Yantra tattooing (Thai: สักยันต์; rtgs: sak yan; Khmer: សាក់យ័ន្ត; Burmese: တက်တူးထိုး) is a form of tattooing that originated among the Tai tribes of southwestern China and northwestern Vietnam over 2,000 years ago, according to Chinese chronicles of the time. It consists of sacred geometrical, animal and deity designs accompanied by Pali phrases that offer power, protection, fortune, charisma and other benefits for the bearer. Today it is practiced mainly in Thailand, and to a lesser extent in Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.
Tattoos believed to offer protection and other benefits have been recorded everywhere throughout both mainland Southeast Asia and as far south as Indonesia and the Philippines. Chinese chronicles describe yantra tattooing among the Tai cultures of southwestern China and northwestern Vietnam at least 2,000 years ago. Over the centuries the tradition spread to what is now Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and parts of Myanmar. While the tradition itself originates with indigenous tribal animism, it became closely tied to the Hindu-Buddhist concept of yantra or mystical geometric patterns used during meditation. Tattoos of yantra designs were believed to hold magic power, and were used much like the kolam tattoos of India. For these people, religion is closely tied to the notion of magic, health, and good fortune.
The script used for yantra designs varies according to culture and geography. In Cambodia and central Thailand, Cambodian 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 Southeast Asia and incorporated into Thai tradition and culture.
Yantra tattoos are believed to be magic and bestow mystical powers, protection, or good luck. There are three main effects of a yantra tattoo. One is that which benefits the wearer, such as making them more eloquent. Another is that of protection and to ward off evil and hardship. This is commonly used by military personnel, police, taxi drivers, gangsters and others in perceived dangerous professions. Another type is that which affects people around the wearer, such as invoking fear. The tattoo only confers its powers so long as the bearer observes certain rules and taboos, such as abstaining from a certain type of food.
It is believed that the power of sacred tattoos decreases with time. So to re-empower them each year, sak yan masters celebrate with their devotees the Wai Khru ritual. Wai khru means "pay homage to one's guru". In Thailand, the most impressive Wai Khru is held at the temple of Wat Bang Phra.
Sak yan 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. In recent years Hollywood celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, whose tattoos were inked by Ajahn Noo Ganpai in Thailand, have made them popular among women.
However a modern movement in Thailand seeks to progress away from their animistic past. As part of this movement, many modern-day Thais view yantra tattoos as nothing more than good-luck symbols that are stylish.
Types and designs
There are many traditional types and designs of yantra tattoos, but some of the most well-known and popular include:
- Ong 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.
- Ha-thaeo (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.
- Kao-yot (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.
- Si-yot (Thai: สี่ยอด; translation: four spires) - to influence the feelings or actions of others and protect the bearer.
- Paet-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 paet-thit, but protects in ten directions instead of eight.
- Maha-niyom (Thai: มหานิยม; translation: great preference) - to grant the bearer favor in the eyes of others. Round shape; typically placed on the back right shoulder.
- Yot Mongkut (Thai: ยอดมงกุฎ; translation: spired crown) - for good fortune and protection in battle. Round shape; typically tattooed on the top of the head.
- Panchamukhi (Thai: ปัญจมุขี; 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 most popular for learning this art. Every year, hundreds of foreigners in search of original and magical tattoos come to Thailand to have their tattoos done. In Southeast Asia, Thailand is by far the country with the highest number of devotees.
- One of the most famous temples in the present day for yantra tattooing is Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Chai Si District, Nakhon Pathom Province, Thailand. Ajaan Noo Kanpai, perhaps the most famous practitioner of sak yan in Thailand, trained here.
- One well-known temple in northern Thailand is Wat Nhong Khem (khem means needle). It is in San Patong just outside Chiang Mai and was home to the late sak yan master Phra Ajaan Gamtawn, who died in Chiang Mai on 14 September 2010. This temple no longer applies tattoos.
- In the Lum Phli area on the north side of Ayutthaya, Ajaan Kob and his son, Ajaan Oh, are well-known sak yan masters.
While tattoos in the west are largely a matter of aesthetics, in Thailand they are imbued with both spirituality and superstition. The designs, lines of script, geometric patterns and animal shapes, are deeply interwoven with Buddhist and animist imagery that some Thais fear Westerners fail to appreciate. Tattoos of religious deities are problematic, especially if they are below the waist. In Southeast Asian culture, the head is the most sacred part of the body. The further down the body, the less sacred, and foreigners with religious figures inked on their legs have caused upset. On the main highway into Bangkok from the city's Suvarnabhumi Airport, 15-metre-wide billboards declare "It's wrong to use Buddha as a decoration or tattoo". Some groups want a complete ban on any tattoos of religious figures.
Hlwong Pi Nan tattooing at Wat Bang Phra Temple
Hlwong Pi Pant tattooing a yan in Ang Thong Province.
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