If you’ve ever visited Myanmar and certain areas of Thailand, you may have noticed the yellowish painted designs on the cheeks and arms of Burmese women. Whether they are Buddhist or Muslim, old or young, nearly every Myanmar female apply this paste derived from the tree bark or roots. But what is this and why do so many women in this region of Southeast Asia wear it on their faces?
It is known as Thanaka, a natural compound that is made by grinding the bark or roots of the Hesperethusa crenulata or Limonia acidissima tree into a fine powder and then mixing it with a small quantity of water to form a creamy paste. The tree is often called elephant apple or wood apple but, in any event, the word “Thanaka” (thana.ka) sounds exotic yet foreign when pronounced properly.
How is Thanaka Paste made?
It takes a minimum of 35 years for the tree to mature and be large enough to produce the highest quality product possible. At that point the tree branches are removed and cut into smaller fireplace-sized logs and sold in indoor and outdoor markets. The bark as well as the roots of the Thanaka tree is the raw materials that the paste-making powder is made from. In order to make the paste, you need a round stone slab known as a “kyauk pyin”, which is about the diameter of a small pizza.
The next step is to wet the slab and start rubbing the Thanaka bark against it until there is a sufficient amount of the paste that can then be applied to your face. Keep in mind that the paste is going to appear colorless and watery at first but will eventually attain its golden color once it dries on your skin. Keep in mind that the homemade paste will only work when it is made fresh before each application. However, it only takes a couple of minutes and very little effort to make enough of it for a single application.
However, there are many companies that are selling Thanaka powder that can be mixed with water to create a paste.
Thanaka is all about Tradition
Thanaka was first mentioned in 14th and 15th century Burmese literature. However, the stone slabs used in the making of Thanaka paste were found when several 2,000 year old archeological sites were excavated. Whether you noticed it or not, Burmese women with painted faces appeared in movies that were filmed in Myanmar. They were quite popular during the colonial era in Southeast Asia and were even mentioned in George Orwell’s first novel “Burmese Days.”
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