have been separated from the modern world for centuries.

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Stolen beauty 18
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

Malnutrition, childhood mortality and pregnancy-related deaths run rampant in many Chin villages. Efforts of NGOs to push for the construction of streets and the implementation of governmental action could bring an improvement to the peopleÕs living and health standard.

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Stolen beauty 19
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

The ritual of tattooing the face has officially been banned by the government in the 1960s and has since been started to fade away in the Chin's culture.

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Stolen beauty 20
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

The isolated mountains of Burma's Chin-State.

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Stolen beauty 06
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

Chin woman with traditional facial tattoo. The lines in the middle symbolize a sacrifice trunk.

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Stolen beauty 21
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

A young Chin-woman from the Muun-tribe constructing a chicken stall. She is living with her parents in a remote area in BurmaÕs Chin-state. Most Chin, whether Christians or Buddhists, share animist belief. In the background two 'houses-of-spirits' can be seen, secure places for the afterlife. Once in a life, the tradition says, a member of the Muun tribe must hold a sacred ceremony to avoid harm by spirits and gain peace for the afterlife...

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Stolen beauty 22
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

Chin family living in the hills several hours away from the town of Mindat.

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Stolen beauty 23
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

Chin woman with her son. Many children suffer from malnutrition and lack of balanced diet in one of the poorest regions in Burma.

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Stolen beauty 24
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

Chin women are mostly known for their thousand-year-old tradition of tattooing their faces.

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Stolen beauty 25
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

Chin man with his two kids in the mountainous region near Mindat. Freshly dug out roots seen in the front left are part of the Chin's diet.

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Stolen beauty 26
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

Efforts of NGOs to push for the construction of streets and the implementation of governmental action could bring an improvement to the peopleÕs living and health standard.

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Stolen beauty 27
Chin-State
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

The differences in the patterns of the about twelve facial-tattoo practicing Chin-tribes vary from simple dots practiced by the Daai-tribe to the patterns of the Muun, the spidernet-like tattoos of the Laytoo or even the full-face tattoos of the Ubun-tribe where not even a single dot is spared.

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Stolen beauty 28
Chin-State
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

The differences in the patterns of the about twelve facial-tattoo practicing Chin-tribes vary from simple dots practiced by the Daai-tribe to the patterns of the Muun, the spidernet-like tattoos of the Laytoo or even the full-face tattoos of the Ubun-tribe where not even a single dot is spared.

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Stolen beauty 29
Chin-State
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

Two generation meet in the village of Kantapalet. Today most Chin girls see the fading custom as an unattractive relic of the past This thousand-year-old tradition could be gone forever.

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Stolen beauty 01
Burma
By Michael Biach
27 Oct 2014

Young Chin woman with facial tattoo. Although the tradition has been officially banned in the 1960s, in some remote areas the ritual has been undertaken in the past two decades.