Chugging Slowly Upriver in NW Burma, Part 3

We made a long trek to reach the Chin State. We had a day pass (tourists are not allowed to remain overnight in the Chin territory) and a guide to translate for us. Our hope was to reach the villages where the local tribes still have elders with tattoos, by tradition only the women. The government represses the tradition, and it was feared that it had died out.

We had no guarantees that the women would come out to meet us once we reached the villages. At some point in the journey I stopped caring, because every minute in Burma was filled with wonders. The long slow passage upriver had become a journey to a some where, a some thing else. We chugged slowly upriver in NW Burma on the Lemro, from the Rakhine to the Chin state.

Arriving
Arriving

After walking around for some time in the first village, the elders stood before us! It was literally as if we looked up, and there they suddenly were.

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We asked through our guide if Uwe might take photos. The elder women calmly answered in the affirmative. They were, after all, the reason we’d come so far to visit. The tribes are self-sufficient and produce nothing for the tourist market. To meet the female elders is the reason why foreigners come to the villages.

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We were meeting Laytu Chin women (also called Lemro or Laito). The Chin are of Tibetan-Burman ethnicity, and tattooing is practiced only among the southern Chin.

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To a woman they were calm, poised, and radiated confidence. When did the Chin begin tattooing? One claim is that the tattooing was done to make the women ugly so the Burmese kings would stop stealing them to use as slaves, but this claim has been discounted as myth. It’s our modern world that sees tattooing as unattractive and labels it ‘ugly’. It’s far more likely that the Chin women were tattooed in a rite of passage, and that the facial tattoos are a mark of social status and coming of age. The tattoos make the women beautiful.

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No one in the outside world knows just what these patterns signify. The tattoos may be stippling, dots, circles. The Laytu women we met have the most elaborate Chin tattoo, a spider web or rising sun pattern. Our guide told us the men had gathered the materials used in the tattooing process. Jens Uwe Parkitny reports being told that the actual tatooing is done by female tatoo artists.

The women walked us through the village, up to the school. It was originally funded by a foreigner and we were invited to make a donation. It was all very formal: the guide wrote out a receipt along with the amount, our names, and our nationalities.

D30_4957_0800One of the women was in charge of taking the money and handling the donation, but the task is rotated. He translated our questions, explaining that on each day a different woman takes on this task. The responsibility of supporting the village is shared communally.

On that day we were invited up into a home on stilts. In another Chin village we watched one of the old women work at a handloom. We visited a burial ground on the river banks, where the dead are cremated and offerings are set out for the deceased. When we finally set back down the Lemro River on that December 31st, the last day of the year 2009, Uwe and I knew we had journeyed a very far way indeed.

Once we were home in Europe I found myself haunted by the old women’s faces. We got online and began to search for anything we could find on the Chin.

We discovered that the tradition of tattooing hasn’t died out altogether after all. In his exquisite brochure “Im Porträt: Gesichtstatuierungen der Chin-Frauen in Birma” (“Chin Women of Burma and their Facial Tattoos: A Portrait”), photographer Jens Uwe Parkitny documents the Chin tribes and different tattoo patterns of each group. He has made it his on-going mission to document and bear witness to this extraordinary group of people and their traditions. The text is in German and English. This stunning booklet of photographs can be ordered from either of the following sites:

Munich Museum of Ethnology: http://www.voelkerkundemuseum-muenchen.de and

Hirmer Publishers http://www.hirmerverlag.de/

When Uwe and I discovered Parkitny’s brochure on the Munich museum website, we ordered it immediately. Parkitny has also published a new book entitled “Blood Faces” http://www.bloodfaces.com/ . All proceeds from his book go to a children’s charity in Yangon, Burma.

 (All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

More pictures from our trip to Burma, and of Uwe’s photography, may be viewed at viewpics.de.

30 thoughts on “Chugging Slowly Upriver in NW Burma, Part 3”

  1. Your photos are not only interesting and well taken, they enlighten and inform. Shoot me an email if you’re interested in a guest spot for a series I’m rolling out in two wks. Holistic Wayfarer (one word) at gmail. No problem if it’s short notice and/or if you decline.

    Diana

  2. Dear Jadi,
    A quick note to thank you for your interest in my work and for referencing it in your article about the Chin women encounter in Western Myanmar. I just came across your blog and thought I drop you a few lines. I went on another research trip a few months ago and met with Uptu Chin women with full facial tattoos, the youngest was 78 and the oldest 93 years old – all of them still wearing traditional hand-woven tunics. What a discovery! They are definitely the last of their kind and I was able to portrait them. And I learned a lot from them, among others that their tattoo master (male !) was paid in silver coins, food and rice liquor. My next research trip is scheduled for end of this year, by the way.
    A few of my Chin women portraits will be displayed at the upcoming exhibition “Tattoo” in Winterthur, Swizzerland (September 7, 2013 – June 9, 2014) – in case you are interested. More info at the museum’s website http://gewerbemuseum.ch/en/exhibitions/preview/detailansicht/gmwausstellung/tattoo/?no_cache=1

    Best regards,
    Jens

    1. Hello Jens, What a great treat to hear from you. Our trip to the Chin villages remains a highlight of that (or any) trip we’ve ever taken. I am definitely thrilled to hear that you discovered another group and were given their permission to make portraits. Your work is important. I was only too happy to reference your books and research on my blog.

      We made our trip based on 2 (two!) short lines in a travel book we had for Burma. The mysterious reference to ‘possibly’ being able to come in contact with the tattoed women, with very little other information, settled it for us. As you have read in my 3 installments to this post Chugging Slowly Upriver in NW Burma, the trek became a metaphor for a very deep journey into ourselves and the world.

      Will you be in Winterthur at any point for the exhibit? We would like to see it, and to meet you. In any case please keep in contact. I want very much to continue to follow your quest.

      Alles gute und vielen Dank von
      — Jadi

      1. Thanks much for your kind note, Jadi. Never let the deep journey into yourselves end! I might come to see the exhibition in Switzerland sometime next year and I will confirm once the plans are finalized. Cheers, Jens

    1. Thanks so much! I’m delighted by your comment and pleased you like my posts. It has surprised me actually to find my blogging voice and I’ve had fun with it. The style was there from the minute I began to blog. I look forward to seeing/reading you again here soon. —Jadi

  3. Marilyn, I have so many questions since we met the Chin. Their extreme isolation from the outside world is probably what’s allowed the tradition of tattooing to survive. Is contact with the ‘modern civilization’ good? On the one hand our visit and donation to the school gives the children a chance to learn. Maybe getting the word out about this group and their traditions can help ensure its survival. On the other hand tourists bring cell phones and synthetics and foreign values and and and… I have no answer, and suspect the benefits and drawbacks will always be a mixed bag. I’m encouraged by what you write about the Oaxacan youth actively involved in keeping their communities vibrant – and viable. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I agree with you: “I can’t pretend to understand their significance, but it’s enough at this point to be welcomed.”—Jadi

  4. What an amazing journey this was for you! The centuries long traditions of indigenous people around the world are so important to their sense of community, and it is truly special to be able to experience something of their lives first hand. Because the population of southern Mexico is heavily indigenous (in Oaxaca alone there are 16 languages spoken), I have been fortunate to get a glimpse of many celebrations and even daily routines. I can’t pretend to understand their significance, but it’s enough at this point to be welcomed.
    I see efforts by young people to improve lives in their villages by creating art/ educational programs in the context of continuing traditions that they realize are meaningful to the cohesiveness of their families and communities.
    I noticed the ear adornments worn by one of the women. It’s interesting that these “plugs” (there is a word for them, but I can’t remember it) are worn by many Westerners now, and it would be fun to know how this began.
    Thanks for your enlightening article!

  5. It is amazing to me that in most larger wealthy and educated countries that women are not accorded due respect just because of their sheer volume. Many are underpaid, treated as second class and often though to not carry two active brain cells that are not concerned with reproduction. May the women you met continue to challenge their government and carry out their traditions of respect, love and strength.

    Perhaps some of their folk tales would hold clues to the facial patterns that they share? Thank you for taking us along with you on this unique trip.

    1. I uncovered one theory that the facial tattoos reflect the animals of the surrounding jungle and forests: lizard diamonds, big cat whiskers, the spider web of course.. but this is likely only a whisper of the original source of inspiration and I can’t verify any of the theories. Very little study has been done on the Chin folk, which is why Jens Uwe Parkitny’s photographic documentation is so important. PS: Parkitny reports that he and his Burmese wife visited a village where the young women are again carrying on the tradition – very exciting! —Jadi

    1. Ed, you’re very welcome. It seems important that cultures like the Chin still exist, doesn’t it? There are still places in the world that contain magic… —Jadi

  6. Jadie, thanks again for the Liebster award. I’m behind. Just got back from 3 months in Germany. Still settling in…trying to get back in the swing of things. 🙂

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