Thanaka in Myanmar
When you visit Myanmar, you will see most of women and children and some men apply the light yellow paste in varying patterns on their cheeks, noses, foreheads and chins. This paste is called “Thanaka”, an unique tradition of Burmese people.
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Thanaka paste is made from tree bark and used as a natural cosmetic and sunscreen. It is eponymously named for the tree from which it is made, the Thanaka tree. The trees are thrived in the arid central region of the country. It is widely said that the trees must mature for 35 years to reach the best quality. However, many newer Thanaka farms are able to put product on the market after shorter time now. Cheaper logs are grown about 7 years, the average ones are between 12-15 years and the high quality ones can reach up to 20-25 years of growth. After that, they are cut down and sectioned off into small pieces of bark which are delivered countrywide for sell. Most Myanmar people said the best Thanaka comes from the Sagaing area, and the absolute cream of the crop is to come from Shinmataung and Pakokku.
In many Southeast Asian countries, Thanaka trees are used medicinally to treat maladies like malaria, epilepsy, leprosy, heart disease and stomach infection. However, only Myanmar people have been using it as daily cosmetic.
It is said that tradition of using Thanaka paste has been existed for 2,000 years. It was made popular by a legendary queen of Beikthano, whose envy-inducing skin was attributed to using the paste.
The earliest written reference of it is found in a 14th century poem which is written by a companion of King Razadarit. He is famous for reunifying the Mon-speaking regions in southern Myannar and considered one of Myanmar’s greatest monarchs.
Thanaka’s early historic roots were also demonstrated in 1930. At that time, an earthquake dismantled the ancient Shwemawdaw Pagoda. Then, a kyauk pyin – a round accent stone which was found. It is very important tool to make Thanaka paste. It was said to belong to a daughter of King Bayinnaung, who ruled from 1550 to 1581 and is known for assembling the largest empire in the history of Southeast Asia.
Thanaka has played an important role in Burmese culture. It is used by every people in different ethnic groups from birth to grave. Although of civil wars in the country, Thanaka stands as a unifying symbol of cultural pride that is worn by all Burmese people.
It’s also a key ingredient in traditional festival rituals. In water festival, a traditional Thanaka-making event will be taken place. Young women grind Thanaka bark into a fine powder. Young men play music and dance, providing entertainment during the event. The ground Thanaka powder is put in holy water to create a liquid that’s poured over images of Buddha. Locals then use the leftover water buckets to play and splash each other.
4. Benefits of Thanaka
Burmese women believe that Thanaka can beautify skin and prevent wrinkles and acne. Women apply Thanaka every day twice in the morning and evening to maximize its effects.
For locals, Thanaka is an extremely ecological sunscreen because of its regenerative nature and it can be grown locally through sustainable farming techniques. In rural areas, men and women who work in the sun will apply thick layers to their faces, arms, and legs to prevent sunburn. It is also used for young children to help them to have healthier skin later in life.
Its sandalwood scent is another reason for its attractiveness. Besides, its cooling sensation makes it ideal to relieve sunburn and insect bites. One 2010 Thai study found that “extracts from Thanaka bark showed strong anti-inflammatory, significant antioxidation, mild tyrosinase inhibition and slight antibacterial activities.”
5. How to use
Thanaka paste is made by grinding the bark of Thanaka trees. Therefore, you need a piece of Thanaka wood (it is widely available in markets in Myanmar) and on a stone slab called a kyauk pyin. Stone slabs are variety of size which is corresponding to size of Thanaka logs.
First, make the slate wet, then start rubbing the bark across the slate in a circular motion. Keep grinding until you see a yellow paste forming. This will take several minutes.
When the paste is opaque, use fingers to apply it to the skin over cheeks, forehead or any part of body you want to protect. Burmese people apply the paste in various patterns to suit the region, the climate and the wearer themselves.
Thanaka paste is simply rinsed off with water, then you can enjoy soft and glowing skin.
Nowadays, Thanaka powder and cream are also available to help busy women to save time. In addition, it is easy to combine the powder with milk or rose water as a face mask for beauty enhancement.
6. Where to buy Thanaka?
Thanaka wood blocks are widely available so you can easily get them in markets or even at your hotel lobby. The price depends on wood’s age and harvest location. Many Burmese people recommend buying Thanaka in Bagan as it is in dry zone which helps Thanaka tree to develop. Besides, time of growth decides how expensive the wood is. Also buy a stone slab together if you choose to buy Thanaka wood. For the first time using, you should dry the log under sunlight for a week. Then the log can be kept at dry place and use within 2 – 3 years.
For more convenience, you can buy Thanaka powder or cream in supermarkets. There are some good suppliers that you can choose: Jintai Yadi, Thai Pei, Isme Rasyan (Made in Thailand); Bio Way Taung Gyi Mauk Mai, Shwe Pyi Nann (Made in Myanmar).
Nowadays, Western culture is gradually influenced into daily life of Burmese people. Less and less people use Thanaka, especially in main cities and towns. Myanmar government is planning to propose Thanaka for the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. They hope that Myanmar could receive technical assistance from UNESCO for the preservation of Thanaka if it is listed.