by Abellio

Bangkok, 5 April 2015

Picking up on the theme of my last post, the application of cosmetics to certain parts of the face (eyebrows in that case), I feel that I should also comment on one fashion statement which I have come across in this part of the world and which, contrary to the fashion of strong eyebrows that seems to be sweeping the world, I hardly see being adopted any time soon away from its place of birth. The part of the world in question is Myanmar, and the fashion statement in question is the daubing by women (but not only) of their cheeks with a beige-coloured paste.
Yangon, Burma, Myanmar. Streets.It really is something that foreigners cannot fail to notice the moment they arrive in Myanmar, and indeed the internet is full of comments along the lines of “what on earth is that stuff on the women’s faces?”  The last time my wife and I were in the country, I finally got around to asking what this stuff was exactly. Thanatka, I was told (or thanat-ka, or thanaka, or thanakha; transliteration of Burmese words into English is quite approximate, rather like Shakespeare spelling his own name in three or four different ways – but I digress). Our hotel had a little exhibition on thanatka in the lobby, which frankly didn’t explain anything at all. Time to scour the internet, and as is normally the case Wikipedia threw up some useful material.

First, the why: why are women (and children to some degree) putting thanatka on? The answer seems to be primarily for beauty, rather like Amerindians paint their faces as decoration.
amerindian with painted faceIndeed, while the photo which starts this post has the lady in question just giving herself a brushstroke’s worth of thanatka on each cheek, others seem far more creative. Painted leaves seem popular (although I wonder if this is simply catering to the tourist trade?)
painted leaveswhile simple whorls
whorlsor circles also appear frequently in the cannon.
circlesIt seems that thanatka is not only about beauty. It is also said to provide protection from sunburn. But then I would have thought that application to the whole face would be more appropriate, the way I slathered sunscreen on every piece of my exposed skin during our recent trip to Myanmar. Claims are also made that it removes acne, and there are “before and after” photos to that effect on the net – although, rather strangely, of white people only. It is also claimed to have anti-fungal properties, although luckily there are no “before and after” pictures of that.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, they say, and I have to assume that Myanmar men find this wash of beige on their women’s cheeks attractive. After all, Myanmar women have been pasting themselves in this way for at least 700 years. Personally, though, I find it difficult to see anything beautiful in the habit. Every time I see one of these ladies, my instinctive reaction is to think “Ooh, they need to wash their faces”.  Of course, it’s not as if European women don’t paint (or powder) their faces. Rouging one’s cheeks is a fashion that goes back centuries, as attested by all those portrait paintings hanging in various museums of Europe of aristocratic ladies or royal mistresses (or both) with nicely rouged cheeks. For instance, this slightly racy painting of Nell Gwynn, mistress to Charles II of England, shows her with lovely red cheeks (and strong eyebrows, I am pleased to see, given my last post!)
nell gwynn(as I mentioned in an earlier post, there was a time when European aristocratic men also liberally rouged their cheeks)

The fashion statement has continued. For instance, I still remember from my youth those little powder cases which every woman had in their handbag, and which they would whip out from time to time to rouge their cheeks or generally give their face a powdering over.
powder caseAnd as far as I can make out, the fashion still goes strong. Women with cosmetically highlighted cheeks are a dime a dozen on any street in the world (except Myanmar …), although the powder case has given way to other delivery mechanisms.

But there is a difference, no? These women were and are highlighting the natural colouring of their cheeks. Myanmar women, on the other hand, are just daubing themselves. I wonder if the original idea was not simply to make the skin look paler, that universal obsession of women in all Asian countries.

Now for the what: what exactly is thanatka? It is an exceedingly natural cosmetic, made from grinding the bark, wood, or roots of a tree together with a small amount of water.
thanatka preparation 003As modernism marches through the country, a Myanmar lady can go to her supermarket and buy a jar of ready-made product. But she can also still go out and buy the wood (with this particular seller advertising her wares)
wood for saleas well as the stone grinder, and make it at home. No doubt the artisanal aspects of the trade will die out soon.

I finish by saluting the humble trees at the start of the chain: the thanatka tree (a species of Murraya)
thanakta treewith these particular individuals standing in front of some venerable temple, as well as the theethee tree (Limonia acidissima)
theethee treeI just hope that in the rush to slather their faces with paste, the Myanmarians are not chopping these trees down with wild abandon, thus denuding the landscape in the process. Beauty, however defined, is not worth that.


Woman with painted cheeks: (in
Woman Amerindian: (in
Thanatka painted leaves: (in
Thanatka whorls:é-birmanie.jpg (in
Thanatka circles: (in
Nell Gwynn: (in
Woman with powder case: (in
Thanatka preparation: (in

Thanatka wood: (in
Murraya tree: (in
Theethee tree: (in