Thai Buddhist temple festival puts magic back into tattoos
Shrieks and wails hang in the air as thousands of tattoo devotees pack into a Thai Buddhist temple for an annual festival they believe renews the protective magic in the elaborate designs on their skin. Crowds seethed through the temple grounds, with men roaring, hissing and screaming while imitating the creatures tattooed on their bodies, as if they had been possessed by them. One pecked towards the ground as if he was a chicken, others flung up their arms and danced.
The yearly ceremony took place at the weekend at Wat Bang Phra in Nakon Pathom, 80 km (30 miles) west of Bangkok, which is known for magically charged tattoos and amulets said to protect their bearers against danger. While honouring the founding masters of the Buddhist temple, the gathering is also seen by believers as an opportunity to “recharge” their tattoos.
“You get many things: to pay your respects, to make your body and spirit happy, to worship our masters,” said Nakhom Tonghum, 35, who had a tiger tattoo on his back and chest.
The tattoos vary from legendary heroes from epics such as the Ramayana to mythical creatures or Pali and Sanskrit writing. In most tattoos, animals such as panthers, tigers and snakes are intricately woven into magical signs and scriptures.
“I’m a believer. I like this,” said Akkaporn Silom. He said that when possessed, it’s an out-of-body experience and one goes numb and gets goosebumps.
Not all Thai Buddhists believe in the mystical powers of protection of the sacred tattoos, known as Sak Yant. But many do, and an increasing number of Westerners are also being enticed by the purported magic.