Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Sak Yant Tattoos

Sak Yant Tattoos On Theravada Monk's Body

 Our just concluded four day trip to Nakom Pathom, approximately 50km outside of Bangkok, was the culmination of two serendipitous events.  About a month ago while surfing the Internet, I discovered an e-brochure, "Khlong Tour, Cruising the Majestic Waterways" created in 2007 by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
The brochure describes several tours of the area including floating markets, farm and orchard visits, and some Buddhist sites.  We had visited the area for the first time in 2007 and for the second time last December.  The brochure highlighted some areas of interest that we had not visited.
Shortly after discovering the e-brochure, I learned from a contact on Facebook, that the annual Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Festival was scheduled for 15 March.
I have wanted to witness the Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Festival for at least three years.  I decided that this would be the year that we would attend the festival and also spend some time to visit some of the sites described in the e-brochure.
The Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Festival is a ritual where "magical tattoos" are re-energized by special chants from the Monks of the Wat.
Before writing and sharing our experiences at the festival, I would first like to give some background regarding the tattoos associated with Wat Bang Phra.
The "magical tattoos" are actually "sak yant" - Yantra tattooing. Sak yants have a long and mystical history dating back over 2,000 years ago.  Sak yant tattooing is an ancient tradition of Thailand, Cambodia, Lao People's Democratic Republic and parts of Myanmar (Burma).  Today the tradition is largely restricted to Thailand.
Yantra originated in India.  Yantra are symbols and geometric arrangements that are used in Eastern mysticism to focus on spiritual concepts and to balance the mind.  Wearing, creating, and concentrating on yantra was believed in Indian religions to provide spiritual benefits.  In India the yantras were typically created on cloth.
Thai Yant (Sak Yant) Flag Hung In Our Living Room
The use of Yantras printed on cloth is still popular today in Thailand.  Yantra flags are hung in homes and vehicles to bring good luck and fortune.  They are especially popular for posting in businesses to bring success.  We have two Yantra flags in our home - one in our living room and a second one hung above the entrance door to our bed room.  The cloths are blessed by the Monks of each specific Wat that distributes them. The cloths are believed by Theravada Buddhists to protect from evil spirits, provide good health and esure safety for the residents of the home where they are displayed.
Some Yants are small - similiar to soccer club pendants, and are hung from motor vehicle rear view mirrors to afford protection from accidents.  We do not have one but we do have a small plastic disk - a sort of medallion with yantric symbols on it.
Yantra Cloth Above the Door To Our Bedroom
However it was the Khmer culture that adapted the yantras into tattoos.  During the Khmer Empire period, the warriors were covered from head to toe with yantric tatoos incorporating ancient Sanskrit script.  It was believed that the power of the Yantric tattoos protected the warriors - arrows and knives were unable to penetrate their skin.  Ok - you might be wondering why if the warriors were invincible, why are we all not talking Khmer today.  Although the Sak Yant tattoos are very powerful, there are rules that the bearers must follow to maintain the powers and the tattoos have to be re-energized periodically.  Apparently the Khmer warriors did not follow the rules faithfully or keep their tattoos energized.

Today, Yantra designs for tattoos contain Animist, Hindu and Buddhist symbols.  It is yet another example of the Thai people incorporating rather than getting rid of beliefs and practices of previous religious systems into their current system.

Sak Yants are created using the "mae sak", originally a bamboo needle, but today it is a long metal pointed rod.  A trained Monk or a lay Sak Yant master uses the slotted metal pointed rod to apply special ink beneath the skin to create the selected design. The rod more closely resembles a knitting needle than any needle that I assumed would be used to create a tattoo.  After he has finished tattooing the person, the Monk or the ajan recites a prayer and blows twice onto the new tattoo to energize it.

I do not have any tattoos or have I ever considered getting tattooed,  however I know that if I were to get a tattoo it would not be "Mom", an anchor, or even a ship across my chest.  No, if I were to ever get a tattoo, it would have to be special - a tattoo that connected me with the far distant past, a unique tribal connection, a religious artifact created by traditional instruments used by a spiritual person - something like a sak yant.

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