Sak yants, the sacred tattoos of Thailand, have been relatively popular in the West since Angelina Jolie had gotten herself a ha thiau, the basic protective design commonly given to women. This, and its male counterpart, kao yod, "the nine spires", can even be ordered in an average tattoo workshop. You will not get the magic protection this way, however, only the cool look. For the real thing, you would have to visit an ajarn, "teacher", that is a Buddhist monk believed to possess mystic powers. Again, many Thai monasteries offer this unique form of blessing, but none is as famous as Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Pathom, not that far from Bangkok. And if you are more interested in observing local traditions than getting yourself inked, visit the annual Sak Yant Festival (usually in March). This is a large ceremony where monks recite mantras to mass recharge the tattoos in a large crowd of believers, and some of the latter get possessed by animal spirits.
The first verified reference to a Thai sak yant apparently dates to the 16th century, but the tradition is likely to be much older. Most researchers agree it originated from Angkor Empire that used to occupy more than half of present-day Thailand until the 13th century. Kom script, the sacred letters used to inscribe mantras in the tattoos, seems to correlate with Khmer, too. The designs used are highly intricate; depending on the type and the purpose, they may include animals, Hindu deities, and Buddhist symbols. Spires (also a symbol of Buddha) and lines crisscrossing in geometric patterns complete the shape. The ritual of applying a sak yant is rather sophisticated as well. Traditionally, it is done with a steel-tipped bamboo needle, using special magic ink (each ajarn has his own recipe of it), and finishes with an impressive ceremony, combining occult elements with Wai Kru (showing respect to a master, whether present or deceased).
There are hundreds of sak yant types in Thailand. The most common designs consist of lines, script, and spires – those give basic protection and impeccable health. Specialized versions can also grant success in love, the ability to influence people, strength and agility, even invulnerability to weapons or supernatural powers. Tattoos involving the image of an animal would bind that animal’s spirit to the wearer, bestowing upon him the prowess of a tiger or the dexterity of a monkey, but the spirit might possess its owner. This is what happens during the Sak Yant Festival in Wat Bang Phra every year. The power of a sak yant is fragile, too: it will fade away if the person breaks the Five Precepts of Buddhism, and some ajarns may impose additional rules and taboos (one, for example, prohibited eating cucumbers). Even if all the instructions are carefully obeyed, the magic will eventually run out. It has to be refueled by another visit to an ajarn.
Private magicians commonly make sak yants, as do some monks. In general, Thais prefer their magic tattoos done by a monk, both for fear of quackery and of black warlocks who may steal part of their spirit while applying the spell. A number of monasteries house ajarns specializing in this ritual, but the one most famous for it is Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Pathom. Wat Bang Phra is difficult to reach by public transport. Buses from Bangkok will take you as far as Nakhon Pathom, but from there you would have to rely on hitchhiking or take a taxi. It is best to come early in morning: Thai pilgrims arrive from all over the country to get inked, and the queues can be very long. Since this is a religious ceremony, not mere body decoration, payment is not required; instead, a donation of food and drink has to be brought to the monastery. Such offerings are sold pre-packaged in most Thai stores. You may wish to consult with the locals, which type is more appropriate. The needles may or may not be sterilized, but as one ajarn had said, “if you believe this magic will protect you from illness, you should not worry; otherwise, you should not be here”.
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