“I first saw Thanaka come to this village when I was 21 years old,” recalled Nang Pwan. Now a seasoned 82, this Pa-O woman has seen a lot come and go in a village she has never left.

Nang Pwan never tried Thanaka but, instead, grew up using a traditional rice paste. The paste was reserved for festivals and special occasions, rather than work, to make skin smooth and cool—the same reasons many people elsewhere use Thanaka. She admitted rice paste is “very busy” to make and involves a lengthy, physically demanding process. The rice must first be soaked in water to soften it then finely mashed on a stone slab with a wooden paddle. Only then is it ready to be worn for elaborate Pa-O celebrations.

Nang Pwan, Nang meaning 'Miss' in Pa-O, stands in the same family garden she has tended for over seventy years.

Nang Pwan, Nang meaning 'Miss' in Pa-O, stands in the same family garden she has tended for over seventy years.

The Pa-O is the second largest ethnic group in Shan State, yet they are not truly native to this mountainous region of Myanmar. They fled here nearly one thousand years ago to escape enslavement after their coastal homeland was conquered by the Bamar. They traveled over three hundred miles through treacherous terrain to start a new life, but this would not be the last time they come face to face with unwanted conflict.

Pwan has lived in the mountains of Shan State her whole life. She grew up the daughter of wheat and garlic farmers, going to market every five days to sell their vegetable product. This was amidst an era of British occupation, which was further disrupted by the events of World War II. Japan, in particular, had a special interest in the area, and huge battles broke out in nearby Taunggyi.

Japanese soldiers ransacked outerlying villages, killing Pa-O livestock for food and stealing their grain and vegetable supplies. Nang Pwan’s family and many others hid their valuables, such as money and gold, underground and fled when necessary. She said “when the dogs barked, we had to run into the forest.” Though this did not happen often, her statement illustrates the intimacy of the conflict.

A birdseye view of Taunggyi, the mountaintop capital of Shan State. In the past, the thick jungles that cloak these mountains kept nearby Pa-O villages isolated from the outside world.

A birdseye view of Taunggyi, the mountaintop capital of Shan State. In the past, the thick jungles that cloak these mountains kept nearby Pa-O villages isolated from the outside world.

Much has changed since the end of WWII. In 1947, Myanmar finally gained total independence, and Shan State reluctantly joined the Union. Around this time Pwan was reaching her teenage years, her community finally returning to a state of normalcy. This new sense of unity generated countrywide contact and commerce, which now included her isolated village.

The changes that filtered into the region post-WWII served to further the adaptation of Pa-O culture, which has been evolving since their first exodus from lower Myanmar. The Burmese government soon reformed the educational system and instituted federally funded schools throughout Shan State. Nang Pwan’s nine children were the first generation of federally educated Pa-O children in the region; it was there that friends and teachers introduced them to Thanaka.

A Lahu girl walking home from school in eastern Shan State. The Lahu, like the Pa-O, have also begun to integrate Thanaka into their lives as a result of federal schooling.

A Lahu girl walking home from school in eastern Shan State. The Lahu, like the Pa-O, have also begun to integrate Thanaka into their lives as a result of federal schooling.

In much the same way as her family fled when the dogs barked, Nang Pwan’s people seem to flee from controversy, adapting to what they must while holding on dearly to what they treasure most. Nang Pwan, for instance, only speaks Pa-O while her children and grandchildren can also speak Burmese, though they all prefer their native tongue.  Similarly, Pa-O people now “don’t use rice powder for traditional festivals, they use Thanaka,” Nang Pwan stated matter-of-factly.

As Myanmar struggles to find a cohesive identity, many aspects of traditional Burmese culture have been met with opposition from minority ethnic groups like the Pa-O. The Bamar government’s hope to standardize language, educational structure, and economic opportunities has been fought sometimes literally. Conversely, as the Pa-O illustrate, Thanaka has no religion, ethnicity, class, gender, or age. It crosses many boundaries that otherwise cannot be crossed in present day Myanmar.

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