The Wat Bang Phra monastery in Thailand hosts a gathering every year, and with over ten thousand participants, it gets pretty intense. The event occurs during the first week of March, and is located about 30 miles west of Bangkok. The Wat Bang Phra monastery is known for giving tattoos daily, which are mostly performed by the monks who live there. These tattoos are believed to be endowed with magic and to have protective power. During this deeply spiritual event, these tattoos are once again blessed by the monks, which is said to refill them with power and magic energy.
These tattoos are known as Yantra or Sak Yant. This is a way of describing the tattoos as being tapped into the skin as a mystical diagram. Yantra tattooing is thought to have originated in Cambodia, but now the technique is used throughout Southeast Asia. In Thailand, both the process and the actual Yantra are seen as sacred. Only monks and trained laymen are allowed to give a tattoo on temple grounds. Those who receive the Yantra are required to follow rules provided by the monk who blesses them, and if these rules are broken or ignored, the power and magic in the tattoo is believed to cause more harm than good. The rules are often based in the five Buddhist precepts, or can be about the avoidance of a certain type of food.
Starting on the evening before the ceremony, the tattoo masters give over one thousand bamboo tattoos. This all-night process continues until the next day when the festivities commence. The ritual on the day of the ceremony is a very specific series of events. Inside the temple, flowers and incense are sold. The person wishing to be tattooed will purchase them with the intent to offer them as gifts to Buddha. They will also provide a separate offering to the monks. Once the offering has been accepted, a monk will bless them. Afterward, there is a series of prayers and incantations. This is where the tameness of the ceremony ends. Eventually, the energy in the crowd builds and the participants enter a trance state called Khong Khuen (“magical force rising”) and the event turns wild. Thailand is no stranger to wild festivals and gatherings, but many believe that this event is the wildest.
The trance state induces behavior from the crowd such as jumping, screaming, flailing appendages, and some people charge toward the monks at the front of the temple ground. In this entranced state the participants are said to be possessed by their tattoos, and the behavior that ensues is influenced by their specific tattoo design. It is part of the tradition to give people tattoos that reflect their place in society. Meaning there will be different tattoos for different professions or life paths. Near the end of the ritual, guards and paramedics rub the ears of the participants to bring them out of their trance and the monks lead one final prayer. At the conclusion of the prayer, people run toward the stage to get blasted with holy water shot out of a powerful hose.
This highly spiritual event is also an exercise in mindfulness. At least, that is the perception of Aroon Thaewchatturat, an award winning photographer who covers Southeast Asia, and has attended the ceremony at Wat Bang Phra. He says that the tattoos never actually lose their magic or power. Instead, what becomes depleted is the mindfulness of the tattoo wearer. On the topic of mindfulness, it should be noted that any tattoo of the Buddha is seen as culturally inappropriate and ignorant. Some governments in Southeast Asia enforce a border policy that doesn’t allow anyone with a tattoo of Buddha to enter the country. Just something to consider if you ever plan on traveling to Thailand.