Those born in 1990s will remember their mothers’ shopping baskets filled with the ubiquitous Thanaka powder, grounded from the fragrant Sandalwood tree.
In the past this was the domain of middle-aged women, who would buy pastes, oils and flowers to make any house smell super rosy. Concoctions like Taung Nan Gyi, Karamat and Nant Thar Phyu were commonplace back in the day; whereas today the only aromatic substances children are likely to see in the house are branded perfumes and air-fresheners.
A middle-aged woman, Ma Wuttyi said, “When I was young, I used to see Taung Nan Gyi, Karamat and Nant Thar Phyu and Nant Thar Ni as well as small pieces of bark and seeds from medicinal trees on the side table. I thought these fragrances smell of old women.”
Whilst some fragrances were used to make a woman smell nice, some still believe they can be used to treat acne, dry skin or protect from sunburn.
The 29-year-old Ma Wuttyi only keeps Thanaka and Kyauk Pyin at home, but admits to seldom uses them on her body or face. Her grandmother applies barks every day, thinking they are able to relieve mild skin diseases and even treat fevers.
In the past Myanmar women used to beautify themselves with Thanaka but, with the rise of the internet and the modern shopping center, many are venturing out to buy the latest Body Shop, Revlon or Clinique body scrubs and foundations.
“Even though I grew up with the scent of sandalwood in the house, my kids won’t grow up with Thanaka around them. I used to apply Thanaka to my child, and recently bought some when I visited Kyaiktiyo Pagoda. But I threw them away because they were fake,” Ma Myint Zu Win, who is a housewife in Sanchaung, said.
People can buy camphorated oils and soaps made from sandalwood these days, but less people chose to apply Thanaka from the ground-down paste.
Vendors line the stairways of Kyaiktiyo Pagoda selling sandalwood block, medicinal tubers and bulbs, attracting many elderly visitors from Yangon.
“My grandmother put aside the sandalwood for spraying over the Buddha shrine many years ago. Since she stopped using it, I don’t know where it is now. I think real sandalwood can be bought at Theingyi Zay, but it will probably be expensive,” Ko Toe, a friend of Ma Myint Zu Win, explained.