Is it possible to become invincible and be granted the most amazing good fortune from ‘magical’ Tattoos?
Certainly ancient warriors in China and South East Asia believed that a Sak Yant or Yantra (magical design or mystical insignia)) would provide them with just that.
Perhaps today, many S.E. Asians have not entirely dismissed these notions and people from all walks of life including, actors, police, doctors politician and monks go in search of a Sak Yant. Amongst westerners, the most famous of whom is probably Angelina Jolie who had a tiger design etched in 2004, the quest may be related to a desire to connect with eastern spirituality and to adorn their body with an external statement of their attraction to Buddhism. Maybe they just want something a little different; particularly when it comes through a spiritual ritual that carries an element of danger in terms of risk to health.
The Chinese chronicles describe Yantra tattooing amongst the ancient Khmer people of Southwest China and Northwest Vietnam over 2000 years ago. The practice spread to Laos and what is now Thailand, where it is now most popular. The patterns and symbols employed in the designs find their roots in pre-Buddhist shamanism which was often animistic and based on belief in the animal spirits of the Far East. The ancient Cambodian alphabet or Khom script is often used to add text to the designs, along with Shan or Pali Sanskrit.
The tatoos are hand-etched into the skin as Buddhist prayers are intoned. The tattoos are believed to give the wearer magical powers associated with healing, luck, strength and protection against evil. Originally the Sak Yant designs were engraved into the skin of those seeking strength and protection in battle and it was not unknown for warriors to cover their entire bodies from head to toe in magical symbols to, for example, prevent knives and arrows piercing the skin. Interestingly, today it is often those S.E. Asians who are employed in dangerous professions, like the military, police, taxi-driving or even criminal gangsters, who seek protection from the tattoos.
The process of obtaining a Sak Yant is not exactly a walk in the park, although like modern western tattooing the level of discomfort experienced depends, I suspect, on ones individual pain threshold. Some people describe it as more painful than traditional needle tattooing whilst others liken it to being stung by a lot of bees simultaneously. One person even reported it to be no more uncomfortable than having hundreds of ants walk over the skin. The general consensus is that it is bearable, particularly as the process usually takes only around 15 minutes to complete.
There are no pattern books to browse through when considering a Sak Yant. The design and location of the tattoo is chosen by the monk who executes the work based on their reading of the recipients aura. Usually, tattoos are etched onto the back. The position of the tattoo is important and can be controversial. In Thai culture the head is the most sacred part of the body with areas lower down becoming increasingly less important. Many monks and their adherents claim that people from western cultures do not give the Sak Yant process, or the monks who carry it out, the reverence deserved and are particularly scathing about tattoos further down the body, particularly on the legs.
For those monks undertaking the work long training is involved. The monk can only work from a position of inner spiritual calm where the mind, body and heart can be focused on into the necessary coordination required to perform the tattoo miracle whilst at the same time reciting the appropriate prayer from a cannon of 108. The most powerful of designs can only be accomplished by those who have purged themselves of their own agenda and eccentricities.
No machines are involved in the process. A long metal spike (Khem Sak) or metre long sharpened bamboo pole is used to etch the design onto the skin.
Each monk has their own special blend of magic ink, reputed to contain ingredients like charcoal, snake venom, palm oil and even human remains! As the site chosen by the monk for the majority of Sak Yant designs is the back the recipient is required to remove their top. Monks will tattoo women but the women must retain their modesty and in order to not break their vows the monk can only touch the flesh through a glove or cloth. The person being tattooed leans over a triangular pillow with a person on each side of them holding them steady and ensuring, by manipulation with the finger tips, that the skin is sufficiently taut. The monk begins work in earnest, cradling the point of the needle with one hand, rather like one would hold a snooker cue, whilst the drives the point into the skin at incredible speed (2-3 times a second).
To empower the tattoo with magical properties a Katta or magical spell is chanted by the monk and blown into the design. Even then the tattoo will only work if the wearer obeys special rules set out by the monk. Underlying many of these is the need to respect the status and dignity of the monk and their work. These verge from simple commands that would be easy for a westerner to obey, including, it is forbidden to:
• eat star fruit, pumpkin or other gourds;
• slander anyone’s mother; and
• eat from a funeral or wedding banquet.
Others may be more problematic, including, it is forbidden to;
• eat left overs;
• let a woman lie on top of you or sit on you;
• brush by the blouse or skirt of a woman, particularly one who is menstruating.
Those tattooed are made acutely aware that the power of the tattoo will only be invoked if the rules that accompany it are obeyed. The potency of the tattoo is believed to diminish over time and people seeking to re-empower their tattoos visit the temples each year to undergo the Wai Khra ritual.
If the world of Sak Yant sounds a world away from the rigorous hygiene standard enforced in western tattooing parlours that is because it is. Is it safe? There are no statistics on HIV or STDs being contracted by people who have undergone the process. After each customer needles are wiped thoroughly with a pad soaked in alcohol. In some cases needles are rested between customers and are placed in a bottle of alcohol. Irrespective of this the same ink is used for each person opening up the risk of HIV or hepatitis; although adherents claim that the needles do not penetrate deeply enough to draw blood. Clearly the practice isn’t exactly hygienic although the fact that thousands make the effort to get a Sak Yant each tear suggest that it possible isn’t as risky as it appears.
The most famous place for a foreigner to get a Sak Yant is Wat Bang Phra, also known as the temple of the Flying Tiger, situated 40 miles west of Bangkok in the Nakhon Chai Si district in Nakhon Pathom Province. The temple has been the site of pilgrimages for hundreds of years. Today the most famous practitioner is Master Luang P Nunn.
There are no appointments at Wat Bang Phra, those seeking a tattoo are advised to get there as early as possible. Visitors are expected to make a simple donation to the monk which usually consists of orchids, incense sticks and menthol cigarSacred Tattoos of Thailand: Exploring the Magicettes; all of which are sold outside the temple. An additional voluntary donation of around 100THB is also suggested. The donation is presented to the monk and work begins without a word being spoken. The donation system works well as offerings are removed outside where they are re-sold.
RECOMMENDED MUAY THAI TATTOOS BOOKS – SAK YANT FURTHER READING
|Sak Yant Book Thai Temple Tattoo Antique Pattern Yantra Magic Master Cover Yellow||A.Aun||N/A|
|Sacred Skin: Thailand’s Spirit Tattoos||Tom Vater
|Thai Magic Tattoos – The art and influence of Sak Yant||Isabel Da Silva Azevedo Drouyer||N/A|
|Sacred Tattoos of Thailand: Exploring the Magic||Joe Cummings||$35.00|
The monks use many designs and it is even possible to have an invisible palm oil tattoo etched. Gao Yord is a 9 spire design said to represent the peak of Mount Meru, the legendary mountain of Buddhist/Hindu mythology and thought to be the centre of the universe. The design protects the wearer from violent physical attack and magical assaults and also brings good health. At the top of each of the nine peaks is a small Buddha and above him spirals representing the path to enlightenment. The Si-Yot is a 4 spire version. Another favoured design is Paed Tltd which resembles the 8 points of a compass and offers protection the wearer, whichever direction they travel in. Other designs are based on lines taken from Buddhist which bestow a range of benefits on the wearer.
There can be no doubt that the experience of having a Sak Yant tattoo is one you will not forgot; how could you, the result will be permanently etched on your back. Exactly what it means to you will, I think, depend largely on your motives for having it done and your own spirituality.