Beautiful in ink

The art of tattooing is an ancient one and probably the best examples of the traditionally applied are found across South East Asia. The origins stem from South West China but have been successfully adopted in the neighbouring countries and Myanmar is no exception.  Probably starting from around 200 BCE tattooing has become part of the cultural identity. From protection from evil forces tattoos came to signify many things to many people. Kings and common folk would all have their reasons whether for beauty or masculine strength. More significantly tattoos were used to demonstrate a religious devotion to Buddhism.

Some tattoos administered by Buddhist monks can be for elaborately coded messages recognised by similar tattoo wearers. It was known in Indochina for military personnel to have coded insignia for designated ranks that are only recognised within their own ranks in case of capture. Officer class could be disguised that way. There were many other practical uses that some believe could be useful today such as face markings for crimes. Even menial jobs such as elephant attendees had their own regalia applied to the skin although the elephant is much revered Indochina so it acts as a Royal Seal. Tattoo fraud was also important and faking tattoos was considered illegal and could even warrant the death penalty.

Tattooing became an important part of life throughout Indochina and the various deities would be honoured as a commitment to these beliefs. Ancient texts and symbols would be administered by the holy monks or tribal elders to perhaps secure safe passage into the afterlife or used just to bring good luck. Either way it is an indelible sign for one reason or another and can influence a person’s behaviour use their facial tattoos as a rite of passage. The designs are to depict the heritage from certain tribes and can vary in look. There are normally five different designs used depending on the lineage.

Other reasons for these traditional tattoos were not so much the importance of the message but the stigma was from the monk who provided it. Some monks were much revered for their tattoos and all across Indochina even the poorest of villages tried hard to retain a temple and monk for related reasons. The magic of the tattoo was directly attributable to the saya or tattooing monk. Many tattoos were for luck such as the Burmese tradition of using vermillion and skin from the trout spotted lizard in the ink. The lizard would adopt a home it would bring luck to that house. You may see this represented in Burma by a triangle containing spots. This is sometimes applied between the eyes or perhaps lips of tongue normally reserved for women.

The Chin women have had their faces stamped with pride. For them it meant beauty although the process itself is very painful. During puberty which can happen between the ages of 11 to 15 they will have the other villages assist them in adorning their entire faces with elaborate patterns. The ink itself is fascinating. The colouration comes from certain tree leaves and is potently mixed with extracts of a buffalo’s kidney. The traditional way of application was nothing more refined than a long pine needle dipped into the concoction and then hammered into the face. Needless to say the pain was intense as physical restraint was needed and the facial swelling would last at least a week causing temporary loss of sight and speech until subsiding.

The tradition is dying out across the area as more of these individualistic practices are becoming frowned upon with more modern world thinking.

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