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Screaming men charge through the lines of soldiers and paramedics protecting the temple's shrine – they are possessed by the decorative and magical Sak Yant tattoos that have been etched into their skin.

Every year at the beginning of March, thousands of pilgrims gather for the sacred Wai Kru (paying respects to one’s teacher) tattoo festival at Wat Pang Phra, a temple roughly 80km from Bangkok.

Devotees recieve protective amulets and get inked by Buddhist monks and Ajarns (tattoo masters) for protection and luck. Traditionally, the Sank Yant tattoos were used by warriors as a magical defense to thwart the blows of their enemies, but now anybody – lawyers, prostitues, criminals and doctors – can come and get inked.

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These tattoos are often applied by hand with a long metal needle or a sharpened bamboo stick, and are dipped into ink that is made from ingredients such as snake venom and charcol. After the devotee has been inked, the tattoos are blessed, while others get theirs re-blessed – this is because the tattoo’s power wears off over time and so it needs to be renewed. It is this blessing that accounts for what follows...

Some devotees go into a deep trance (called Khong Khuen) and then begin to mimick the animals that have been tattooed onto their skin. Charging and jumping around, the tattoos turn them into tigers, crocodiles – even the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. Such is the intensity that soldiers and paramedics line the temple, preventing the devotees from reaching the temple’s shrine. For those that are stopped, the paramedics and soldiers rub their ears in order to ritually pull them out of the trance. The shrine that they try to get to is that of the temple’s former abbot, Luang Pho Poean, who passed away in 2002 and was well known for mastering the Sak Yant tattoos. This Wai Kru festival pays respect to his spirit.

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Video © Kai T-zone

Check out Asian Geographic's The New Asia Issue 2/2017 for more on Asian culture and heritage, or see Asian Geographic Passport 2016-2017 for information on festivals in Asia.  

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Text by Hastings Forman

 

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