Faces Of Thanakha

One of the first things people seem to notice when arriving in Burma is the centuries old uniquely Burmese tradition known as Thanakha.

Thanakha is just one more of the subtle and strikingly unique aspects of the Burmese people.

At once both bold and subtle Thanakha, pronounced Te-naw-Ká, is a yellowish-white paste made by mixing fine sawdust from the branches of several kinds of trees and water. These trees grow in abundance in the central valley of Burma. The two most popular trees are the Shwebo thanakha and the Shinmadaung thanakha. It is most commonly worn by women and children and to a lesser extent by men. Mostly worn on the face it also can be applied to the chest, arms and even the whole body. It is a favorite of very small children as a way of wearing a depiction of a favorite animal or character.

The belief is that the paste, usually made fresh each morning by sanding down a little bit of the wood on a rough stone or specially made ceramic tool, is good for keeping the skin healthy and protecting it from the sun. It keeps the skin dry in the sweltering heat, heals blemishes and scares, and also helps lighten the skin, an attribute that is highly prized by most Burmese. Having a fragrant scent somewhat similar to sandalwood it also gives the wearer a long lasting cooling sensation. With antibacterial properties this ancient ointment is believed to have many benefits few modern medications can match.

One of the interesting things about Thanakha is how it changes throughout the day as the sweat, contact, and movement affect the look. A bold application in the morning can look faint, or grow bolder by late afternoon. Just as the person wearing it, Thanakha evolves as the day does.

What fascinates me as a travel photographer is how beautiful and unique this form of cosmetic artistry is. Unlike most western cosmetic schemes that seem to have as the ultimate goal making every one look the same, Thanakha seems to be an extension of the wearers unique personality and attitude. It can be haunting or comical. It can be subtle or grotesque but always, just like the face underneath, there are no two the same.

Thanakha is equally worn to work, to socialize, or when going to the temple. For many people, not putting on Thanakha would be considered immodest. A little or a lot, there is no wrong way to wear Thanakha.

In a way Thanakha visually epitomizes the personality and spirit of the Burmese people. Calm, proud, very patient and ferociously resilient, and always with humor and joy.

Here are a few Thanakha faces I have had the privilege to know and photograph over the years.

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“The best way to help Burma is to empower the people of Burma, to help us have enough self-confidence to obtain
what we want for ourselves.”
― Aung San Suu Kyi

“What makes a hero? Courage, strength, morality, withstanding adversity? Are these the traits that truly show and create a hero? Is the light truly the source of darkness or vice versa? Is the soul a source of hope or despair? Who are these so called heroes and where do they come from? Are their origins in obscurity or in plain sight?”
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― Lao Tzu

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― Sorachi Hideaki

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

“Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.”
― Corrie ten Boom

“And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.”
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“You have been told that, even like a chain, you are as weak as your weakest link. This is but half the truth. You are also as strong as your strongest link. To measure you by your smallest deed is to reckon the power of ocean by the frailty of its foam. To judge you by your failures is to cast blame upon the seasons for their inconstancy.”
― Gibran Khalil Gibran

“We acquire the strength we have overcome.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

The only Burmese trait more ubiquitous than Thanakha is the laughter..... 
But those images are for another day's post.

I look forward to seeing you out there.

Julian Ray
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