Myanmar - The Spider Women
ASIAN Geographic|AG 04/2021 - 149
Intricate face tattooing may be a painful thought to some, but to these indigenous “spider women” of Myanmar’s Chin state, they are an important symbol of beauty and bravery.
Khushi Makasare

Chin ladies carrying traditional bamboo baskets, Chin Villages, Mrauk-U

Nestled deep within the remote mountains of northwestern Myanmar, the tiny Chin state is overflowing with rich history and culture. Chin state shares its borders with India and Bangladesh, and various customs and traditions are also shared with these countries. Over the centuries, the people of Chin were exposed to multiple foreign influences – from the zealous Christian missionaries to the powerful East Indian British Company. These external forces tried hard but ultimately failed to taint Chin heritage. The ethnic group remained strongly rooted to its culture, resolutely upholding their historic craft, the incredible art of facial tattoos.

It is believed that the art of tattooing was introduced to then-Burma between the 14th to 17th century by the Shan people, a minority ethnic group who originate from China’s Yunnan province. The migration of this distinct group of people into Chin state meant that their ideologies and culture have now been absorbed into that of the Chin. In ancient Shan culture, there was a strong belief in the spiritual or mystical power of tattoos.

While there remains no historical records of where the Chin people originated from, archaeological evidence points to them settling down in the region around the late ninth or early tenth century. They were theorised to have made their way to the present Chin state via the Chindwin Valley.

Tattooed M’kuum woman in traditional garb, Chin state

Chin people are able to clearly distinguish themselves through tattoo patterns that identify them with a certain tribe. Chin state is home to many tribes, including the M’uun, M’kuum, Yin Du, Daai, U-Pu, Nga Yah, Kaang, and Lai Tu Chin. M’uun women have large “P” or “D” inspired shapes on their faces and “Y” shapes on their foreheads. M’kuum women have line tattoos on their foreheads as well as their chins. The Yin Du and Daai tribes can be distinguished by the long vertical-line tattoos across their entire face, including the eyelids. This is similar to the Nga Yah and Kaang, who have dots as well as lines. The U-Pu tribe tattoos their entire faces with tiny dots, which is a much more subtle effect. Lai Tu Chin women also have intricate facial tattoos, with both vertical and horizontal lines across their faces. Despite the distinct differences between tribes, the designs of the various facial tattoos also share many similarities, and it’s easy to see how the collective name “spider women” has been attributed to the women of Chin state.

Chin women receive their tattoos at a very young age, some even as young as nine years old. As these girls become women, they come to appreciate these tattoos as a bold mark of beauty and a profound symbol of their femininity. Their male counterparts approach these heavily tattooed women with adoration and respect.

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