By Myitta Moe Hnin (Bago)
Thanaka, a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made of ground bark, is commonly known as a natural cosmetic in Myanmar. It is a distinct feature of Myanmar people’s culture. The majority of Myanmar people prefer to wear Thanaka from the old to young. However, Thanaka enters the competitive market against the chemical cosmetic products with chemical ingredients such as moisture cream, makeup products, sunscreen, toner, etc., in a rapidly changing world. Regardless of the formulated cosmetic products, Myanmar’s Thanaka is regarded as a cultural heritage. Inevitably, Myanmar people apply to Thanaka despite the use of certain beauty products.
Myanmar people have been preserving the tradition of wearing Thanaka for generations. The mural paintings of temples that were built in the Bagan era depicted the tradition of the ladies wearing Thanaka. Moreover, Thanaka tradition and demonstrations can be seen in literature and arts, classical poems, folk songs, tales and languages. As a result of this, it is undeniably true that Myanmar people have been applying Thanaka on the face and arms and legs as natural cosmetics for generations.
It is believed that Myanmar people have applied it for health benefits and skin beauty since they were young.
Mothers also apply Thanaka on their babies after taking a bath. Sometimes, they let their children taste Thanaka paste while grinding it on a circular stone slab (Kyauk-pyin) with a bit of water. It’s believed that Thanaka keeps them cool, gives nutritional value and prevents nutritional rickets. Babies are wrapped in layettes (locally called A-hnee) after wearing Thanaka. It’s said to reduce body heat. Myanmar’s children with Thanaka applied on their faces look innocent, adorable and beautiful.
It is said that Myanmar women’s dignity was Thanaka as they wore them in the daytime, and older generations believe that they lack the appearance and elegant features of Myanmar women if they have a bare face. Thanaka’s fragrance and yellowish-white natural look are appealing and make people peaceful. Moreover, there’s a distinctive custom that people give Thanaka souvenirs from trips. Myanmar people are delighted with this present. Myanmar people love to smell Thanaka’s fragrance.
Thanaka trees are commonly found in tropical central Myanmar regions, Magway, Mandalay and Sagaing regions. It cannot be grown in wetland areas and salt-affected land. Thanaka can prevent sunburn and heat. Therefore, the villagers engaged in farms always heavily wear Thanaka as it is said to soften the skin, and prevent wrinkles and sunburn. Thanaka’s root gives you a more refreshing sensation. In summer, both the young and the old wear Thanaka on their faces, arms, and legs due to its cooling effects and skin benefits.
Nowadays, the Thanaka market feels threatened by the competitive market of formulated cosmetics. There are a variety of choices for cosmetic products. Besides, they are a bit pricey compared to Thanaka’s price. Nevertheless, cosmetic advertising promotes the products, and the Thanaka market has become weak. Some wrongly commented that Thanaka gives freckles and pores. Thanaka, which passes down from the previous generations, is actually suitable for Myanmar weather conditions. Myanmar’s traditional medicine refers to Thanaka treating skin diseases and curing rashes of hot weather and specific skin problems from cold weather.
In the medical aspect, Thanaka is an organic cosmetic in its purest form, and it has no harm to people and the environment. It can reduce wrinkles and treat freckles and acne. Its refreshing and cooling sensation will also protect you from sunburn and skin cancer.
The cosmetics with chemical ingredients might cause skin allergies. No one is allergic to Thanaka. Myanmar composers appreciate the beauty of Myanmar women wearing Thanaka and traditional costumes as dignified and gorgeous ones. People accept Thanaka’s cultural value and its distinctive features.
It is mistaken that applying Thanaka on faces will give you freckles. Thanaka is a remedy for smooth skin. The biological studies showed that it has medicinal properties that could help in the prevention of certain diseases and boost blood flow. Some females consider it a waste of time and apply other cosmetics like lotion. Meanwhile, some have worn it the whole time since they were young. They look younger with softened skin. Thanaka is a natural cosmetic with beneficial properties for Myanmar women.
Some use dried cobra saffron in grinding Thanaka bark for fragrance, and some even use turmeric for the yellow skin in rural communities. Some women from the mountain regions mixed it with cucumber-infused water for more benefits and beauty with red cheeks. The ladies apply their faces to the shape of a leaf. Song composer Ko Nyunt Wai composed the beauty of women from the upper Myanmar region wearing Thanaka in his lyrics. Famous singer Twantay Thein Tan sang it, “… Par Oh Ni Ni Lay Nel Hla Tel Nang Cherry Yay” (meaning A beautiful young woman with red cheeks called Nang Cherry).
Shan ethnic women have a unique style of wearing Thanaka. The ladies use cucumber-infused water. The middle-aged women apply Thanaka heavily on their faces. The older female applies it with some makeup foundation. They look elegant and beautiful. People living in the central Myanmar Region have brown skin due to the scorching weather. They are complimented as attractive women as they possess light brown skin tone with Thanaka cosmetics. Classical song of a popular composer Nandaw Shay Saya Tin praised how Shwebo Thanaka variety will give you yellowish skin colour, how dark the skin colour is, and it is worth taking as a souvenir from Sagaing to Yangon cities. (a lyric stating, “Shwebo Thanaka Tone Myar Yangon Lain Pho U, Bl Lo A Thar Mel Mel War War Nyat Nyat Phyu”).
Myanmar New Year Festival also includes Thanaka applying events beyond the water throwing. The seasonal gum-kino (Pterocarpus macrocarpus) and Thanaka fragrance will give more refreshing and peaceful minds in the new year. The composers also put the Thanaka tradition of Myanmar people in Thingyan songs as well, depicting the culture and friendly behaviour of Myanmar people who are wearing Thanaka and enjoying the water festival. The modern song also has the lyrics of a lovely girl with Thanaka. The composers never fail to praise the beauty of Thanaka for generations.
Thanaka value-added products such as Thanaka powder, perfume, cream, makeup and ointment are manufactured. Myanmar Thanaka Planters and Producers Association is also encouraging the growers to practice the systematic growing method, the people to use the organic Thanaka and penetrate the international market. They are striving to preserve the Thanaka tradition of the Myanmar people. The imported cosmetics may not be suitable for Myanmar’s weather conditions, and sometimes, it can lead to harmful impacts. As a result of this, this article is written to promote and preserve Myanma Thanaka, which is suitable for its own weather condition and honour Myanmar women wearing natural Thanaka.