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Myanmar’s tattooed Chin women
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(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)
In Myanmar’s mountainous and hard-to-reach Chin State, the ethnic minority women are renowned for their remarkable face tattoos.
(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

In Myanmar’s mountainous and hard-to-reach Chin State, the ethnic minority women are renowned for their remarkable face tattoos. (Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

Chin legend has it that when a Burmese king travelled to the region, he was so impressed by the women’s beauty that he kidnapped one to take as a bride. Because of this, Chin families began to tattoo their daughters to ensure they would not be taken away.

Other Chin tales say that the tattooing was done for beauty, and perhaps more plausibly, to differentiate the different tribes in case one was kidnapped by another.

Another explanation may have to do with religion. Since the time of British colonisation, many Chin minorities have converted to Christianity or else accepted it alongside the animist beliefs. Some Chin remember being taught by their local pastors that only those who had tattoos would be deemed fit to go to heaven. (Credit: Dave Stamboulis) 

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

The Burmese socialist government banned the practice of face tattooing during the 1960s as part of their programme of getting rid of the old and ushering in modernisations, with missionaries in the Chin also criticizing it as barbaric. These women are the last generation to all bear facial tattoos; when they die, a chapter of Chin history will be relegated to the textbooks. (Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

The six Chin tribes wear an array of different tattoos. The M’uun women (pictured) are the most easily recognisable, with large looping “P” or “D” shapes on their faces and “Y” symbols on their foreheads. 

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

The M’kaan women (pictured) have line tattoos on both their foreheads and chins. The Yin Du and Dai tribes feature long vertical-line tattoos across the entire face, including the eyelids; similar to the Nga Yah who have dots as well as lines. The Uppriu tribe, one of the hardest to spot, have their entire faces covered in dots, with either blackened or ashen-looking faces because they are so full of tattoos. (Credit: Dave Stamboulis) 

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

M’uun tribe

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

Nga Yah tribe

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

The tattoos are made using leaves, grass shoots and soot. The leaves give colour, the soot acts as a disinfectant and the grass shoots are added at the end, acting as a bandage and natural healing cover. The concoction is applied to the face using sharp cane thorns (pictured), which prick the skin to create the pattern (Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

“I got my tattoos when I was about 12. It was so painful, my face hurt for five days. I didn’t think about why I did it, it is just our custom and what all girls my age did then. My daughter doesn’t have the tattoos, and I think the young people don’t find it beautiful like we did” – Daw Ngai Pai, 72, M’uun tribe (Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

Yaw Shen, a 86-year-old M’kaan woman and her neighbour, 88-year-old Hung Shen, are well known in Mindat. They’ve become stars on the emerging tourist circuit as access to the Chin State improves and visitors start to trickle in. (Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

Yaw Shen, who got her tattoos at the age of 15, entertains visitors by playing the nose flute, also a vanishing art. (Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

“My face was swollen for one week, but I didn’t mind. My mother told me I would find a good husband with such tattoos.” (Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

While travelling from Mindat to Kampetlet, we met 28-year-old Pam Hung, whom my guide said was of the Uppriu tribe. She was wearing Western clothing and bright lipstick, yet her entire face was covered in a ghostly tattoo.

She’s one of the few younger Chin women to have followed this ancient practice: having lost her parents at a young age, local elders recommended she get tattooed for spiritual protection. Despite the government ban, the Chin State is a long way from the capital and many mountain villages receive little outside interaction. (Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

“I got my tattoos after my parents died. Since I was young and on my own, I needed protection, and the tattoos have spiritual power to keep you safe. I was so scared when I did it, but my friends respected me afterwards for being so strong.” (Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

But with increasing access to the outside world, most young Chin don’t see face tattooing as fashionable or beautiful. In fact, many of them are embarrassed by their grandmothers’ seemingly out-of-date markings. But as photographers, journalists and historians make their way to the Chin State to document the disappearing tradition, some families are starting to take pride in their decorated grandmothers, their homes proudly displaying portraits of the tattooed women posing in full regalia. (Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

In Kampetlet, Daw Nay Ngui, an elderly Dai woman, cackles that she has no idea of when she was born (although her daughter told us she is more than 90). She says she cannot remember when she got her tattoos, and thinks they have been with her all her life. (Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

(Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

“All the girls here now know about the outside. They see the computer, they read books and they like the fashion from Yangon, not our old-fashioned style, so they don’t think tattoos are beautiful. But all my friends had them, it made us close, we all shared something. I guess we are the last ones left.” (Credit: Dave Stamboulis)

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