A yellowish paste colors faces and links generations in fast-changing Myanmar. Irena Grizelj shares photos of the Burmese “thanaka” tradition.
Irena Grizelj recently discovered Myanmar and was impressed not so much by how quickly it is modernizing but by an ancient tradition that thrives even as the Southeast Asian nation opens up to the rest of the world.
Irena sent us a series of photographs of Burmese citizens with a yellow paste called thanaka smeared on their faces.
Thanaka (သနပ်ခါး in Burmese) has been used by Burmese women, girls and to a lesser extent men and boys for more than 2,000 years.
Created from the bark of trees, thanaka has a fragrant scent likened to sandalwood, provides a cooling sensation and protects from sunburn. An anti-fungal, it is believed to help remove acne and promote smooth skin. Burmese apply the creamy paste to the cheeks and nose, creating circles, stripes or the shape of a leaf.
Here is what Irena said:
“Thanaka serves as a beauty product, skin decoration, protection and cooling from the sun, antiseptic and fragrance for the skin. The tradition is used predominately by women, applied as small circles to their cheeks, nose, forehead, or covering the arms and legs. It can also be seen on young boys.
“What struck me is how ubiquitous thanaka is in Myanmar. Across the country, across the diverse cultures of Myanmar and across generations, thanaka is pervasive. It unites and — involuntarily — creates an identity for people in Myanmar.
“I noticed the influence of globalization and an opening economy in Myanmar, with young girls donning modern jeans instead of the traditional longyi and an increase in mobile phones. But thanaka remains a tradition that transcends the generations.”
Originally from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Irena Grizelj is a consultant specializing in children’s rights and child protection in conflict-affected contexts. She has worked internationally with UNICEF, Search for Common Ground and multinational corporations. She is excited to be in Myanmar during this opportune time. Irena graduated with a master’s degree in International Relations from the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.