The last of the Spider Women – Chin State, Myanmar

This photograph was recognized and printed by the German Fotoforum Magazine in the category “People én detail” in April 2020

Following an amazing two weeks under the wings of Thorge becoming better at my photography skills in the enthralling beauty of Myanmar, I travelled individually to Chin State. A one hour flight, six hour car ride, an overnight stay and a 4 hour boat ride later my guide and translator Ohnmar and I were welcomed in Pann Paung village in Chin State. This is where I wanted to understand the true story about the dying tradition of facial tattoos.

Once a year, exact timing was to be decided by the head of the tribe, all girls at the age of 9 where lifted from their beds. Myia shares her story with me and remembers vividly how she heard girls scream in the middle of the night and instantly knew that “this is the day”. From all the nine year old girls in her tribe, many that woke up started to run into the jungle. “Some never returned” she says as the exhales. Although the stories of the women are all somewhat different, they have one thing in common as Myia confirms “it hurt”.

Myia was bound to a table as the elderly started to work on her face. The ink and needles used for the Chin State women’s tattoos are all derived from nature. The tattoos use leaves for color, soot as a disinfectant, and grass shoots as a natural bandage for healing. The women use thorns from cane plants as the tattoo needle, then heat the bark from pine trees and capture the smoke in a mud pot, mixed with various leaves, to create the ink. The process itself took for Myia two days, but for other it was seven. All very dependent on the girls pain threshold. Myia’s face was completely swollen and took over two weeks to return to normal. She is happy to have survived as not all girls do. Wanting to understand the reason of the tradition Myia tells me that this was to keep the girls from being desirable to other tribes, so that they would not be kidnapped now that they are marked clearly.

Despite popular belief, these women are not proud of their tattoo’s. Myia tells me that every time she looks in a mirror she is reminded of the horrific event. Like most women, she is glad that the Burmese government banned the tradition. In the early 1960’s the socialist government of Burma banned the tradition in an effort the modernize the country. Myia is one of the last Spider Women. Once their time has come, the tradition and history of Chin State tattoos will go with them.

%d bloggers like this: