Sunday, April 6, 2014

Wai Khru Ceremony, Wat Bang Phra

A Devotee, overcome by his tattoo animal spirit, starts off for the podium

Last month we attended a special cultural and religious event at Wat Bang Phra in Nakom Pathom - the Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Festival.  On March 15th the Wai Khru Ceremony was held.

Our visit to the temple the evening before the Wai Khru Ceremony is documented in the following blog entry:

The Wat Bang Phra Tattoo festival is about renewing the energy and power of special magical tattoos, Sak Yant, for which the Monks of Wat Bang Phra are famous.

The Wai Khru Ceremony is a ritual with Animist origins and subsequently influenced by the spread of Brahmanism from India,  The point of the ceremony is for people to pay respect and homage to their teachers.  Here in Thailand Wai Khru ceremonies are conducted for schoolchildren to show thanks, respect and to show honor for their teachers.

Muay Thai fighters before the start of each match will perform a Wai Khru Ram Muay ritual:

to demonstrate their respect and pay homage to Buddha, their teachers, and their country.

Often performers of Thai classical dance, Krabi-Krabong martial art, and Thai classical music will perform a Wai Khru ritual, although not as elaborate as a Wai Khru Ram Muay before performing to pay respect and to make homage to their teachers as well as to the deities that patronize their arts. The tradition extends to Go-Go dancers at clubs throughout Thailand - a Wai Khru ceremony is held before the club opens each day. Many individual dancers will perform a quick Wai Khru before taking to the stage for the first time each day..  My brother-in-law also performs a ceremony before the start of each of his shows.

During our visit Friday evening, we learned that the tattoo festival would start at 9:00 A.M. at Wat Bang Phra.  I expected that the festival would be an all day event so we planned on arriving just before the scheduled start of the festival.  We arrived at 8:55 A.M. to find just about all open spaces, other than some walkways (runways?), filled with people sitting on plastic sheeting placed upon the parched and dusty ground.

Wat Bang Phra - Just before start of Wai Khru Ceremony

We had entered the grounds just to the left of the elevated shrine where the senior Monks and Tapawkao were located.  Many Monks were seated on chairs off to the left of the elevated shrine.  There was a small square area about 25 meters on each side that had many young men, some rather large and muscular - many wearing uniforms of local ambulance services and some martial arts clubs. We stopped at the edge of the seated people and the standing men.  Duang immediately said that she had to go to the bathroom and for me to stay there.  As she was leaving, I could hear some growling and snarling from various locations throughout the mass of people - Monks excepted.  These were devotees who were becoming possessed by the animal spirits of their magical tattoos.

Quickly, possessed people commenced rushing, charging, crawling, flailing, and hopping from the crowd towards the front of the elevated shrine.  At first it was typically one at a time, but you could feel the excitement as well as the frenzy building.

Devotee Becoming Possessed As His Tattoo Becomes Recharged
I got to shoot a little bit of video with my movie camera but quickly went to just still photos of my prime camera. Duang was nowhere to be seen to take care of my camera bag which was just as well - things were getting physical rather quickly where I was standing.

It turned out the people that were standing behind me were like "shock troops" - they stopped the advance of the possessed people and calmed them down by rubbing their ears and, if particularly possessed, lifting their bodies off the ground which was rather effective in breaking the spell.

There was a contingent of foreigners who were moving about and getting in position to take close-ups of the faces of the possessed devotees.  I did not join them - they were younger than 64 years old, in better shape them me, and almost all of them did not have a 22 pound backpack of gear on their back. 

Possessed Devotee Elevated Off the Ground to Break the Spell
I quickly realized the perilous position that I was in - possessed people were racing towards my vicinity from 180 degrees.  Depending upon how I turned myself some of the action was going on behind my back.  I decided that the best protection was to go on the offensive and to forget about taking photos.

I put all my gear into the backpack and started to face the crowd trying to determine where the next assault would come from.  I made sure that I was always behind the first line of blockers - I became a partner to a very large and muscular Thai wearing US Army fatigues (I suspect Army surplus - I have even seen Vietnamese young men in US Army fatigues near the Chinese border).  The Thai guy would take the brunt of the charge high, and I would either go in for the possessed person's ears or in rough cases I would go in low and raise a leg off the ground while others went for the other leg.  Go for the person's ears?  Yes - rubbing the ears helps snap the possession.  I added my own personal touch - I pulled on their ear lobes three times while chanting "Sah Sah" This technique seemed to be rather effective - pulling three times to signify the three gems of Buddhism - Buddha, The Teachings of Buddha, and the Sanga (Buddhist religious community).  "Sah Sah" being what you say to people, usually children, to calm them down.   I imagine the shock of have a falang (foreigner) pulling on your ear lobe three times and hearing him telling you to calm down was enough to break just about any animal possession that morning.

Once the possession was broken, the devotee would wai (raise the hands in a praying position and nod his head) to the people who got him out of his possession.  This indicated gratitude and respect for their efforts.  Having been dispossessed once did not mean the devotee was done for the day.  Many people would become possessed several times.  There was one guy that we dealt with three times.  I don't know if his tattoo spirit was that powerful or if he just had a proclivity towards getting possessed.

This man did not get possessed while his tattoos were charged with energy

Several times there were charges by 5 to 10 people at the same time.  Clouds of dust flew up into air from the pounding of feet on the dusty ground.  Some of the possessed people did not stay within the bounds of the established walkways through the crowd - they would end up taking the overland (over body?) route through and often over the seated people.

Some, very few, of the possessed people were female.  Possessed females seem to present a challenge to the ceremony.  The possessed women typically were possessed by crawling type animal spirits - slow crawling spirits.  The possessed women were stopped in the walkways by a couple of men, usually older men, long before getting to the area of high energy in the front of the shrine.  They had their ears rubbed and snapped out of their possession.

When not actively working on getting someone out of their possession, the shock troops nervously surveyed the crowd to determine where the next assault would most likely come from.  In the end, I helped with about 12 to 15 possessed people with only one slight glancing blow or grab to the groin.

While all this was going on there was some speaking, perhaps reciting of a prayer, from the elevated shrine.  The possessions seemed to taper off and stop on their own at which time everyone sat down or took a knee while some chanting was done by the Monks and Tapawkaos on the elevated shrine.

When they had finished their chanting, I saw a couple of Monks appear at the front of the raised shrine holding some fancy fire hose nozzles.  These were not the 2-1/4 inch or 6 inch high pressure nozzles that you attribute to fire protection systems in building or hydrant systems.  The nozzles and associated hoses were more like the portable water fire extinguishers of years gone by - perhaps a 1/2 or 3/4 inch hose.  The nozzle appeared to be tapered brass decorated with white braided rope, to me it was reminiscent of the fancy nautical knot displays made by sailors when I was a young boy.

Upon seeing the nozzles and the grinning Monks, the crowd - seated and standing went berserk,  Everyone got up and rushed to the front of the raised shrine to receive the blessing of the holy water.  Being so close to the shrine to begin with, I was quickly caught up in a human wave propelling me forward.  I received a good spray or two of the holy water but was struggling with all my might to keep on my feet.  The force of all the people from all areas of the crowd was propelling me forward and on top of other people's feet. I knew that I could not stop being swept along but I had to struggle to keep from going down and perhaps trampled.  I have been in that situation once before - exiting a soccer game in Curitiba, Brazil when four young men created a panic by rushing, and pushing through the crowd.

I was caught in the crowd and wanted to get out badly.  I noticed up ahead there was an area that seemed to offer protection - an area created by the extension of two staircases from a shrine building off to the left of the mass of people.  Just like getting caught in an ocean rip tide, I knew that I would only wear myself out resisting the mass of people behind me.  Just as you are supposed to do in a rip tide I commenced working my way across the crowd mass to the sanctuary of the building.  It was still a struggle to maintain my feet beneath me but I started to make some lateral progress.  With a great deal of physical effort and many apologies along the way - I made it to safety.

The Wai Khru Ceremony - the blessing and recharging of the magic tattoos had taken, to my surprise, 1-1/2 hours.  The area of the ceremony was quickly vacated and cleaned up.  A great many of the people remained at the Wat to be tattooed, purchase souvenirs, make merit, eat and drink.

Once safe, I tried getting a hold of Duang.  I was carrying my cell phone specifically in case we became separated.  It took about twenty minutes to get her on the phone - the system was apparently overloaded - I could not even make a call let alone her answering my call.  Eventually we reunited in the temple.  After Duang went off and brought back a nice refreshing ice cold Pepsi, while I enjoyed my drink and got my heart to calm back to normal, Duang worshipped at the shrine.  We then headed back to the area where we had witnessed Tapawkaos tattooing people the previous evening.

Young Man Contemplating the Sak Yant that He Is About to Receive
Many people were being and waiting to be tattooed by two Tapawkaos in area where we had watched the night before.  In rooms located at one side of and above the area, other Tapawkaos and at least one Monk were also tattooing people.

We saw many of the same people that we had seen the night before.  Many people were busy distributing food and drinks.  It turned out that all food and most of the drinks were free, donated by people in support of the event and temple.

At one end of the room, a Monk who spoken to me the evening before, sat and was giving a special blessing to men who came to him.  He was rolling what appeared to be a small roll-on container of oil on the head and forehead of the men kneeling in front of him.  I had not seen that type of blessing before.  I asked about it and Duang told me that it was "special".

Getting A Special Blessing
I was definitely glad that we had arrived and visited the Wat before the Wai Khru Ceremony.  The Wai Khru Ceremony was definitely a life experience and I will witness it again some day.  Having experienced it once I would not bring so much equipment and pay more attention as to where we set up for the ceremony as well as arriving much earlier.  I definitely would visit the Wat the evening before and recommend it to anyone planning on attending the festival - visiting the night before provides a more complete experience.

Did I get a tattoo?  If I were to get a tattoo it would definitely be a Sak Yant or something similar - ancient roots, culturally unique, mystical, and traditional even to the extent of its application.  Yes I would be concerned about the reuse of needles on several people without normally acceptable cleanliness and sterilization techniques, and the use of a common ink well for all people being tattooed. But I did not get a tattoo for the following reasons.

In getting a magical tattoo, Sak Yant, there are eleven rules that are supposed to be followed by the wearer.  There are some slight variations from Monk to Monk as well as Master to Master.  Basically the rules are:

1.   Do not eat star fruit, pumpkin, or any other gourd type vegetables
2.   Do not be a lover to any married people
3.   Do not say bad things about somebody's mother
4.   Do not eat food from a funeral or wedding buffet
5.   Do not eat leftovers
6.   Do not duck under a washing line or an overhanging building
7.   Do not duck under a certain type of banana tree
8.   Do not cross a single headed bridge
9.   Do not sit on a ceramic urn
10. Do not let a woman lay or sit on top of you
11. Do not brush up against the blouse or skirt of a woman especially when she is having her period.

I possibly could ignore the health risks of the tattooing process perhaps even rationalizing that the alleged snake venom in the custom made inks neutralize viruses.  However I can not rationalize getting a tattoo with special rules knowing that I would fully break at least three of the eleven rules.  For me doing so would betray and trivialize the admiration and respect that I have for the tradition.

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