They are the last of their kind. As young girls they were held down over several days in order to have their faces tattooed. They experienced such intense and excruciating pain they speak of the experience today with a clarity that suggests it happened days ago as opposed to the actual decades that have passed. Lost in the fog of time, the exact reasons for the ritual are long forgotten. Some say it was meant to prevent others from kidnapping their girls, renowned for their beauty, and taking them far from home in order to be married. Others say it was merely a way of showing pride in one’s tribe or community. A standard of beauty as old as the rugged landscape of northwest Myanmar where they live. These are the tattooed women of Burma.
Traveling from Mrauk U in western Myanmar’s Rahkine state, one of the most underdeveloped and impoverished areas in the world, to see Burma’s tattooed woman is an act of cultural exploration and interaction that is fraught with uncertainties. I wondered if the choice to visit these women was a responsible one. Is it ethical to travel in order to stare? Would they want money for the experience? Is there anything inherently wrong with that? Would it be awkward? Would attention be interpreted incorrectly leading to hurt feelings or worse? These were my thoughts as I took a boat up the Lemro River to visit several villages, which were known for having some of the last tattooed women in the country.
Face tattoos were outlawed in the late 1960’s in Burma. The country’s military government at the time sought to end the practice, ironically, due to it’s supposed conflict with modernity. They found an unlikely ally in the form of western religious missionaries who were horrified at the idea of subjecting young women to such a painful fate. At the time the face tattoos were banned, the practice was more than a thousand years old. The reason or reasons for the face tattoos was lost to time. One enduring legend involves a Burmese kings traveling to the Kingdom of Arakin, which flourished over a millennia ago in what is now Myanmar’s Rahkine State as well as parts of Indian and Bangladesh. The Burmese king was so taken by the beauty of the women that he spirited off one against her will. After that the local tribes adopted distinctive tattoos to ‘mark’ their women while at the same time making them less attractive to foreign suitors.
While the above may sound apocryphal, there’s a fair amount of oral history regarding the tattoos as simply markers of tribal identity. The hills of northwest Myanmar are home to dozens of tribes. They are the descendants of the Chin, Magan and Muun people who migrated into the southwest as well. The tattoos were visual reminders of heritage and affinity. Despite the reasons for the tattoos almost all of the women I met with and spoke to vividly recounted their experience of being tattooed when they were as young as nine years old. They recounted harrowing tales of being rolled up in rattan mats so they couldn’t squirm as a thorn was used to cover their face with ink made from animal fat and bile mixed with ground plants and soot. Many of my encounters with these tattooed women involved showing me the insides of lips and eyelids while revisiting the intense pain of tattooing these sensitive body parts.
The Last of their Kind
The places I visited outside of Mrauk U, Cho May, Koon Chaung and Pan Paung Villages, all featured women with the distinctive spider web design. One of the youngest of the women coquettishly revealed through an interpreter that she has been catching men with her “web” her entire life. Others were more sanguine and reflected on the tattoos as a distinctive mark that provoked interest and curiosity when they were younger and now attracted visitors to their small villages. Recent tourism board data suggests that approximately 1,000 tourists per year visit the settlements in order to meet the tattooed women and buy their crafts, hand woven scarves made from cotton and raw silk. The women were mostly pragmatic even negative memories surrounding the act of being marked so violently and painfully against their will at such a young age. Their collective mindset seemed to reflect a common experience that the act of being tattooed was abhorrent yet the economic opportunity inherent to being the last of their kind, small as it is, outweighs the negatives.