Yantra tattooing, also called sak yant (Thai: สักยันต์, Khmer: សាក់យ័ន្ត), is a form of tattooing practiced in Southeast Asian countries including Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. The practice has also begun to grow in popularity among Chinese Buddhists in Singapore. Sak means "to tap [tattoo]", and yant is Thai for the Sanskrit word yantra.
Sak yant designs are normally tattooed by ruesi, wicha (magic) practitioners, and Buddhist monks, traditionally with a long bamboo stick sharpened to a point (called a mai sak) or alternatively with a long metal spike (called a khem sak).
Unlike in the Western world, where the rise of monotheist religion marked the decline of sacred tattoos, in Southeast Asia the practice spread with the arrival of Buddhism from India. However, in the Theravada Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia the majority of the people have remained animists at heart. Indeed, in the rural world and in the poorer areas at the periphery of the cities, Buddhist beliefs are combined with magic animism. For these people, religion is closely tied to the notion of magic, health, and good fortune.
Yantra tattooing originated in Cambodia with the use of ancient Khmer script. In the Khmer Empire, Khmer warriors covered themselves with tattoos from head to toe, including their chest, arms, and even fingers. It was thought that this made them impervious to harm.
King Jayavarman VII, tested this with his own body. When struck by arrows all hits bounced off his chest, as recorded in the diary of Zhou Daguan.
Chinese chronicles describe yantra tattooing among the Thai cultures of southwestern China and northwestern Vietnam at least 2,000 years ago. Over the centuries the tradition spread to what is now Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and parts of Myanmar. Today it is most popular in Thailand, whereas in Cambodia and Laos the tradition has almost completely vanished.
The script used for yantra designs varies according to culture and geography. In Cambodia and central Thailand, Khmer script is used, while in northern Thailand one sees yantra tattoos bearing Shan, Northern Thai, or Tai Lu scripts, and in Laos the Lao Tham script is employed. The script spells out abbreviated syllables from Pali incantations. Different masters have added to these designs over the centuries through visions received in their meditations. Some yantra designs have been adapted from pre-Buddhist Shamanism and the belief in animal spirits that was found in the Southeast Asian sub-continent and incorporated into the Thai tradition and cultures.
Yantra tattoos are believed to be magic and bestow mystical powers, protection, or good luck.
In Cambodia, the tattoo is used for protection. Cambodians believe a yantra has magical powers that ward off evil and hardship. The tattoo is particularly popular among military personnel. The tattoo supposedly guarantees that the person cannot receive any physical harm as long as they observe certain rules.
It is believed that the power of sacred tattoos decreases with time. So, to re-empower them each year, sak yant masters celebrate with their devotees the Wai Khru ritual. Wai Khru, means "pay homage to one's teacher". In Thailand, the most impressive Wai Khru is held at the temple of Wat Bang Phra.
Yant designs are also applied to many other media, such as cloth or metal, and placed in one's house, place of worship, or vehicle as a means of protection from danger or illness, to increase wealth, and to attract lovers.
Types and designs
There are many traditional types and designs of yantra tattoos, but some of the most well-known and popular include:
- Ohng Phra (Thai: องค์พระ translation: Buddha's body) - one of the most commonly used elements in Yantra tattooing, but can also be a more complex standalone design. Meant to provide insight, guidance, illumination, etc.
- Haa Thaaew (Thai: ห้าแถว translation: five rows) - Typically tattooed on the back left shoulder. Each of the five lines relates to a different blessing for success and good luck.
- Gaao Yaawt (Thai: เก้ายอด translation: nine spires) - typically tattooed on the center top of the back in various sizes and levels of complexity. Simple version pictured at the top of this article.
- See Yaawt (Thai: สี่ยอด translation: four spires) - to influence the feelings or actions of others and protect the bearer.
- Bpaaet Thit (Thai: แปดทิศ translation: eight points) - represents protection in the eight directions of the universe. Round shape; typically tattooed on the center of the back. Pictured in gallery below.
- Sip Thit Thai: สิบทิศ(translation: ten points) - a version of Paed Tidt but protects in ten directions instead of eight.
- Mahaaniyohm (Thai: มหานิยม (translation: great preference) - to grant the bearer favor in the eyes of others. Round shape; typically placed on the back right shoulder.
- Yaawt Mohnggoot (Thai: ยอดมงกุฎ translation: spired crown) - for good fortune and protection in battle. Round shape; typically tattooed on the top of the head.
- Bpanjamukhee (translation: five Deva faces) - intended to ward off illness and danger.
- Suea (Thai: เสือ translation: tiger) - typically depicts twin tigers. Represents power and authority.
Many internet sites recommend Thailand as the place to attain the most refined ritual tattoos and consider the country as the best place for learning this art. Every year, hundreds of foreigners in search of original and magical tattoos come to Thailand to have a sak yant. In Southeast Asia, Thailand is by far the country with the highest number of devotees. Sak yant is performed throughout the country in temples in Bangkok, Ayutthaya, and northern Thailand.
- One of the most famous temples in the present day for yantra tattooing is Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Chaysri, Nakhon Pathom Province, Thailand. Ajarn Noo Kanpai, perhaps the most famous practitioner of sak yant in Thailand, trained here.
- One well-known temple in northern Thailand is Wat Keam, which means "needle". It is in San Patong just outside Chiang Mai and was home to the late sak yant master Phra Ajarn Gamtawn, who died in Chiang Mai on 14 September 2010.
- In the Lum Phli area on the north side of Ayutthaya, Ajarn Kob and his son, Ajarn Oh, are well-known sak yant masters.
Hlwong Pi Nan tattooing yant at Wat Bang Phra Temple
Hlwong Pi Pant tattooing a yant in Ang Thong Province.
- Tattoo Thailand | Info about Sak Yant, Yant Meanings, and List of Ajarn Sak Yant
- Sak Yant Thai Khmer Buddhist Temple Tattoos
- Sak Yant: Magic Tattoo
- Sak Yant Foundation & Museum Project
- Chean Rithy Men. "The Changing Religious Beliefs and Ritual Practices among Cambodians in Diaspora", in Journal of Refugee Studies. Vol. 15, No. 2 2002, pp 222-233.
- Cummings, Joe. Sacred Tattoos of Thailand: Exploring the Masters, Magic and Mystery of Sak Yan. Singapore, 2011.
- Drouyer, Isabel; Drouyer, Rene. Thai Magic Tattoos The Art And Influence of Sak Yant. Ed. River Books, 2013.
- Harris, Ian. Cambodian Buddhism: History and Practice. Honolulu, 2008.
- Igunma, Jana. "Human Body, Spirit and Disease; the Science of Healing in 19th century Buddhist Manuscripts from Thailand", in The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Universities. Vol. 1, 2008, pp. 120-132.
- Rivers, Victoria Z. "Layers of Meaning: Embellished Cloth for Body and Soul", in Jasleen Dhamija, Asian Embroidery. New Delhi, 2004, pp. 45-66. ISBN 81-7017-450-3.
- Swearer, Donald K. Becoming the Buddha: the Ritual of Image Consecration in Thailand. Princeton, 2004.
- Drouyer, Isabel Azevedo; Drouyer, Rene, (2013) Thai Magic Tattoos, The Art and Influence of Sak Yant, Riverbooks editions.
- Drouyer Isabel; Drouyer, Rene. Thai Magic Tattoos The Art and Influence of Sak Yant. River Books, 2013, p.99.