Thanaka, The skin conditioner - A household tradition in Myanmar.

Updated: Dec 27, 2019

The modern world has changed our relationship with many things. One such facet that has become incredibly distorted is the modern idea of beauty. As a result of modern media, the physical expectations for beauty have become increasingly skewed and one dimensional. However, while my tour in Burma, it was a welcome change to notice how the Burmese have managed to remain faithful to their version of beauty parameters.

In Myanmar, it is not an uncommon sight to spot people, mostly women who have their face covered with cosmetic paste. When asked Zeya, a Burmese guide who had her cheeks covered by the paste replied, “For the same reason Indian women sport a Bindi“ (a dot worn in-between the eyebrows). The cosmetic paste is a cultural practice followed by the Burmese woman. Also seen as an effective sunscreen balm, a casual smear to elaborate patterns are created on the face for sun protection and they are happy to apply it to you as well, in case.

“So, what is this cosmetic ?” I asked. “The Burmese name for it is Thanaka and is made from the roots and timber covers of Thanaka trees” stated Zeya. The paste is obtained after soaking the outer sheath of the trunk in water and grounding it in a mortar until its smooth enough as a paste. I was fascinated to observe how a few Burmese women carried the earthly cosmetic along with them wherever they travelled just like women in other countries mount their bag with makeup items.

When walking around the Mandalay region and visiting the palace I was told that during the Burmese monarchy time, there was special Thanakha used by royal people which was lighter, fragrantly and had a touch of sparkling gold dust, while the commoners used the yellow-coloured paste relinquished by the pollen of a special flower, Gant Gaw. Until now, Burmese women use this flower while making thanaka.

Noticeably only a few men were seen sporting Thanaka smeared across their skin. Since the men in our tour group were never approached for the application of Thanaka, I assumed it was the gender barrier. To my amazement, it was purely because men wearing it in public were perceived effeminate. Strangely not all men are rejecting the tradition, some men wear the paste as part of upholding the tradition and keeping the practices alive.

What surprised me was how this tradition has outlasted the colonialism and numerous dictatorship era and yet remained a ‘healthy cultural habit’. However, the country’s newer business arrangements with the western world might challenge the long-standing practice. With hipper and well-established corporations marking their introductions with ‘what is the ideal look’, the ritual could be presumed dated and contrived by the Burmese youth, at least in the big cities. Or, as the demand for natural & organic cosmetics has taken off, the investment may pour in for Thanka and it's bi-products.

Subsequently, Keeping up with the latest trend in the skincare market, the Burmese manufacturers are now reaching out to consumers with packaged Thanaka, a ready-made powder. Despite such crusades and campaigns for packaged thanaka, Vendors claim that while the store-bought products are more convenient, plenty of Burmese women remains loyal to the traditional organic thanaka that has been used for generations because of concerns about the level of purity in the newer products.

Whether the transmission of this custom that has been passed on from one generation to another is here to stay or blend, only time can tell. Meanwhile, I'm here wishing for a time when people take Khalil Gibran’s reference solemnly “ Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart”.

Other Benefits of Thanaka powder

Thanakha powder helps skin healthier by healing scars, removing acne and protecting from sunburn and providing the cooling sensation. Myanmar people use Thanakha as a multi-purpose cream, which has all the effects: sunscreen, makeup, skincare day and night. Moreover, It is also an anti-fungal, which the active ingredients of thanaka are coumarin and marmesin. For these reasons, women in Myanmar prefer using this natural cosmetic rather than others.

Where else is Thanaka grown?

Thanaka trees grow abundantly and are used medicinally in other Southeast Asian countries to treat maladies like malaria, epilepsy, leprosy, heart disease and stomach infection. However, only in Myanmar is it used as a daily cosmetic, although this practice has recently been spreading to Thailand. In Burmese culture, its use dates back 2,000 years.

Photography Credits

Shilpa Srinivas @flohwithme