Saturday, 14 September 2013

Thanaka

In this excerpt from the book, we pick up an entry from our "Burmese Days" chapter. Following is a short excerpt from the section on "thanaka":
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Original artwork sketched by one of Shwe Lan's artist contributors shows a typical thanaka design on a young Burmese girl
“May May Gyi first put three blots of thanaka on my face, one on the forehead, and the others on each cheek and spread them all over the face. It was a sweet cooling sensation and May May Gyi told me the importance of putting thanaka on my face every morning if I wanted to be a beauty when I grew up.” Khin Myo Chit, Colorful Myanamr

After just a few hours in the country, the first question many visitors want to ask is “what is that yellow paste that people wear on their faces?” The answer is thanaka, a bark that has a similar smell to sandalwood and comes from the thanaka tree (murraya thanaka). It is used both as a skin moisturizer, sun block, whitening cream, and anti-acne cream, and many praise its virtues for keeping the face cool throughout the day. It is also said to tighten the pores and above all else, it smells good. To prepare it for wearing, thanaka is ground on a stone slab (in Burmese, kyauk pyin) and then mixed with pure water, resulting in a creamy paste that comes out a narrow channel surrounding the rim. Some kyauk pyin become treasured family heirlooms, and even become historical items, as in the case of the slab that Queen Raza Datu Kalaya of Taungoo used in the 17th century, which is today on display at Shwe Maw Daw Pagoda Museum in Bago.

Many children like to make swirling and elaborate patterns when applying it on their cheeks in the morning, and many of these designs are actually given names and date back hundreds of years. Burmese sellers in the marketplace will be more than happy to apply a dosage if you’d like to try, and if you do, you’ll be guaranteed a day full of smiles from the Burmese that you meet!

Historically, the earliest reference comes from a 14th century Mon poem, although it is believed that women have used it for over 2000 years. Different kinds of trees are used, and locals have their own preference as to which kind of tree and location they like best, with some buying huge quantities when they are in a place famous for a quality wood. Of note include Sagaing town, Shwebo, and parts of Shan state and Magwe division. There has also been a long-running rivalry between those produced in Shwebo and those in Shinmadaung, with both sides claiming the better quality. When Burmese find themselves in these places, they “then bring back enough logs to build a cabin,” as one Burmese writer quipped. Some fake logs of thanaka do exist, and the way to ensure its authenticity is to take a small taste of it on your tongue: real thanaka should be bitter. Or, for those who just don’t have the time to bother, there are also small containers of the paste pre-prepared.

“[Thanaka is] used by both queen and commoner. It is a thousand year old tradition. The stone implement used to grind thanaka is cut from smooth stone into a circular slab, with a trough along the rim for the paste to flow into. This stone slab rests on four short legs, which in the old days were decorated with classical motifs and scenes carved into the stone in high relief. A short length of the thanaka log is ground, bark side, in a circular motion, with drops of water poured on the stone from time to time.” Ma Thanegi, The Native Tourist