A girl’s face with a yellowish paste on her cheeks will always provoke a question from a foreigner: What is that they put on their faces? That is thanaka paste, the most environmentally friendly and widely used skin lotion in Myanmar. No chemicals, no preservatives, the lotion that helps the skin retains its youthfulness. In a modern world of fashion where various makeup brands and anti-aging lotions are the essential weapons against the signs of advancing years, thanaka still stands tall with the people of Myanmar.
Thanaka is a tree (Murea exotica,) grown mostly in the semi-sandy and arid regions of Central Myanmar. A thanaka tree needs about 30 years to mature and be harvested. The bark will be thick and shows deep serrations and exudes a faint fragrance if smelled. This is the most valuable part, rather than the wood. The thicker the bark the better the quality. It is what gives the thanaka its fragrance and the paste when ground on a slab of stone. However, it can also be confused with thee or wood apple trees (Limonia acidissima) and many unscrupulous traders will just do that for an unsuspecting buyer. But some housewives still prefer the thanaka roots to the branches or the trunks, saying they are more durable, although much harder to grind.
When the thanaka trees are mature, they are cut into small sizes and sent all over the country for sale. At home the thanaka logs are then ground on stone slabs, with water added to get a thick paste that is applied on the skin. The paste is cool and fragrant. Some girls might even add dried flowers to add to the fragrance or draw decorative designs on their cheeks. Thanaka is a versatile skin lotion. Children are made to wear this natural lotion when they are out playing in the sun and the local ‘village belles’ treasure thanaka paste on their faces rather than the expensive skin care products available to their city cousins.
Girls doing hard work under the sun like, planting paddy or harvesting crops, even on construction sites, we see them with thick layers of thanaka on their faces. This protects them from the fierce rays of the sun, an age old UV protection nature had given to us. Thanaka is also a therapeutic. A small dab of this thanaka paste on an insect bite or minor itches and sunburn will ease the pain. The best present for a visitor to bring from Central Myanmar is a bundle of thanaka logs and how they hostess will love that: a treasure she will always cherish.
Male school children can also be seen with thanaka on their cheeks too. Many of the women folks put on a thin veneer of thanaka paste after a shower, on their whole body, from head to foot. They believe it protects the skin from aging and wrinkles. A stone slab on display at the Bago Shwemawdaw Pagoda Museum is reputed to be used by a famous princess of the Hanthawaddy Dynasty to grind her thanaka logs. Who knows, even the most popular screen personalities of Myanmar might secretly have small thanaka logs at home to make them look forever young!