Thanaka (also spelt thanakha) is a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark. It is a distinctive feature of Myanmar (formerly Burma) seen commonly applied to the face and sometimes the arms of women and girls and to a lesser extent men and boys. The use of thanaka has also spread to neighboring countries including Thailand.
The earliest literary reference to thanaka is in a 14th-century poem written by Mon-speaking King Razadarit’s consort. Mentions of thanaka also exist in the 15th century literary works of Burmese monk-poet Shin Maharatthasara(1486-1529).
The wood of several trees may be used to produce thanaka cream; these trees grow abundantly in central Myanmar. They include principally Murraya spp. (thanaka) but also Limonia acidissima (theethee or wood apple). The two most popular are Shwebo thanaka from Sagaing Division and Shinmadaung thanaka from Magwe Division. A more recent contender sold as a paste is Taunggyi Maukme thanaka from southern Shan State. Thanaka trees are perennials, and a tree must be at least 35 years old before it is considered mature enough to yield good-quality cuttings. Thanaka in its natural state is sold as small logs individually or in bundles, but nowadays also available as a paste or in powder form.
Thanaka cream is made by grinding the bark, wood, or roots of a thanaka tree with a small amount water on a circular stone slab called kyauk pyin which has a channel round the rim for the water to drain into.
Thanaka cream has been used by Burmese women for over 2000 years. It has a fragrant scent somewhat similar to sandalwood. The creamy paste is applied to the face in attractive designs, the most common form being a circular patch on each cheek, sometimes made stripey with the fingers known as thanaka be gya, or patterned in the shape of a leaf, often also highlighting the bridge of the nose with it at the same time. It may be applied from head to toe (thanaka chi zoun gaung zoun). Apart from cosmetic beauty, thanaka also gives a cooling sensation and provides protection from sunburn. It is believed to help remove acne and promote smooth skin. It is also an anti-fungal. The active ingredients of thanaka are courmarin and marmesin.
Nowadays Thanakha is packaged in the form of a thick dry cream or powder which is handy and convenient to carry.
The tradition of wearing Thanakha will be cherished for generations. Everybody loves to put on Thanakha after having a bath at the end of a long, tiring day leaving us cool, fragrant and refreshed. No matter how much modern cosmetics and make-up are in abundance today the Thanakha is still a favourite beautifier of Myanmar Ladies from all walks of life. And it is also very common to see young boys wearing Thanakha. All children used to grown up by applying thanakha on the skin and so they are familiar with it since their childhood’s days.
Thanakha grinding event in Sittwe is a traditional event held on the eve of Water Festival, i.e. Thingyan. On Thingyan eve, in the early part of the night, young women grind Thanakha barks and roots to a fine cream by grinding it along with a sprinkle of water on rounded stone slabs. Young men play musical instruments and dance to support the event. Once the Thanakha is ready, all go to nearby pagodas and wash the Buddha images with it as a new-year eve good deed.