Ever since Buddhism arrived in Thailand, it has mingled with a complex, pre-existing tapestry of Hinduism, spirit worship, superstition and black magic. One aspect of these traditions is sak yant, or magical tattoos believed to grant health, protection, power, wealth and luck to those who receive them. The most famous place to get a sak yant tattoo is Wat Bang Phra.
The Thai term sak yant literally means “to tap yantras”, or magic symbols of ancient Hindu descent which are still used in some Hindu religious practices. Tattooing yantras on the skin has been part of Khmer or Thai cultures for perhaps longer than 2,000 years; Khmer warriors were once covered from head to toe in protective tattoos. While the practice has largely died out in Cambodia, it has steadily gained popularity in Thailand, evidenced by Wat Bang Phra’s ornate temple buildings and sculptures funded by donations over the past 50 years.
Though Wat Bang Phra is best known to foreigners as the centre of a mystical tattoo cult, it’s also a working, historic Buddhist temple. The exact year of its founding is unknown, but a handful of ancient structures appear to date from the 15th to 17th centuries. The temple became famous in the 20th century thanks to Luang Phor Phern, the late abbot known for his mastery in both the technical and magical sides of sak yant.
Luang Phor Phern’s body was mummified after his passing in 2002 and is now displayed in a glass case along with all sorts of curious bits in a temple shrine room. He is also depicted in seated meditation in a huge sculpture overlooking the area where the Wai Kruu festival held annually in March draws thousands of curious revellers and believers who undergo a ceremonious “re-charge” of their tattoos. This offbeat event is defined by the many people who apparently become possessed by spirits that cause them to dash wildly through the crowds while screaming and pulsating.
Currently, Wat Bang Phra’s best known tattoo master monk is Luang Phi Nunn. He etches 30 to 50 tattoos almost every day of the year by way of a traditional 50 centimetre-long bamboo stick, known as mai sak, which is dipped in a dark, natural ink made by the monks. Only they know the exact recipe, but it’s thought to contain palm oil, charcoal and snake venom.
Although the monks regularly soak mai sak sticks in rubbing alcohol, some feel this method is best avoided as there’s no guarantee the hardware is properly sterilised. Despite the risk of blood-born diseases, tens of thousands of people line up to get traditional tattoos in Thailand each year. Angelina Jolie is one of many foreigners included in this group.
Along with Luang Phi Nunn, Wat Bang Phra is home to several other tattoo master monks as well as trained laymen, referred to as ajahns, who have been granted permission to offer genuine sak yant on temple grounds. Many who receive the tattoos are required to follow a set of rules laid out by the monk who blesses them, such as adherence to the five Buddhist precepts or avoidance of certain types of food. If these instructions are ignored, the tattoo’s power is thought to potentially cause more harm than good.
Rather than asking for specific designs, people typically discuss their problems or wishes with the sak yant master, who then chooses tattoos based on the desires, weaknesses and aura of each individual. Many remain silent and let the master’s intuition decide. Others are occasionally turned away if their intentions are not deemed genuine or ethically sound. Ultimately, the nature of the design and where it’s placed on the body is up to the artist.
It takes a sak yant master only 10 to 30 minutes to complete an average tattoo. The work is usually performed as the artist sits cross-legged on the floor with the “human canvass” bowing or lying in front of him. The entire process is sacred. Onlookers hold the person as the master continually taps a series of dots that collectively form signature sak yant designs.
When finished, monks quietly utter sacred khatas (ghathas), or magic spells, while blowing on the design to enliven its powers. Monks later perform the necessary incantations on tattoos created by non-ordained ajahns who do not have the authority to recite khatas. While traditional sak yant techniques and designs are employed by all sorts of tattoo artists throughout Thailand and elsewhere, they are not considered genuine unless ritually blessed by a master monk.
Thai-style yantras come in many shapes and sizes, but they always display impressive detail and usually incorporate Khmer or Sanskrit script and mystical depictions of animals, buddhas, celestial beings and deities. The designs are not exclusive to the art of tattoo — they often appear on strips of fabric that are kept in homes or hung from rear view mirrors of automobiles. It’s also common for monks to draw yantras on the ceilings and hoods of vehicles to provide a “higher” protection for those who use them.
One of the most popular yantra designs in Thailand is Ha Taew, a set of five perpendicular Sanskrit blessings thought to grant health and success. Soldiers, policemen and others who perform dangerous work often receive Paed Tit, a circle of eight pyramids believed to provide protection in the eight directions. Two of the most dramatic designs are the Suea, or twin tigers thought to yield strength and authority, and Hanuman, the monkey-warrior-king that represents courage and wealth.
Far more than an obscure cult, sak yant and the related practice of wearing Buddhist amulets and talismans are important features of Thai culture. The many popular Thai language magazines devoted to the phenomenon often relate extraordinary stories of, for example, knives and bullets unable to penetrate the skin of people with protective sak yant tattoos. In 2012, photographer Cedric Arnold unveiled a series of photographs that richly capture this ancient tradition as it exists in modern times.
It’s important to note, however, that sak yant does not specifically relate to traditional Buddhist teachings or practices. While some famous Thai monks have embraced the sak yant tradition, other influential figures such as the late Ajahn Chah feel it’s nothing but a distraction from the true Buddhist path.
Whether you’re a believer or not, there’s no doubt that Wat Bang Phra is an evocative example of how mystical Thai beliefs have woven into the folds of Buddhism. In the back of the temple grounds near the Tha Jeen River, a colourful sculpture congregation of Hindu gods, Mahayana Buddhist bodhisattvas, wild animals, bearded hermits and the ancient yantra guru, Ruesi, is difficult to miss. But the wat also features more typical Buddha images and temple buildings where Bang Phra villagers arrive each morning to offer flowers and prayers to the Buddha.
How to get there
Wat Bang Phra is located some 50 kilometres west of Bangkok in the far eastern reaches of Nakhon Pathom province. The easiest option for travellers coming from Bangkok is to take a taxi roundtrip for around 1,500 baht including waiting time, but it's also possible to catch a Nakhon Pathom bound minibus from Victory Monument and ask to be dropped at the town of Nakhon Chaisi, from where you can hire a motorbike taxi or tuk tuk to take you the rest of the 15 kilometres to the temple.
Nakhon Chaisi can also be reached by train from Kanchanaburi, Nakhon Pathom or Bangkok's Thonburi station. If coming from Nakhon Pathom, the better option is to catch one of the orange local buses that run to Nakhon Chaisi regularly throughout the day.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 8th May, 2014.