Yantra tattoos are extremely popular, even beyond Thailand’s borders. While Western tattoos typically have sentimental value, Thai tattoos have deeper meaning. Their distinctive style and magical powers date back millennia. Here is the result of my research into the history and practice of Sak Yant.
First off, we need to clarify the distinction between Yantra and Sak Yant. Yantra is the use of mystical diagrams for the worship of deities, in meditation and for their occult powers. It dates back over 10,000 years. The geometric shapes originate from Hinduism and were assimilated by the Tai tribes of South-Eastern Asia over 2000 years ago, who incorporated images from their Animist and Shamanist traditions.
By permanently etching these diagrams, animals and deities into their skin they created Sak Yant (or ‘Yantra tattoos’). Magic spells were added in Agkara Khom, a combination of Khmer alphabet and Pali language, also used in Buddhist prayer and mantras. Initially seeking protection and strength in battle, their magical powers extended to healing, luck, fertility, strength, fortune, attraction and protection.
Sak Yant are normally tattooed by Masters, which can be Ruesi (Hindu sages), Wicha (magic practitioners) or Buddhist monks. Women are considered impure and are not allowed to give Sak Yant, nor can they receive a Yantra tattoo while menstruating. The application technique involves a long bamboo (or metal) rod, sharpened to a point and specific ink. The ingredients of the ink are said to differ between Masters, but are thought to contain a combination of ashes, herbs, charcoal, palm oil, snake venom and even human remains.
Apart from the diagram and the spell, the magical power of the tattoo originates from additional elements. Critical is the power of the Master and the purity of the lineage of his teachers. The Sak Yant tradition is passed along from teacher (‘Ajarn’) to apprentice. While tattooing, the Master recites incantations, which awaken the Sak Yant’s magic and need to be recharged in a yearly blessing ceremony. Other factors depend on the recipient of the tattoo: he/she needs to have a firm belief in supernatural forces, respect both the Master and the teachers before him, and live as a righteous person.
Graphically speaking, every Sak Yant is based on fundamental Yantra line shapes. The lines themselves are considered to represent Buddha’s umbilical cord, in current Buddhist-oriented practise. The lines form a number of core shapes:
- The square represents earth. In its basic form it symbolizes the most sacred Hindu form of the Absolute One (Brahman), meaning the universal divine principle of the world, the absolute truth, the acceptance of which leads to spiritual freedom and bliss.
- The triangle stands for fire and creation.
- The circle symbolizes water, space and the never ending process.
- The lotus represents divine manifestation and expression
- The dot or bindu indicates where a divine deity is worshipped within these shapes. It isn’t always present as it may be represented by a letter, or its presence is implied.
These core elements are combined into a diagram that is often chosen by the Master, based on the recipient’s intentions for the tattoo. The resulting overall shape of the diagram has a meaning of its own:
- Round, for the face of the Buddha
- Three-sided, referencing the Triple Gem of Buddhism. Being a Buddhist implies proclaiming devotion to the three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Buddha signifies the fulfilment of enlightenment. Dharma are the teachings of Buddha. Sangha references the teachers of Buddhism.
- Four-sided: the four elements (earth, air, fire, water)
- Picture: depends on the picture (usually angels, animals or people)
- Onk Pra: any symbolic representation of the Buddha himself
- Small circle: the sun, referencing the influence of stars and planet on our lives
- Zig-zag that ends in a straight line: references saints who have attained enlightenment and the crown of the Buddha. It refers to letting go of earthly concerns and going on a straight line (to nirvana)
These core elements and overall shapes are combined into hundreds of designs. Some are very rare and getting one may imply traveling to a specific Master. The most common ones are the Hah Taew, the Gao Yord, the Paed Tidt, the Hanuman and the Yant Suea.
By far the most popular one is the Five Lines or Hah Taew tattoo. Yes, the one Angelina Jolie received from Master Noo Kanpai in 2003. It is believed to date back 700 years to the ancient Kingdom of Lanna. Each line of script contains a spell, which can vary. Typical intentions include prevention from unjust punishment, avoidance of bad fortune, protection against black magic, good luck and attraction from the opposite sex.
The Nine Spires or Gao Yord is often chosen as a first Sak Yant because of its universal powers. The nine peaks represent the mythical mountain of the Gods (Mount Meru or Sumeru). Also known as the Yant Kru (‘Master yant’), it has wide ranging powers of protection and also allows access to the lineage of Sak Yant Masters.
The Eight Directions or Paed Tidt sak yant offers protection in any direction you choose to travel in. Typically applies to travellers.
The Hanuman of Monkey God design represents an invincible Hindu god that has powers far greater than humans, and showed great humility and bravery. It is believed to bestow protection from danger, fearlessness, self-confidence, focus and influence.
The Tiger tattoo or Yant Suea stands for power and authority and is popular amongst people with dangerous professions, such as police officers and Muay Thai fighters.
A popular location to get a Yantra tattoo is Wat Bang Phra, about 50km from Bangkok. The temple is home to several monks who practice Sak Yant. Every year, Masters gather with their disciples at Wat Bang Phra to celebrate Wai Khru (‘respect one’s teacher’). Also known as Sak Yant Tattoo Festival, the event includes a ceremony in which tattoos are recharged. Do check the video about Wat Bang Phra. Warning: the footage about the festival is quite intense.