INSET: Magical tattoos are called sak yant (also sak yan) in Thai and based on ancient Khmer texts, combinations of magic numbers, and Hindu mythological characters endowed with special powers that tattooed monks and ordinary Thai’s find appealing. Some of these beautifully executed designs are believed to protect the wearer from bullets or knives; to bring you luck in business; to protect you from general danger; while others may give you strength, courage, or even have the power to attract a future husband or wife.
FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS, the elephant has played a significant role in the history and cultures of Southeast Asia. Used in transport, construction, and war, the elephant, much like the domesticated horse in the Western world, is credited with helping build many Asian countries like Thailand while at the same time defending them from marauding invaders over the centuries.
Today, however, the Asian elephant is critically endangered and Thailand’s population is estimated at no more than 5,000 domestic and wild elephants. Since logging was officially “banned” in 1988 (illegal logging still takes place on the Myanmar border where elephants are fed large doses of meta-amphetamines like crystal-meth so that they work for days on end), many domesticated elephants have become “out-of work” with nowhere to go. For wild elephants their plight is even more serious, because there is not enough jungle to sustain existing populations.
Another problem that faces Thailand’s elephants is that the “working elephant” population is rapidly aging. As these elephants become older, their usefulness decreases. And it is only the younger, fitter elephants that are employed to give tourists rides around the ruins of ancient cities or to put on historical re-enactments throughout other parts of the country. Obviously, these older elephants have worked hard for Thailand for most of their lives, and they truly deserve to enjoy their remaining years in comfort and with dignity which they have rightly deserved.
But for the older and younger generations of elephants, there is still the ever-present threat of the ivory and “animal part” trade, especially along the Myanmar border. According to Ewa Narkiewicz who runs the Elephantstay “retirement center” in Ayutthaya, “there are clandestine groups working to purchase and process elephants for their meat, ears, tails, trunks, and even feet. Almost every part of the elephant is considered good luck and can be sold for extremely high prices. Unfortunately, the value of a dead elephant is higher than a live one.”
Baby elephants are also rising in value as a commodity for hotels and resorts to attract curious tourists. Michelle Reedy, also of the Elephantsay program, told me, “The babies are sometimes malnourished to keep them smaller and cuter longer. The mother is sometimes killed or the baby is sold at an inappropriate age for separation from its mother. Some babies born to working elephants are killed or sold quickly as they are an inconvenience.”
Just like humans, elephants have great intelligence, complex feelings and memories. And because many of the elephants in Thailand have been physically or psychologically abused by their previous owners, starved, drugged, or overworked, a large percentage of the remaining elephant population in Thailand is “troubled” to say the least.
Nowadays, elephants sometimes go on unexpected rampages, and experts estimate that about 200 people are killed by elephants every year in Thailand alone. And if it were not for Thailand’s Mahouts or professional elephant trainers, this number would certainly be much higher.
THE MAHOUTS: ROYAL WARRIORS OF THE ELEPHANT CORPS
The Mahouts of Thailand are men who excel at the capture and training of wild elephants. They are said to have originated in Cambodia and it is not surprising that all of the elephant commands they use today are a combination of ancient Khmer and Kuay, both Cambodian languages. Around 700 years ago, the Mahouts were royal warriors who rode into battle on their elephants for the kings of the Khmer Empire based at Angkor Wat. They formed elite battalions, wielding their elephants like modern day tanks.
Although elephants have not been used in war since the mid 1800s, the Mahouts of the elephant corps and elephant batteries were regarded as the most important branch of the army. According to Ewa and Michelle, war elephants received different kinds of training: “Lor Pan is the training of the elephant to charge the enemy’s cavalry, snatch their spears, stomp their horses, and destroy its rider. Tang Hune is training to kill the enemy’s infantry, and Pad Pan is training to assault fortifications and strongholds. Bamru Nga was the pinnacle of combat, where elephants were trained to wrestle each other so that their riders could finish off each other by sword or the hooked curved lance.”
Traditionally, Mahouts had to work for years with their elephants to develop these skills on the battlefield. In order to gain their trust and respect, Mahouts worked everyday with their elephants teaching them the necessary commands that made them effective war machines.
Of course, these strong bonds of association continue to be reinforced because the Mahouts’ relationship with their elephants is far deeper than merely that of a “trainer” or “keeper.” In fact, for a Mahout the elephant is considered to be a family member that can be trusted and counted upon as a close friend.
But these strong emotional and physical bonds that have for centuries tied the Mahouts to their elephants have been weakened; especially since the Mahouts now live in a wage-labor economy that situates them in a more difficult socioeconomic position than their ancestors. As you can imagine, it is very expensive and difficult to keep and care for an elephant. On any given day, they drink an average of 32 gallons of water, and eat an average of 220 pounds of food. And because elephants are prone to overheating in the scorching Thai sun, they need to bathe in water (rivers, pools, etc.) several times a day to cool themselves down.
So today, many Mahouts simply cannot afford to maintain their beloved companions. For example, a typical Mahout earns only 5000 Baht per month (approximately $120.00), the same as a cashier at the local 7-11 convenience store! And because adult elephants cost some $10,000 to purchase, it takes years of work to replace them if they die or are permanently injured. According to Ewa, “Domestic elephants and their Mahouts are generally poor and work hard for a living. After logging was banned, many Thai Mahouts left the forests with their elephants looking for opportunities in the cities selling rides, photo-ops or a basket of bananas for tourists to feed them. They were not well-received in most cities and have been banned from Bangkok altogether. This work was also dangerous as some elephants were struck by cars or fell through pavement too weak to support their weight.”
She continued, “the elephants are registered as you would register a car. Loans can be taken out against the value of the animal and the financial burden of an elephant is more than some Mahouts can afford. An elephant may be repossessed and resold several times in its life if debts against it cannot be paid. If the Mahout has huge monthly interest or his elephant gets sick and cannot work, the whole family faces financial destitution. Unfortunately, almost no legal protection or government aid is available and conservation efforts and legal protection are a low priority compared to the pressure of progress here in Thailand.”
Regardless of these difficulties, those Mahouts that can continue to work with their elephants, like the men that work and live at the Royal Elephant Kraal in Ayutthaya, follow a lifestyle in the tradition of their ancestors; one that is thick with ceremony and beliefs in the mystic and magic of elephants. For example, every morning before they head out to work, they stop at the local elephant shrine which is dedicated to the ancestral spirits of deceased elephants and pray for protection. Many of the Mahouts also wear magic tattoos and amulets given to them by Buddhist monks that not only protect them from the dangers they encounter working with elephants, but ones that advertise their identity, individuality, and spirituality as Mahouts. Their tattoos also make them more recognizable to their elephants who, even though they have poor eyesight, can recognize “tattooed friends” as well as foes.
Here at the Royal Elephant Kraal, every bit of magical protection goes a long way; because an elephant can easily impale you with a quick thrust of a tusk or crush you under some 4,000 pounds of girth “if you’re not lucky” as many of the Mahouts told me.
THE ROYAL ELEPHANT KRAAL OF AYUTTHAYA
The city of Ayutthaya is located 53 miles north of Bangkok. Between 1350 and 1767 A.D. it was the Siamese royal capital until it was burned and looted by the Burmese after which the capital was moved to Bangkok.
By the end of the 17th century the city claimed one million residents and was visited by European and other foreign ambassadors who claimed it to be the most illustrious city to have graced the world at that time. Over 500 temples still stand here and many of them were built by Thai kings to commemorate their victories in war or to “make merit” for themselves or a family member in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Today, most Thais are still practicing Theravada Buddhists.
“Making Merit” (Tham Boon) is a Buddhist concept closely akin to (but not identified with) positive karma. Merit seems to grow over time, being augmented by karmically-positive actions (boon), but at the same time being decayed by sinful action (baap). Merit is often spoken of as the source of good luck, as a religious practice (e.g., praying), and as a kind of moral currency. Any compassionate or wise action is said to create merit, but one of the most powerful ways to make merit is by donating food, money, or clothing to the Buddhist monks. Another way to make merit, outside of becoming a monk, is to fund the construction of a temple, or failing that, to fund the repair or restoration of a temple.
Throughout history, elephants were used by the kings of Ayutthaya to enhance their religious convictions and merit through the construction of Buddhist monasteries and spiritually charged chedi and prang temples dedicated to the sacred Buddha. At Ayutthaya, these types of temples were clearly planned to symbolize Buddhist cosmology which teaches that the highest mountain called Mount Meru is the center of the universe where the God Indra, the ruler of the universe, resides. It is also a place where the Buddha’s relics are kept.
But elephants were also used to enhance the glory of Ayutthaya’s kings through bringing victory in war. And because these mighty creatures could either make or break a king’s reputation, their official selection ceremony at the Royal Kraal (corral) was always presided over by the king who would sit at the steeple-topped royal pavilion behind a huge fence of enormous teak logs that kept the elephants penned into the enclosure.
Although there have been no elephant round-ups and selection ceremonies at the Royal Kraal for over one-hundred years, the grounds near the corral now house the Elephantsay program for retired elephants and some fifty Mahouts and their families who are dedicated to taking care of the one-hundred and fifty elephants that live here.
The Elephant camp was created eleven years ago by local business man Lythonglian Meepan. Using his financial resources and personal connections to the Thai Royal family who own the lands surrounding the Royal Kraal, he and his wife live modestly with the elephants, personally supervising the care of these loveable pachyderms and the captive breeding program which is the most successful in the country. Realizing that the plight of Thailand’s dwindling elephant population is serious, Mr. Meepan has embarked on a mission to create several innovative and unique projects aimed at promoting the rich heritage of elephant culture to contemporary Thais through historical re-enactments that recount famous battles and that, more importantly, showcase the skills of the Mahouts and their noble elephants.
Although most elephants are extremely friendly, they can also be very unpredictable, especially if they are not properly trained. For this reason, the Mahouts probably have one of the most dangerous jobs in all of Thailand. But like other men who have dangerous jobs in Thailand, many Mahouts believe that the magic power of their tattoos not only protects them, but also helps to focus their minds when working with the most dangerous elephants at the camp.
One of the heavily tattooed Mahouts I met named Pan came from a village in Cambodia some years ago. Growing up in a family of renowned Mahouts, he told me that his tattoos saved his life on many occasions: “Being a Mahout, there is a 50/50 chance of dying every day. If the elephant is good, then life is good. If it’s bad, it’s a risk of life and death. When I was a teenager an elephant my family had raised from an infant went on a rampage. It killed my grandfather, my best friend, and my brother-in-law. I believe I was the only one spared death because of my protective tattoos which I received from our local Buddhist monk.”
Another Mahout named Mr. Ya has an incredible backpiece of an elephant that he also received from his village monk. He told me that he had this sacred and powerful animal tattooed on his skin because he believed that he would absorb some of the elephant’s power; and to this day he has never been injured.
Most people will tell you that the real magic of the Thai tattoo comes from the Buddhist monk who makes it, and all but the smallest and poorest towns and villages in Thailand maintain temples and monks. Animal figures such as the elephant are part of the magic formula of some tattoos, but Mr. Ya’s backpiece is also inked with holy katha or magic spells and diagrams written in khom, the sacred calligraphy of the ancient Khmer language. Katha are taken from verses of Buddha’s teachings are either written out on the flesh or encoded in cryptic diagrams that only master monks know. Katha and diagrams are used in every category of Thai tattoo, and particular verses depend on the function of the tattoos.
As with all magical tattoos, the monk making them recites katha just before, during, or after tattooing. Although these versus may be voiced in a whisper or a mumble barely discernable to the client, the power of the tattoo will not work for the client unless he continually obeys at least one of the five Buddhist precepts during the course of his life (I use the pronoun “he” since it is men, not women, who wear powerful pigmented tattoos, although some monks will tattoo women but only with invisible oil tattoos). In their attempts to do this, laypersons are careful to observe the following: refraining from killing, stealing, lying, intoxication, and improper sexual intercourse. Older and more devout people may choose to follow eight precepts including the aforementioned five plus refraining from eating at noon, entertainments, and sleeping on a high and wide bed. Of course, the more precepts a person is able to keep, the greater the strength of their tattoos! And more or less, the katha embodied in any tattoo is more powerful depending upon the power embodied in the monk who gives it.
BECOMING AN ARJAN
Some scholars argue that tattoo spells (katha) have power because the “sacred” words have power. But others suggest that it is not the words themselves that have power but rather their source and the circumstances under which they were learned. For example, one cannot simply memorize a katha and expect it to be efficacious; one must learn the katha from a devout teacher or monk with whom one has established a proper ritual relationship because these individuals have kung; a power that not only relates to the physical components of the body, but also to kindness, beneficence, or a favor for which the recipient should show gratitude and respect. Beings like Buddhist monks with kung are powerful; and if people enter into the proper relationship with them, then they have access to that power. Thus, by keeping precepts and being an honorable person, monks can create power for themselves which can be passed on to their students and clients through tattooing.
Tattoos have power because they not only draw on the power of the tattooist, but also his teachers, and the Buddha and his teachings. These are all sources of power (kung). In this way, Thais who follow Buddhism operate with a set of assumptions about the nature of the world, the beings and forces within it, and the ways these are related. These form an integrated system of ideas and propositions that they use to interpret the world and organize their daily actions.
Men while in monkhood have access to powerful knowledge which can be used to increment their power. This type of power accrues to them by following the Buddha’s precepts, but also through the practice of personal discipline and restraint; and through the teachings of elder monks who represent the lineage of every monk that came before them, including the Buddha and the objects associated with him. All of these powers augment those of a tattooing monk whenever he undertakes a new tattoo.
As noted, tattooing monks must practice restraint. Without this, they do not have power of their own or access to the power of their teachers and the Buddha. Practicing restraint means keeping precepts and being honorable. In turn, monks should keep the five basic precepts at all times, and this level of restraint and withdrawal from the world provides sufficient power to give protection to others through blessings embodied via magical tattoos called sakyan. Most importantly, however, and assuming a monk has interest and the necessary dexterity to become a tattooist, he must acquire the knowledge and power required to make effective tattoos. This necessary knowledge takes the form of katha used in making tattoo “medicine” and which is recited while tattooing. Because all katha spells are recited from memory, master tattooists called arjan must have an extensive repertoire of them or else their tattoo magic will be, for the most part, ineffective.
THE MECCA OF THE THAI TATTOO: WAT BANG PHRA
For the ordinary Thai person, the Buddhist monastery and temple complex known as Wat Bang Phra stands as the crucible from which pours forth sakyan or magic tattooing. Located some 30 miles outside of Bangkok in the central Thai province of Nakhon Pathom, this is the mecca for magic tattoos because Wat Bang Phra hosts perhaps the world’s largest tattoo festival every year. During the four day event, usually held at the beginning of March, thousands of faithful tattoo patrons from all corners of Thailand and elsewhere come to receive new tattoos or have their old ones re-powered by the blessed monks living here.
But this event isn’t just for men seeking to be tattooed by their favorite monks. Entire families come to visit the numerous food and amulet stalls, gaming tents, circus rides, and sound stages. It’s like a big state fair for tattoo aficionados!
The monks tattoo in many different temples and each situates his working space according to personal preference. Some of the monks work on porches outside of their temple called wat in Thai, while others prefer the dark and dank corners inside. Still more prefer to work alone while others share a room with two or more tattooists.
The monks’ tattooing tool resembles a sharp two-foot long metal skewer split at one end about two inches to form a needle-sharp pronged tip. The space created between the two needle tips acts as a reservoir to hold the tattoo pigment. These tools look much like a shish-kabob used to barbeque meat and vegetables on the grill.
Some monks use a pointilinear style, while others achieve fine line-work, like “Master Moustache,” that looks very machine-like. The inks that the monks use are personal recipes, and some are thought to have special “protective” qualities due to their unusual (and magical) ingredients. For example, some arjans use sandalwood, steeped in herbs or white sesame oil. Oil extracted from wild animals such as elephants in must, galls of tiger, bear and even cobra venom or the chin fat from a corpse are said to be used. Others mentioned that the exfoliated skin of a revered arjan was added to Chinese ink mixed with holy water to make their tattoo pigments. In these cases, it is believed the tattoo thus created from such an ink would cause those people who interact with the wearer to behave as if they were in the presence of a monk; that is, the tattoo would cause them to be somewhat reverent and treat the bearer of the tattoo with respect.
Generally speaking, there are three classes of tattoos that can be received at Wat Bang Phra: those that act on others, causing them to like or fear the bearer; those that act on the bearer, increasing his skill with words causing the listener to do as he asks and instilling him with courage; and tattoos that create a protective barrier around the person that prevent animals of all sorts from biting, knives from cutting, bullets from entering the body, and fire from burning the body. Magical tattoos, whether for these or other purposes (e.g., for eternal health), are in a sense like preventive medicine and can be thought of as kinds of vaccinations against various diseases and misfortunes.
But there are other tattoos that you cannot see. These are oil tattoos which are said to be just as powerful as the pigmented variety. Some monks use sesame or coconut oil which is then mixed with other herbs and sandalwood. Some of the most powerful arjans at Wat Bang Phra, like Luang Pi Nunn, are covered in them.
The famous arjan Luang Pi Nunn who tattooed me worked from 8am until 4pm for the first couple of days with a brief lunch break in between. During the last two days of the festival, he tattooed at a marathon pace extending his hours to twelve or even more! Most of Luang Pi Nunn’s tattoos where completed in ten to fifteen 15 minutes, but more complex designs could take him twice as long. My tattoo, which was comprised of two stages, took approximately 40 minutes, and cost a mere 25 Baht (0.75¢), a lotus blossom, a bundle of incense, and two packs of menthol cigarettes. In reality, these monks work very quickly, and in the blink of an eye another chedi, Tiger, or other magical tattoo comes into being on human flesh.
The monks work in various ways. Some use the same two foot long steel rod again and again, only cleaning it in alcohol between each session; some seem to move from one skewer to another; while others rotate a few dishes of ink. Like most places in the world, Thailand has a very real Hepatitis and AIDS problem, and I preferred to have my own tool made by a local blacksmith and sanitized it prior to my session.
None of the young men who enter a monk’s working space mumble a word, and usually two male friends will stretch the client’s skin for the monk. Some tattoo patrons begin to shake and go into light trances while being tattooed, while others go into deep meditation. Other than the occasional grunt from a semi-possessed client, the areas around which the monks work remain eerily quiet. Regardless of the patron, who may be possessed or not, the monks continue to work the pigment under the skin only stopping to wipe off the flowing blood, or to take a sip of Red Bull or a drag from a well-positioned cigarette. After the tattoo is complete, the monk mumbles a prayer, and blows on the tattoo to activate its magical power. This action also fuses the patron with the monk’s meditative and transcendental powers, as well as that of the Buddha’s.
Luang Pi Nunn told me that in order to really understand the power of the magic tattoo, I needed to identify with the people who wore them because, “you can’t learn about them from books. Many people come here for magic tattoos. And they use their faith in the Buddha because he is an idol of goodness. He compels every one to do only good things. You have to have faith to get a tattoo for it to work. You have to believe in it. Otherwise these tattoos are worthless.”
Moreover, “You need to understand dharma or good behavior before you get a tattoo. And simple things like cleaning the floor with a broom can be an easy way to practice it. Simple things like this focus the mind on doing good to help society; and these actions build a pure heart. Such tasks are also a way to learn humility which is another important Buddhist precept.”
“Of course, when I was learning to become a tattooist, I had to train my body, heart, and mind. Daily chores around the temple helped me to do this: like picking up garbage, dog poop, feeding the fish in the river, and walking out every day at dawn to ask for alms – that’s how we get our food. All of these exercises build upon your humility and sense of place in the world. So you can’t take getting or giving a sakyan lightly: you have to be physically and mentally prepared every time you do it. It took me ten years to master the art and science of tattooing, including the memorization of the sacred scripts [katha] that I tattoo onto my patrons bodies. All great tattoo masters must do this.”
During the tattoo festival, tattooing monks from around Thailand descend on Wat Bang Phra to give tattoos. In fact, I was told that only six monks living at Wat Bang Phra tattoo and some of them only tattoo in oil.
Tattoo patrons also come from all over Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia. Matthew Sung, a Chinese government worker living in Hong Kong, told me that this was his second time at the event. “I have been here for 4 days now, and this temple has really helped me. I believe these tattoos will allow me to survive and do anything because I truly believe in their power. Back home in Hong Kong, I am not supposed to have any tattoos because I work for the government. I must keep them secret and not show anyone. Otherwise they will think that I am a bad boy or worse, a gangster! It’s just amazing how each monk gives power and life to the tattoos they give you. I’ve received four tattoos in the last two days and I feel their power inside of me each time. You can buy amulets here that also protect you from danger, but a tattoo offers total protection 24 hours a day and you can’t lose it like an amulet.” And when I asked him about the specific tattoos he had received, he said: “My arm tattoo is of the god Rahu eating the moon. This symbolizes that all evil that comes my way will be eaten by him. My Hanuman tattoo is like a Superman tattoo because he will never die or be defeated because no one can kill him. The Tiger tattoo represents that people will listen to me which gives me courage and that I can take charge of any situation.”
ONE TATTOOED FAMILY
At Wat Bang Phra, the tattoo festival culminates on a Saturday, and this year it also fell on Mackha Bucha which is Thailand’s most important Buddhist holiday celebration. Falling on the full moon on the third lunar month, the event marks the occasion when the Buddha outlined the principles of this religion to his disciples: to cease from all evil, to do what is good and to cleanse one’s mind. On this date across the country, it is customary for the faithful to spend the day at any one of the more than 30,000 Buddhist temples in Thailand. They do this in order to cultivate generosity by giving alms; by gaining wisdom through attending sermons and practicing meditation; and through observing self-discipline, and practicing respect and humility.
But of the 5,000 or so tattoo devotees who descended on Wat Bang Phra that day, it was like one giant tattooed family giving thanks to the monks who empower their lives with the sacred markings derived from Buddhist precepts and teachings. And as Luang Pi Nunn told me, “Those who have magic tattoos are a family, helping each other. Now you will be forever linked to all of these men who have worn these tattoos for thousands of years.”
For more information on the Elephantstay program, please visit their homepage or e-mail Ewa and Michelle:
McCabe, Michael (2002). Tattoos of Indochina: Magic, Devotion, & Protection. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Co.
Narkiewicz, Ewa and Michelle Reedy (2006). Elephantstay Handbook: Retiring Old Elephants. 29pp.
Tannenbaum, Nicola (1987). “Tattoos: Invulnerability and Power in Shan Cosmology.” American Ethnologist 14(4)693-711.
– (1984). “Shan Calendrics and the Nature of Shan Religion.” Anthropos 79: 505-515.