People of Myanmar – Part 2: The Chin
The Chin are a Sino-Tibetan race with more than half a million people living in Myanmar. The majority of this group resides in the state of the same name. Bordered by Bangladesh and India, the Chin State is located in the western edge of Myanmar and is a mountainous region. With this higher elevation and remote location, the Chin people rely mostly on farming, logging and hunting for their survival.
The Chin refer to themselves as Zo-mi which means ‘mountain people’ and have strongly held to their identity as a people. The were one of the few ethnic groups given their own autonomy from the British and thus they continued as a chiefdom until the 1960s. There is still a strong group of Chin who support a sovereign state combined with the Chins in neighbouring Bangladesh and India.
Like most of the ethnic groups in Myanmar, the Chin have their own language and, perhaps due to the remoteness of the villages, there are estimated to be 40 sub-dialects. These dialects can be so distinctive that those who speak different dialects may not understand each other even though it is the same parent language. Another unusual aspect of Chin culture is the naming system. The grandparents are the ones who chose a newborn’s name and it usually reflects the grandparents’ aspirations for the child or to carry on family legends from their ancestors.
In the past the Chin were known for their weaving and storytelling. They only obtained a written language in the early 1900s by Christian missionaries so they used stories to pass down history, culture and tradition. Their folk tales are some of the most vivid of all of the Myanmar ethnic groups. Likewise the Chin textiles are highly sought after. Using back-strap looms, pure cotton and natural dyes, the patterns created reflect their culture and the landscapes of the Chin State.
However it is the face-tattooing that the Chin are probably most famous for among international visitors. Traditionally, women were marked with permanent ink in intricate patterns across their chin or entire face. The exact origins of this process is debated- some say it helped identify the particular tribal origin of the woman, some said it was to make the women unattractive so that they were not kidnapped whilst others believe it is more related to keeping evil spirits and harmful animals away. These days the ancient tradition has all but ended yet there are still a few villages where women, mostly elderly, display the tattoos.
The Chin people were one of the most heavily targeted by Christian missionaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is believed that about 95% of the Chin population was Christian at that time. These days there is still around a third of the population practicing Christianity with the rest being Buddhist and animist. Unusually, animal sacrifice still plays an important role in spiritual celebrations in the Chin State.
Chin culture and the Chin state are rarely explored by tourists. If you are looking to discover a unique side of Myanmar’s melting pot of ethnicities, meeting the Chin people is a great place to start.
EXPERIENCING CHIN CULTURE:
- Visiting only recently opened to travelers, the Chin State is a ruggedly beautiful area and the best place to experience true Chin culture. The most popular destination is Mt Victoria, one of the highest peaks in Myanmar, located west of Bagan. Getting there is an adventure- 4 wheel-drive vehicle is required- and accommodation is basic but you will be rewarded with the chance to see several Chin villages of sub-tribes such as the Daai, Muun and Ngagah and where several residents have tattood faces. For nature lovers, a hike to the top of Mt Victoria is not to be missed. Alternatively you can travel to Mrauk U which, although in the Rakhine State, has several villages of Chin people to its north. By boat, you can venture from Mrauk U up the Lay Myo River to visit with these villages, share tea and learn more about their culture.
- Dining & Shopping- If you can’t make it to the Chin state, you can get a taste of Chin culture in Yangon. The Rih Lake is a restaurant serving traditional dishes, mostly spicy, and has a shop adjacent selling longyis with Chin patterns. Yo Yar Lay, at Bogyoke Market, has older traditional Chin textiles for sale.
- Festivals- The main Chin state festival is held in February in the town of Mindat (6-8 hours drive from Bagan). In the past this festival was a popular match-making event with families from various remote villages introducing their sons to daughters from other remote villages. These days it is a combination of market place with textiles, jewelry and dry goods for sale and celebration with singing and dancing.