Julian Ray Photography

Faces Of Thanakha

One of the first things people seem to notice when arriving in Burma is the centuries old uniquely Burmese tradition known as Thanakha.

Thanakha is just one more of the subtle and strikingly unique aspects of the Burmese people.

At once both bold and subtle Thanakha, pronounced Te-naw-Ká, is a yellowish-white paste made by mixing fine sawdust from the branches of several kinds of trees and water. These trees grow in abundance in the central valley of Burma. The two most popular trees are the Shwebo thanakha and the Shinmadaung thanakha. It is most commonly worn by women and children and to a lesser extent by men. Mostly worn on the face it also can be applied to the chest, arms and even the whole body. It is a favorite of very small children as a way of wearing a depiction of a favorite animal or character.

The belief is that the paste, usually made fresh each morning by sanding down a little bit of the wood on a rough stone or specially made ceramic tool, is good for keeping the skin healthy and protecting it from the sun. It keeps the skin dry in the sweltering heat, heals blemishes and scares, and also helps lighten the skin, an attribute that is highly prized by most Burmese. Having a fragrant scent somewhat similar to sandalwood it also gives the wearer a long lasting cooling sensation. With antibacterial properties this ancient ointment is believed to have many benefits few modern medications can match.

One of the interesting things about Thanakha is how it changes throughout the day as the sweat, contact, and movement affect the look. A bold application in the morning can look faint, or grow bolder by late afternoon. Just as the person wearing it, Thanakha evolves as the day does.

What fascinates me as a travel photographer is how beautiful and unique this form of cosmetic artistry is. Unlike most western cosmetic schemes that seem to have as the ultimate goal making every one look the same, Thanakha seems to be an extension of the wearers unique personality and attitude. It can be haunting or comical. It can be subtle or grotesque but always, just like the face underneath, there are no two the same.

Thanakha is equally worn to work, to socialize, or when going to the temple. For many people, not putting on Thanakha would be considered immodest. A little or a lot, there is no wrong way to wear Thanakha.

In a way Thanakha visually epitomizes the personality and spirit of the Burmese people. Calm, proud, very patient and ferociously resilient, and always with humor and joy.

Here are a few Thanakha faces I have had the privilege to know and photograph over the years.

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“The best way to help Burma is to empower the people of Burma, to help us have enough self-confidence to obtain
what we want for ourselves.”
― Aung San Suu Kyi

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“What makes a hero? Courage, strength, morality, withstanding adversity? Are these the traits that truly show and create a hero? Is the light truly the source of darkness or vice versa? Is the soul a source of hope or despair? Who are these so called heroes and where do they come from? Are their origins in obscurity or in plain sight?”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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“The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.”
― Aung San Suu Kyi
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“Through humor, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it.”
― Bill Cosby

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“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”
― Albert Camus

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“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress and grow.”
― Thomas Paine

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“My top priority is for people to understand that they have the power to change things themselves.”
― Aung San Suu Kyi


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“The beauty of collaboration between older and younger generations is that we combine strength with wisdom—a surefire way to accomplish more for the glory of God.”
― Brett Harris

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“Man often becomes what he believes himself to be. If I keep on saying to myself that I cannot do a certain thing, it is possible that I may end by really becoming incapable of doing it. On the contrary, if I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

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“Joy is strength.”
― Mother Teresa

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“When the people fear the government there is tyranny, when the government fears the people there is liberty.”
― Thomas Jefferson

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“You are never strong enough that you don't need help.”
― César Chávez


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“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

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“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”
― Lao Tzu

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“A leader isn't someone who forces others to make him stronger; a leader is someone willing to give his strength to others so that they may have the strength to stand on their own.”
― Beth Revis

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“Inside me, there is an organ more important than my heart. Although you can't see it, I feel it going right through my head and down to my legs, and I know that it exists inside me. It's the one that lets me stand up and walk forward. So that I can walk forward, without ever trembling. If I stopped here I feel like it would break...My soul would break. Even more than if my heart stops beating, to me that is the most important. Even if I become senile and my back gets bent, I still have to walk forward.”
― Sorachi Hideaki

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“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

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“Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.”
― Corrie ten Boom

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“And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.”
― John Steinbeck

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“Don't give up the fight, Stand up for your rights.”
― Bob Marley

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“You have been told that, even like a chain, you are as weak as your weakest link. This is but half the truth. You are also as strong as your strongest link. To measure you by your smallest deed is to reckon the power of ocean by the frailty of its foam. To judge you by your failures is to cast blame upon the seasons for their inconstancy.”
― Gibran Khalil Gibran

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“We acquire the strength we have overcome.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

The only Burmese trait more ubiquitous than Thanakha is the laughter..... 
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But those images are for another day's post.


I look forward to seeing you out there.

Julian Ray
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