Aye Aye is a Bamar housewife from the Dala Township, south of the sprawling city of Yangon. She has used Thanaka her entire life and confessed that if she does not use it everyday her skin "gets itchy." Most people we have spoken with in this region only grind the bark of the Thanaka log and throw away the inner stem. While speaking with Aye Aye and Ai Mon, her 22-year-old daughter, we were surprised by a new use they have for the remaining wood.
Theravada Buddhism, Aye Aye's religion, is the majority religion within Myanmar. Practicing Theravada Buddhists believe that Buddha himself was cremated and, thus, use this as a standard on which they model funerals for all people, from common believers to the highest order monks and nuns.
Monastic funerals are special events because monks are both "fathers of the community and fathers of the religion," exlaimed Aye Aye. When a monk passes away, the whole community comes together to make funeral preparations. According to Aye Aye, each household donates the inner wood of old Thanaka logs, bringing them to the monastery to be used in the ceremony. Since Thanaka naturally has a spicy-floral scent, using the logs for cremation helps cover the unpleasant odor of the deceased bodies. Thanaka log cremations, however, are a local tradition reserved only for monks.
While the use of Thanaka logs for monk funerals has been followed for hundreds of years, the practice still persists in Dala out of necessity. Dala Township is an impoverished, rural region cut off from the urban sprawl of Yangon by a broad river. The socioeconomic position of this community has limited the technological growth within the area, and consequently it lacks many modern conveniences, including an incinerator. We learned from Aye Aye that the nearest one is located a few towns over, and transport can be expensive and time consuming. This has led many people in the area, particularly those from poorer households and members of the monastic order, to continue self-made log cremations.
Aye Aye has opened our eyes to another aspect of Thanaka culture. She illustrated that Thanaka is not only a daily ritual but also an underlying aspect of the monastic culture that assists in sending the most revered beings in Myanmar into their next life. This shows the Thanaka tree has firmly rooted itself in both the life and death of Burmese people.