Monday, March 24, 2014

The Night Before ... Wai Khru Wat Bang Phra

Installing A Sak Yant

One of the main reasons for our journey to Nakhon Pathom, a region west of Bangkok, was to attend the annual Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Festival.

There are many temples in Thailand where you can receive a yantric tattoo (magical tattoo) from either a Monk or from a highly trained lay person called, according to my wife, "Tapawkao".  A Tapawkao is one step below a Monk and one step above a Brahman.  Duang's deceased uncle was a Brahman and led the laypeople in all the merit making rituals at the village wat.  He acted as a priest type leader for the people - leading the chants, making the offerings, and interacting with the Monks who served their own role and had their own chants in the rituals.  Duang's uncle also performed Animist rituals such as Baii Sii ceremony, spirit house installations, our wedding ritual, and house blessings.

Tapawkaos receive much longer and more intense training for Bikkhus (ordained Buddhist monastics, "Monks") than Brahmans.

Prior to embarking on our trip to Nakhon Pathom, I did quite a bit of research on the Internet.  I even watched an episode of "The Tattoo Hunter" related to the Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Festival.  There was a great deal of information ot there about Sak Yant and the festival.  Much of the information appears to have come from a single source.

I have often written that my purpose in this blog effort is to share what I have seen, and experienced regarding the different aspects of culture here in southeast asia.  I know that there are times when what I write contradicts other sources of information.  Often I attribute this to the juxtaposition of  "The way things are supposed to be and the way they actually are"

To ensure that I accurately describe what I have observed, I often verify with my wife, Duangchan, to verify the accuracy and content of my writings.  What I eventually share on my blog is an accurate rendition of my obsevations of the events.

Duang Making An Offering and Receiving Blessing From the Abbott
You can obtain a Yak Sant tattoo daily at Wat Bang Phra.  However during the night before the Tattoo Festival, many people make a pilgrimage to the temple to be tattooed prior to the ceremony the next morning.  The Monks and Tapawkaos tattoo people throughout the night.  I have found that here in Thailand it is always best to be on site the day before the official scheduled start of any festival.  A good example of this is the Poi Sang Long Festival in Maehongson - we always arrive the day before the "start" of the festival to witness the ritual involving the shaving of the young boy's heads in the late afternoon.  I suspected that the same would be true for the tattoo festival.

After checking into our hotel and making a visit to Wat Sawang Arom, we arrived at Wat Bang Phra around 4 P.M.

The Wat is a fairly large complex with many buildings.  Many people were busy setting up booths and stalls.  Other people were occupied with preparing and cooking food in makeshift outdoor  kitchens.  There were many people but I would not catagorize the area as crowded.

After wandering about a little, we found a building where two people, one man and one woman, were being tattooed by two Tapawkaos.  I know that they were Tapakaos because they wore ordinary white clothing and their heads had not been shaved.  We asked one of the men that was stretching the skin for the tattoo process if I could take photographs.  He indicated that we had to talk to the Abbott about taking photographs.  We left that building and found the large building where the Abbott was.

We asked the young man who was assisting the Abbott about taking photographs of the tattooing process.  The young man suggested that we make an offering and discuss it with the Abbott.  Duang walked over to the desk where offerings of orchids, two joss sticks, and two small candles were for sale.  She returned and we knelt before the Abbott and made our offering to him.  After receiving his blessing, we inquired about taking photographs.  The Abbott's assistant asked about if the pictures were for television.  Duang explained to the assistant about how I take photographs, write stories about life in Thailand, and place them on the Internet. In very short time, I had permission to take photographs except for photographs of women being tattooed by Monks.  We placed an offering of money in an envelope and handed it to the assistant.  In return he handed me an envelope with some writing on it.

I was concerned about using a flash to take photographs.  I asked and Duang tried to explain what I was asking about.  I ended up setting up the flash with its light modifier and firing it for the Abbott to see.  He indicated that there was no problem - it was up to me.

A Tapawkao Tattoos A Young Man - The Traditional Way
We returned to the building where we first saw a person getting a tattoo. Off to the side of a stairway going up to where Luang Pi Nunn was creating Sak Yant and beneath a statue of Ruesi, the Tapawkao were still busy tattooing people - it was going to be a long night for them.

Ruesi are hermit sages who first discovered the powers of yantric tattoos (Sak Yants).  They passed on their knowledge and secrets to Monks who continue the traditions and practices today. Ruesi are sometimes depicted wearing a tiger skin because Lord Shiva, the original Great Ruesi, wore a tiger skin.  The tiger skin is also emblematic of being a hermit.

Monk With Sak Yants

Wat Bang Phra is considered to be the prime site for Sak Yants due to the work and reputation of its previous Abbott,  Luang Phor Phen.  Luang Phor Phen is well known for his use of magic to help people and the power of his Sak Yants.  During one period of his life, Luang Phor Phen was a hermit in the deep jungle known for its wild animals and evil spirits. It is said that during that period of time, he was always accompanied and protected by a large as well as very fierce tiger.  Luang Phor Phen died in 2002.  He is often depicted as riding atop a large tiger.  If you look carefully at some of the following photographs you will see depictions  of Luang Phor Phen and the tiger.  The souvenir tee-shirt, not mine - the one Duang purchased, has Luang Phor Phen and the tiger on the front and a yantra on the back.

Men Await Their Turn To Be Tattooed by Luang Pi Nunn
Today the most famous Monk for Sak Yant tattoos is Luang Pi Nunn. a Monk at Wat Bang Phra.  My goal was to witness and photograph him as well as his work.

After photographing the tattooing at the base of the stairway, we climbed the stairs and walked into a fairly large dim room.  At one end of the room, two Monks at each corner were tattooing people.  The Monk at the left hand corner of the room was Luang Pi Nunn.

Offerings in the foreground, Luang Pi Nunn in the background

The room was filled with about 40 people - roughly 20 seated upon the floor per Monk.  Each person had purchased an offering for 199 baht.  Each offering consisted of a bunch of orchids, a pack of cigarettes, two incense sticks, and two yellow candles.  The offerings were placed together on agold colored pressed ornamental bowl used throughout Thailand for presenting offerings to Monks.  The approximately 20 men bowed before the Monk as the offerings were made and received a blessing from the Monk.  As the number of people waiting dwindled, a new group was brought into the room and the offering ritual was repeated.

The room had no air conditioning but the whirling ceiling fans kept the room comfortable - at least for me but then again I was not about to be stuck hundreds if of times by a needle.  Four large cloth posters were hung on the walls on each side of the Masters.  The posters showed many of the yantras that were possible.

Various Yantras

The atmosphere of the room was somewhat somber and reverent - what you would expect in the prescence of a deeply faith based ritual.  Some of the men did talk but when they did, it was in low and hushed voices.  The men were mostly young - Sak Yants are very popular with policemen, military men, Monks, and others with dangerous but not necessarily legal professions or occupations.  Although I had started at the back of the crowd, I was upfront and next to Luang Pi Nunn in very little time.  The people knew that I was very curious and only interested in taking photographs with no intention to cut in line to get a tattoo of my own.

Man Waiting To Be Tattooed - I Believe That He Has A "Good Heart"

I focused my attention upon Luang Pi Nunn and the men that he was tattooing.  Two young men sat in front of the raised platform upon which Luang Pi Nunn sat.  Their duty was to stretch the skin of the person to be tattooed.  In order to make proper sized and clear lines, the skin needs to be stretched the proper consistent amount and in the proper direction.

Luang Pi Nunn Orientates A Young Monk

The person to be tattooed sits on the floor with his back to Luang Pi Nunn.  Often a triangular pillow is placed on his lap to help support his torso.  The person is then orientated so that Luang Pi Nunn can read the person's aura.  Based upon the person's aura, the Monk determines what yantra and where it will be applied to the skin.

The Master Often Smokes As He Reads Auras

After he determines which yantra he will create and where, the Master immediately commences to tattoo the person.  Downstairs some Tapawkaos used stencils to mark the yantra on the skin before they started to tattoo.  Although there were some stencils in a basket behind him, I never saw Luang Pi Nunn utilize a stencil.

The Sak Yant was created with long metal rods which more closely resembled knitting needles than the needles that I expected to be used for tattoos.  The rods were about 24 inches long and approximately 1/8 inch in diameter. The tips of  the needles were split - remininsent of old style fountain ink pens.

After loading the needle with ink and with his assitants stretching the skin, the Master started piercing the skin with the needle to create the yantra pattern.  Periodically with the smoothest and most fluid motion he would recharge the needle with ink from the tiny reservoir at his side.

Recharging the Needle With Ink
After completing the tattoo, the needle was placed into a container of ink stained alochol - ready for the next tattoo.  At the front of the Master's work station. there were two sharpening stones - like the kind used to sharpen knives.  A sheet of sandpaper was also stored in the back of his station for sharpening the needles.  I observed Luang Pi Nunn for about two hours and he never sharpened a needle.

Luang Pi Nunn's Workstation - He Sits Cross Legged On the Table

When Luang Pi Nunn took a break, I was able to get some close up photos of his workstation.

Tattoo Needles(?) and the Master's Cigarette Butts

The Master's Tools
The ink used for applying Sak Yants are a secret recipe - unique to each Master.  It is believed to contain coconut oil, charcoal, snake venom and possiblely human remains (I suspect ashes).  In the above photograph the small bowl of golden fluid is palm or coconut oil that is used rather than black ink to create invisible Sak Yants.  Rolls of toilet paper are used to create tissue pads that are used to prevent smearing of the tattoo as it is being created, to help keep ink from getting on the master's hands, and to clean the tattoo when it is completed.  The man seated behind me was kept busy unrolling toilet paper and folding into compact absorbant pads.

When the tattoo is completed, the Master cleans the tattoo of excess ink and quietly recites a special chant.  He blows on the tattoo twice to energize the Sak Yant with its powers.

Luang Pi Nunn Energizes A Sak Yant That He Just Completed

After an hour observing Luang Pi Nunn, we went back down the stairs to explore more of the facility.

There were several areas where Tapawkaos were involved in tattooing people.  I had read that only Monks could energize the Sak Yants.  This was not my experience the night before Wai Khru at Wat Bang Phra.  Every Tapawkao that I observed, upon finishing a tattoo, would recite a Kataa and blow twice into the Sak Yant to energize it.  I questioned Duangchan about this and she told me that Tapawkaos are taught a great deal by Monks and have powers.  The Monks give them authority to recite Kataa and to energize the Sak Yants.

Man Receives Sak Yant On His Thigh From A Tapawkao
After three hours we left Wat Bang Phra eagerly anticipating the Wai Khru Ceremony the next morning.

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