Meet Myint Myint Khaing and, her baby, Thaw Tar Aung. She, like most Burmese women, lovingly puts Thanaka on her infant every day.
The use of Thanaka paste is first instilled in Myanmar people at a very young age. Thanaka application can start as early as seven days after birth, but most mothers begin later around forty-five days. This practice is usually performed by the child’s mother who continues to put Thanaka on him or her into early adolescence, after which time the child takes over the ritual.
Though many mothers use a pattern that is similar to their own, most moms put “cute” designs on their infants and toddlers. The most common design seen in Myanmar goes by the name ‘pa-kwat’ or ‘wa-lone,’ which is meant to depict the full moon. This adornment typically involves a base layer over the child’s entire face with additional circles on the cheeks and forehead. Rabbit patterns, as seen below, are also common practice.
Many mothers additionally feed their babies ground Thanaka, putting a small dab on their tongue while applying to the infants’ face and body. An ancient Burmese belief holds that feeding Thanaka to infants and young children offers many benefits to their health. Many say that Thanaka protects youngsters from stomach sickness caused by breathing in pungent smells such as fried garlic and chili peppers. It is also believed to treat rashes and bites from mosquitoes and other native insects while maintaining a youthful and lighter skin complexion into adulthood, for which almost all Burmese desire.
Youths typically begin self-application between the ages of four and eight. If they have many siblings or their parents have lengthy workdays, kids tend to take on the responsibility much sooner. The beginning of kindergarten around age five also marks a rite of passage for many boys and girls to put on their own Thanaka. Thanaka is culturally associated with cleanliness and a fresh mind so, in turn, many teachers require their students to come to class with a fresh coat of Thanaka. In most countries school uniforms involve tucked-in shirts and clean haircuts; in Myanmar the formalities include Thanaka. Furthermore, this formative period allows for kids to explore their autonomy through new Thanaka patterns.
The tradition of Thanaka has been maintained from generation to generation through its intimate passage from mother to child. Mothers and fathers know to apply and feed it to their children purely based on the fact that their parents did the same for them, regardless of the known or proven benefit. Thanaka application begins in the hands of the elders, but, once kids reach early adolescence, it becomes a means of individual expression and beauty for the current generation—a personal touch on a way of life that has existed for over two thousand years.