IT’S a bit unnerving, making your way through the crowd gathered at Wat Bang Phra on the day of the Sak Yant, or ‘magic tattoo’, festival. Every March, the temple, located 50 km west of Bangkok, attracts thousands of people for a ceremony designed to restore power to special tattoos given by the monks in the temple. It is early morning and as the sun rises higher in the sky, the crowd swells, and the wails grow louder.
Sak means “tattoo” and yant “sacred design”. Every day, scores of people come to Wat Bang Phra to get one of these tattoos, believed to be imbued with mystical powers. The tattoos, drawn with ink made from snake venom, herbs and cigarette ash, are said to give protection and good luck. The festival is held once a year and is a chance for those who have the tattoos to essentially ‘recharge’ them with new healing powers.
The moans and screams throughout the crowd do not come from those receiving tattoos, but rather those who have slipped into a deep trance. Some believe the trances are the result of invoking the spirit of your particular animal tattoo, as the shrieks often lead to a frenzied, animal-like dash towards the shrine. Growls, moans and roars pierce the air. However, not all Sak Yant tattoos are of animals. Some are also mythical creatures, heroes, or script. Whatever the tattoo, those who have received one all seem capable of falling under its spell if the spirit moves them.
Luang Poh Pern, the monk whom the festival is based around, was born in 1926 in Nakhorn Pathom province in Thailand. A shrine to him sits at the base of the courtyard of Wat Bang Phra, several meters high, a serene reminder of the temple’s roots. As the story goes, Luang Poh Pern was always interested in Buddhist magic and sorcery. He sought out a master to teach him and eventually his yant became known for their beauty and power for warding off danger. His tiger tattoo was said to have the power to stop a bullet. Today, the monks of Wat Bang Phra are said to invoke the spirit of Luang Poh Pern during the tattooing process.
It is a powerful experience as the crowd surges and parts as people rush, stumble, crawl and fall on their way towards the shrine. Once they have arrived, they are caught and soothed, much as an animal would be, through stroking and a gentle tugging of the ears. Despite the chaos, there is a stillness and peace felt throughout the temple. As the sun beats down, colorful fans swat as sweat trickles and birds lazily circle overhead. There is a quiet reverence here and a sense that something bigger may be at work.
Whether you believe in the idea or not, for many this is a release, perhaps not so much an exorcism as a baptism. And the mark of a new beginning.
Article by Sarah Waldron