Sak Yant, the magical art of tattooing

Publish date 01-05-2022

by Roberto Cristaudo

In the distance a dog barks listlessly overlapping the bell of a bicycle and the cheerful shouting of children. An afternoon like many others in the Angkor Wat archaeological complex in Cambodia except that I have an appointment with Quang the monk who will tattoo a sak yant on my back.
Monks and tattoos a combination that in the West would seem at least inappropriate, almost blasphemous but which in Southeast Asia is synonymous with spirituality, magic, and ancient culture.
While we are drinking tea, Quang, tells me about sak yant, the ancient art of inking the skin with complex geometric shapes and mantras and propitiators.

It was the ancient Thai warriors who first used them by tattooing themselves to exorcise fear and be able to face battles with courage. According to local tradition, they would represent the connection between the physical and the spiritual world and would be able to influence the course of existence of those who receive it as long as some fundamental rules are followed.
The first concerns respect for a tradition that has ancient roots and foundations in Buddhist spirituality. It is in fact to receive a blessing for which it is essential to go to a master, who will recommend the most suitable tattoo for your person.
A period of prayer, meditation and fasting will then be necessary to ensure that the tattoo is accepted by our body.
The pain from the bamboo stick stinging me comes without warning, but it's quite bearable. The session will last about 3 hours and in the end it will be my legs, kept crossed and motionless for the duration, the part of my body that will hurt the most.

Quang decided to tattoo me a Sak Yant called Paed Tidt which means eight directions.
It is a large sacred geometric tattoo that contains 8 Mantras, written along 2 concentric circles in the center of the design and incorporates 8 representations of the Buddha. It will protect me from evil spirits in whatever direction I decide to go. While he is tattooing me, Quang tells me how important is the composition of the ink used, the Mantra he is reciting during the writing and the activation rite that I will have to follow scrupulously in the coming weeks; abstention from sexual practices, fasting and prayer. Respect for the rules and the determination of those who get tattooed often come only after a long period of meditative practices, so tattooing a Sak Yant is not a trivial thing.
Sak means "tattoo" and yant, short for the Sanskrit Pali, Indian language used in Theravada Buddhism, means "sacred or magical design".

The yants are mystical symbols or geometric designs with esoteric meanings, squares or triangles that represent the shapes and figures of the four elements; earth, air, water and fire. The circles represent the cyclic nature of life with its symbolic movement in time, the sun or the moon.
Some depict animals or mythological creatures related to Asian, animist and Buddhist symbolism. Other symbols may include the leaves of the sacred fig, the tree under which Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment.
Mantras are a sacred expression that can correspond to a mystical or magical formula, a prayer, a sacred chant or a meditative and religious practice and are recited by tattoo masters, shamans, exorcists or herbalists.
Each representation has precise rules on where, how and when it can be made. Tattooing a sak yant is therefore a challenging path that has nothing to do with the futile Western fashion of tattooing tout court.

Roberto Cristaudo
NP January 2022

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