© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Mindat, Chin State: tattooed faces and animism

3 minutes to read

Hidden away in Southern Chin State lies a market town of Mindat. Essentially a nondescript settlement with no tourist attractions as such and a slight frontier feeling to it, Mindat draws an increasing number of travelers seeking unique examples of tribal culture. The main draw is the tattooed faces of Chin women. If you have time to spare, there is room to dig deeper: animism, spirit worship, still strong despite the overwhelming influx of Christianity; a rare folk instrument, nose flute; and the breeding of mithun, a near-endemic species of domestic cattle. Surrounding hills offer good trekking opportunities, including a hike to the summit of Mt. Victoria. Getting to the town is quite straightforward: direct buses depart every morning from Pakokku, in turn well connected to Bagan, Monywa, and Mandalay. 

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Chin tattoos

The practice of tattooing girls’ faces has been abolished a few decades ago. This means you will not see the tattoos on anyone younger than 40 or so, but plenty of older women in Mindat spot the typical patterns: a mish-mash of dots for the M’kuum tribe, and rounded lines, a bit like the letter “B”, for the Muun. The most common reason given by the Chin for this peculiar tradition is the one usually supplied for bizarre tribal beautification methods: to prevent the neighbors from kidnapping young girls as brides or concubines. There seems to be no ritual or religious background to it, it is simply a folk custom. And as such, alas, it can be considered a thing of the past.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Nose flute

This instrument is just an ordinary flute, not unlike the Japanese shakuhachi; the only peculiarity is in the fact that it is played with the nostrils, not the mouth. Often it is described as an unique Chin tradition, but this is erroneous – a few other tribes in various countries have similar wind instruments, the nearest ones living in Rajasthan, India. The Chin are slowly forgetting this art, too. Yaw Shen, a very old woman in Mindat, has become something of a live tourist attraction by claiming to be “the last nose flute player”. In reality, she is not the only one, but one of the remaining few, and all the other such masters live in remote villages. You may get lucky and meet them if you go trekking, otherwise Yaw Shen is your only choice.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Animist ceremonies

Spirit worship in Myanmar is part of daily life – nat temples are as ubiquitous as Buddhist pagodas. The Chin refers to their own spirits as nats, too, but they have little to do with the official 37 nats of the Burmese pantheon. It is a characteristically tribal form of animism, the worship on nature spirits, rather than the deified ancient kings and mystics that have become nats. A few simple rituals may be observed on Chin State Day, normally falling on 20 February every year. To see a real ceremony, you would have to invest time and effort or rely on luck. One such occasion is Lung Yu, the gathering of shamans. This involves a lot of chanting, sacrifices of mithuns and chicken, and of course, plenty of millet booze. Aside from the religious activity, for a traveler, it is a good chance to see groups of villagers with tattooed faces in a festive atmosphere. They will probably get you drunk, too.

Mindat, Chin State
Mindat, Chin State
Mindat, Myanmar (Burma)

The author

Mark Levitin

Mark Levitin

I am Mark, a professional travel photographer, a digital nomad. For the last four years, I am based in Indonesia, spending here roughly half a year and travelling around Asia for the other half. Previously, I spent four years in Thailand, exploring it from all perspectives.

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