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Beauty treatment

A tribal tradition that saw pubescent girls tattooed to render them ugly to marauding males is dying out. Words and pictures by Brent Lewin.

 

Stealing Beauty, a collection of portraits, focuses on the tradition of facial tattooing among Chin and Apatani women in Myanmar's Chin State and India's Ziro valley. It is the story of two tribes sharing, without contact, a custom that is on the brink of disappearing.

Historically, Chin and Apatani women were adored for their beauty, drawing kings and men from surrounding areas to their villages to steal them away. To stop their women from being so desired, village elders began tattooing teenage girls to make them "ugly". The tradition stuck but over generations lost its association with ugliness and instead came to represent courage, beauty and strength. In both communities, however, as more people left their villages, the struggle between tradition and modernity placed these tribal cultures under increasing threat. Language, dress and customs - including the practice of facial tattooing - have been abandoned. Now there remains only a handful of women adorned with these often intricate embellishments.

"I was told by my grandmother that [neighbouring tribe] the Nishi would sometimes steal the Apatani girls," says Tailyang Yaming, at her wooden home in Bulla village, in Arunachal Pradesh, in India's northeast. "So we began tattooing young girls to make them ugly. It was a way to keep our identity as Apatani. Of course, now we don't see the tattoos - or nose plugs - as ugliness; in fact, it's beauty."

When Apatani girls hit puberty, they would be "defaced" with tattoos ( tiipe) on their chin, nose and forehead, and bamboo or rattan plugs ( dat) through their nostrils. A painful and bloody process, the tattoos were etched using thorns to implant ink made from soot and starch from cooked rice under the skin. They took almost a full day to complete and a week to heal. The nose plugs were fitted into holes cut into the upper nostrils. First, openings would be made on the nose and a small plug inserted; the next day it would be replaced by a larger plug to stretch the nostril. This process could be repeated up to seven times until the desired plug fitted.

"When I was 12 and got my tattoo I cried so loud. A woman was sitting on my legs and another sat on my chest," says Ngilyang Bunii. "I felt very proud once it was complete. Girls would want to have the darkest tattoo or the largest nose plugs to be the most beautiful. Now the younger generation don't have tattoos, they're mixing with other tribes and I feel like the Apatani identity is under threat of disappearing forever."

The cultural practices of the Chin people have been largely preserved for centuries due to the isolation and rugged terrain of Myanmar's Chin State. Their facial tattoos come in six designs, which correspond to six tribes: the Muun, Dai, Ngagha, M'Kaang, Chinbo and Laytsu. With no written history, explanations of the origins of facial tattooing can vary from village to village but often share a mythical dimension - and it seems to be the consensus that the tradition began as a way to prevent girls from being taken by Burmese kings.

"A long time ago there was a beautiful girl with long hair," says Daw Blaint, now in her 80s, at her home in Kanpetlet Township. "One day she was bathing in a stream and her hair was caught under a rock. It pulled her hair out and the water carried it downstream. When it reached the lower village, people had never seen such beautiful hair so they sent it to the king as a gift. When he saw it he was so curious that he sent out a party to find out whom the hair belonged to. After finding the girl, the king's men kidnapped her and brought her back to him and they were married. Every year the king's men would come back to steal more girls. After that, girls were tattooed to stop it happening.

"[Having the tattoo done] was one of the happiest, saddest and angriest experiences of my life. But at the time, I felt nothing but pride. All that mattered was that I had fulfilled the biggest duty of my life."

With the Burmese government having outlawed the practice in the 1960s, Daw is the last surviving Chinbo woman sporting a facial tattoo. The Chinbo design is striking and different from those of other tribes in that the entire face is covered with green ink, giving the appearance of a mask. Mang gruke, the Chin term for facial tattoo, translates to "marking oneself with richness".

"We don't see ourselves as ugly," Daw says. "Chin people see the tattoo as decoration to make women more attractive, the same as jewellery or earrings. I feel proud to have it."

 

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