Teak may be the highly prized timber of Myanmar treasured by men, but for women of almost all races it is Thanakha (and Limonia accidissim Linn.) and it has been in use for many centuries. The bark is ground on a flat circular stone mortar and the thin fragrant paste is smeared on the face and/or limbs, as thinly or thickly as preferred. It is cooling,
somewhat astringent, and tightens the skin. Its perfume is wonderfully refreshing,, a natural scent that takes your mind into hills and fields splashed with sunlight. Sandalwood has a stronger scent and is mostly used by older women.
A poem written 500 years ago described its use, mentioning the stone mortar called kyauk pin or literally a ‘slab of stone’.
The same circular stone with a shallow trough around its rim encircling a smooth surface is in use today, although ancient ones have carved figures around its base. Maid servants or handmaidens at court probably sat at these stones for hours, to grind enough paste to cover not only the face but for the limbs as well, although they would use separate stones for face and lower limbs. Princesses favoured by their father the king could have gold dust from the treasury to grind in their Thanakha - a prestige not allowed for anyone else.
Commoners made do with the golden-coloured pollen of the Gant Gaw flower, as they do still. After all, gold may glitter but it has no perfume to match the Gant Gaw blossoms that appear only once a year. The girls collect the pollen and dry it in the shade, and store it for the coming year.
Countrywomen wear Thanakha as a sunscreen and their faces are usually thickly plastered with it when they work in the paddy fields. If not used as a sunscreen, it is barely discernable when thoroughly rubbed into the face, and in the tropical heat of Myanmar, it keeps the skin perfectly cool. Children and young girls wear round patches of it on their cheeks or in any cute designs like a bunny rabbit face. Even young men are not ashamed to be seen wearing it, if they want to improve their complexion.
New mothers rub Thanakha mixed with turmeric powder all over her face and body for about a week, so that her skin will retain its golden look after the strains of birth and her weakened condition. The complexion considered the most beautiful by the Myanmar is a clear, even light brown with a tinge of gold in it.
Every pagoda bazaar or festival has stalls stacked with logs, and this precious wood is getting so rare that fakes are palmed off by soaking them in Thanakha paste to smell the same. Thanakha tastes slightly bitter, so at these shops you may well see crowds of women taking small nips out of long branches to test the authenticity. There is no danger in swallowing any of it, as Thanakha is also used for herbal medicine. The bare wood left over after a few months’ grinding are pulverised and turned into paste powder, or, mixed with water and dried in cakes, ground again to smear on lower limbs. There is nothing as cool and refreshing, or fragrant, as to cover the whole body with Thanakha after a bath.
Thanakha is also considered a noble essence, signifying purity so it is also used in many ceremonies. In the town of Sittwe on the western coast, the first day of the water festival preceding the New Year is celebrated by girls grinding fresh Thanakha paste on the pagoda platform until late in the evening while young men serenade with music. Early the next day, the Buddha images of the pagodas are 'bathed' in the solution of Thanakha and water. In many famous other pagodas all over the country the faces of bronze Buddha images are washed every dawn with a watery solution of Thanakha and Sandalwood pastes.
The gift of some logs of this fragrant wood is the way to a woman’s heart in Myanmar, more assuredly than a dozen red roses. She may have access to the best and most expensive skin care and cosmetics but one thing she cannot live without is the section of the Thanakha branch and a stone mortar to grind it. There are instant versions in cake, paste or liquid form but this water-based cream is preferred freshly prepared just after her bath. On their travels, even when going abroad, they take along smaller versions of their stone mortars without caring for the excess weight.