Face to Face With the Tattooed Women of Chin

Jacques Maudy & Julie Andre The Irrawaddy

KANPETLET/MINDAT, Chin State — I was told, before setting off for Chin State, that it was one of the poorest and most isolated regions in Burma. I thought I was prepared. But as is often the case in life, facile descriptions failed to do justice to the reality on the ground.

My purpose was to document the tattoo-faced women of Chin. The women we met belonged to six tribes in the southeast of the state, concentrated around the townships of Mindat and Kanpetlet. There are some 12 Chin tribes that once practiced facial tattooing, spread between the north of Arakan State and southeastern Chin State. The tattooing survived long after the Burmese government officially forbade it in 1960. Traditional tattooists were still active until the mid-1990s, and I met one 30-year-old Muun mother whose face was inked at 15 years of age, which would have been circa 1999.

I am fascinated by cultural expressions that speak to the diversity of human life. What better antidote to the widespread fear of others—and the racism that this can engender—than to shed light on the beauty and diversity of these traditions? This was my thinking as I travelled east from Mandalay Division.

Burma is an ideal field for cultural exploration, with generations-old traditions often surviving intact due to the isolation of many of its regions, I, . The coexistence of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, sprinkled with occasionally resilient animist beliefs, makes this country a fascinating case study in human variety.

Access to Mindat from Bagan, Mandalay Division, is easier than reaching Kanpetlet. For either destination, four-wheel driving is compulsory. Expect hours of bumpy dirt tracks, river crossings and a lot of dust, especially if your vehicle is an open-air Jeep.

Not far into the journey, you get the sense that Chin State has been forgotten by the central government. Others say it is a voluntary isolation, until recently at least. Chin State is predominantly Christian but also strongly animist, and many here complain of religious discrimination from Naypyidaw and its largely Burman Buddhist leaders.

A road is under construction from Mount Victoria and nearby Kanpetlet to Seikphyu on the Irrawaddy River, but expect at least three years before you can cruise with ease up to Mount Victoria (Nat Ma Taung) National Park, which hosts Chin State’s tallest mountain. Today it is a harrowing four hours along a dusty and rock-strewn route that hardly qualifies as a road.

But at least, many locals say, things appear to be moving in the right direction. The absence of roads is the most immediate complaint from locals, along with a lack of medical assistance.

Muun, Daai and Makaan tribeswomen are easily spotted in Mindat and the villages around it. Muun women display a distinctive P-shaped pattern on their cheeks and a Y symbol on their foreheads that mirrors an animist totem carved and planted in their villages. Faithful to their animist traditions, the Muun must celebrate at least one week-long sacrificial ceremony during their lifetimes in order to appease the spirits and secure their place in the afterlife. During that week, they will successively sacrifice a chicken, a goat, a pig, a buffalo and a wild buffalo captured from the wild. They will invite the shaman and fellow villagers to feast on the meat and will collect flat stones from the riverbed to build their own “House of Spirits” at the edge of the village. If this ritual is repeated in the course of any one villager’s lifetime, the observer gains the privilege of building his House of Spirits next to his home.

Though strongly committed to animism, most Muun are simultaneously Christian. One of the more jarring examples of how this mixed religious tradition manifests itself is in the burial practices of the Muun. After the deceased is buried in accordance with Christian tradition, his body will the next day be dug up by friends and cremated, with the bones and ashes laid to rest under the stone stool of his or her House of Spirits. Chin State is perhaps the only place in the world where the cemeteries are empty.

Makaan tribeswomen sport a spotted tattoo pattern forming lines on their forehead and chin while Daai women display a face covered with dots that are mixed with vertical and horizontal lines on the forehead and cheeks.

Ngagah, Daai, Muun, Yin Duu Daai and Uppriu tribes all live in the villages surrounding Kanpetlet.

Yin Duu Daai tattoos consist of vertical lines, including on their eyelids, Uppriu women’s faces are completely covered with dark ink, and Ngagah tattoos are a mix of vertical lines and dots.

Local lore has it that that these tribes first began to ink their faces as a way of disfiguring their beauty and, in doing so, avoid being kidnapped by the Burman king. A second legend states that they were tattooed distinctively to allow for identification with their tribe of origin in the event that they were kidnapped by another tribe. The latter seems more plausible, as the king of Burma made just a single visit to this region, centuries ago. In any case, these women have bravely withstood several hours-long sessions of pain under a citrus thorn used to imbed the ink into their skin.

While I was walking the three-hour stroll from Mindat to the village of Kyar Do with Naing Htang, the son of a wealthy Mindat farmer, I noticed that huge chunks of the native forest had been cut down and sometimes replaced by bean or corn crops. Naing Htang explained that local farmers clear the forest to plant—and not long after exhaust—the newly made arable land. The fields’ soil stays fertile for just three years, after which the farmers are forced to move and plant their seeds on a new plot.

In this way, some 70 percent of the forest has been already cleared. After a cycle of nine years, farmers often return to the original block to re-plant, but the harvest’s yield is much lower. The monsoon season’s heavy rains wash the top soil down the land’s steep slopes, making that which is already unsuitable for farming even poorer. A high fertility rate of five children on average per couple adds demographic pressures on the land.

Naing Htang added that the area’s climate was becoming more arid as a direct result of the deforestation. He suggested that a solution would be to cultivate using terraced planting techniques, which would help retain nutrients and top soil, and in turn eliminate the need for rotational farming. But for this they need better road access and machinery, and neither is so far forthcoming. In Naing Htang’s opinion, the farmers were aware that they were destroying their own environment but did it “for survival,” as he put it, rubbing his belly.

I reflected on this, and couldn’t help but think that this “survival” mentality meant the population would soon be unable to make a living off these mountains.

As we reached Kyar Do village, we heard hymns coming from a timber church up the slope. It was Sunday, and a perfect opportunity for my chase of tattooed Chin women. All the women of the village would be gathered there for the weekly service.

We joined the mass and witnessed the Christian fervor of the also-animist villagers. After the service I sat down with the priest, Law Aung, who had been preaching passionately a few minutes earlier. I asked him why the Chin people cling to livelihoods on these inhospitable slopes. He responded that it was to protect themselves from their enemies. When I asked him what could be done to improve the lives of his people, he went silent, and remained that way for so long that I repeated the question, thinking he hadn’t understood the query.

“If you could ask for one thing to improve the lives of the villagers, what would it be?”

“Too many things to ask,” he finally replied. “A road and flatter land.”

I asked what he envisioned for the future of the village.

“No future. The land will go down to the river one day and we will have to move elsewhere,” he gloomily predicted, affirming my earlier thoughts.

A community development team from Naypyidaw that I met in Kanpetlet was startled at the sight of my photos of the tattooed Chin women. They didn’t seem to know of these women’s existence. We told them about the situation in Kyar Do, preparing them for what they could expect to see in the surrounding villages.

Since last year, the villagers have been using a few 300,00 kyats (US$300), Chinese-built motorbikes to link the surrounding villages to Mindat. Small solar panels are providing some electricity to the largely off-grid people, and the villages have acquired a few mobile phones. But these changes, and the road the government is building a few hours’ walk away, may be too little, too late for the faces in this remote corner of Chin State.