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Yantra tattooing

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Yantra tattooing or Sak Yant is a form of tattooing using Indian yantra designs. It consists of sacred geometrical, animal and deity designs accompanied by Pali phrases that are said to offer power, protection, fortune, charisma and other benefits for the bearer.


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.[1] Over the centuries the tradition spread to what is now Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and parts of Myanmar.[2] 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.[3]

The script used for yantra designs varies according to culture and geography. In Cambodia and central Thailand, the Old Khmer script (Cambodian language) of the Khmer Empire is used. While in northern Thailand yantra tattoos may use Shan, northern Thai, or Tai Lu scripts, and in Laos the Lao Tham script is employed.[4][5][6][7] 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.[8]


Yantra tattoos are believed to be magic and bestow mystical powers, protection, or good luck.[9] 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.[1]

Sak 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[citation needed] 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 with Old Khmer script Sak yant in Thailand, have made them popular among women.[4] Angelina Jolie got a yantra tattoo of a Bengal tiger in 2004 to celebrate acquiring Cambodian citizenship. [10]

However, a modern movement in Thailand seeks to progress away from its animistic past. As part of this movement, many modern-day Thais view yantra tattoos as nothing more than good-luck symbols that are stylish.[11]

Types and designs[edit]

The "unalome" is a common motif in yantra tattoos and is itself a popular yantra used widely in Southeast Asian Buddhism.
Om written in Thai script.

There are thousands of traditional 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.
  • Haw-taew (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.
  • Gao-yord (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.
  • Paed-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-koo (Thai: เสือคู่; translation: twin tiger) - typically depicts twin tigers. Symbolizes strength, fearlessness, and resilience.
  • Uṇālom (Thai: อุณาโลม; translation: urna, often left untranslated as "unalome") - the ūrṇā curl between the eyebrows of the Buddha. Variously described as representing the 'third eye', the path to nirvana, and the coil, line, and point of the syllable 'Om' written in Thai script.
  • Hanuman (Thai: หนุมาน; translation: monkey god) - Hanuman is revered for his ability to overcome obstacles and challenges, making the Hanuman Yantra a symbol of resilience and determination.
  • Yant Krop Kaew (Thai: ยันต์กรอบแก้ว; translation: diamond shield) - features geometric patterns resembling a diamond or crystal lattice, symbolizing strength and invincibility.[12]


  • 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).[13] 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.[14]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Lars Krutak. Spiritual Skin: Magical Tattoos and Scarification. Reuss. ISBN 9783943105117.
  2. ^ Cummings, Joe, (2011) Sacred Tattoos of Thailand: Exploring the Magic, Masters and Mystery of Sak Yan, Marshall Cavendish.
  3. ^ Drouyer, Isabel Azevedo; Drouyer, Rene, (2013) Thai Magic Tattoos, The Art and Influence of Sak Yant, Riverbooks editions.
  4. ^ a b Cummings, Joe. (2015). Sacred Tattoos of Thailand: Exploring the Magic, Masters and Mystery of Sak Yan. ISBN 9814302546 See also [1]
  5. ^ May, Angela Marie. (2014). Sak Yant: The Transition from Indic Yantras to Thai Magical Buddhist Tattoos (Master's thesis). The University of Alabama at Birmingham.
  6. ^ Igunma, Jana. (2013). Aksoon Khoom: Khmer Heritage in Thai and Lao Manuscript Cultures. Tai Culture, 23, Route of the Roots: Tai-Asiatic Cultural Interaction.
  7. ^ Kourilsky, Grégory, & Berment, Vincent. (2005). Towards a Computerization of the Lao Tham System of Writing. In First International Conference on Lao Studies (FICLS).
  8. ^ Bangpra, Tik (September 8, 2020). The Power Of Sak Yant: 50 Designs & Meanings Of Thai Tattoos (1 ed.). Independently published. p. 1. ISBN 979-8683996604. Retrieved 13 June 2021.
  9. ^ "Sak Yant - Magic Tattoo | Thai Guide to Thailand". Archived from the original on 2011-10-01. Retrieved 2010-03-12.
  10. ^ Angelina Jolie Has Three Giant New Tattoos. (2016, February 9). SELF. Retrieved February 2, 2021, from https://www.self.com/story/angelina-jolie-new-tattoos
  11. ^ "Tattoo Chiang Mai - Your destination in northern Thailand". thai.tattoo. Retrieved 2017-04-02.
  12. ^ "Sak Yant: Muay Thai Tattoos & Meaning". Siamkick Fight. Retrieved March 28, 2024.
  13. ^ "Sak Yant - at Wat Nhong Khaem". Archived from the original on 2016-08-14. Retrieved 2010-02-12.
  14. ^ "Phra Ajarn Gamtorn-Sak Yant Chiang Mai - R.I.P. | Thai Guide to Thailand". Archived from the original on 2016-11-07. Retrieved 2010-09-16.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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.