Consecrated Fire-hoses and Magic Tattos Prompt Mass Trance at Wat Bang Phra’s Annual Wai Khru
On the banks of the Nakhon Chaisi River in Nakhon Pathom Province stands a Buddhist monastery that dates back to the late 18th century, just before the second fall of Ayuthaya. Inside a small, crumbling ordination chapel, the only significant remains of the original monastery today, sit two bronze Buddha images, Luang Pho Sit Chaiyamongkon and Luang Pho Kai Sitmongkhon.
According to legend, the revered images were being secreted downriver from Ayuthaya to save them from plundering Burmese troops when the boat carrying them capsized. The incident was seen as an omen that the Buddhas could travel no further, so when they were pulled from the water, locals installed them in the monastery that came to be known as Wat Bang Phra (Monastery of the Buddha Riverbank).
Wat Bang Phra might have remained just another country wat with a fading history had it not been for the later fame of abbot Phra Udom Prachanart, more commonly known as Luang Pho Poen, the most widely known and respected khru sak yan (sacred tattoo master) of the 20th century.
Born in Ban Kaew Fa adjacent to Wat Bang Phra in 1923, Poen showed a keen interest in the Buddhist occult from a young age and at 25 ordained as a monk. In 1953, feeling he needed further renunciation and solitary meditation, Luang Pho Poen undertook tudong (dhutanga in Pali), a set of extra ascetic vows beyond the normal 227 monastic precepts. These include sleeping in the forest, eating only one meal a day, and forgoing all vehicular transport. His travels on foot took him west to a remote area of Kanchanaburi Province on the Myanmar-Thailand border.
At the time, villagers in the area were beleaguered by wild tigers that had mauled or killed several locals. After Luang Pho Poen arrived in their midst and learned of the villagers’ predicament, he offered mantras and sak yan—sacred tattoos—to protect them. He taught them that tiger tattoos, in particular, could fend off attacks. From that point forward, no one who received the monk’s protection was ever attacked by a tiger or other wild animal, earning Luang Pho Poen a powerful reputation as a master of incantations and tattoos.
As his reputation for wisdom and loving kindness grew, thousands of Thais travelled to Wat Bang Phra to receive the blessings of the great monk and to become his lifelong disciples. Many received sak yan from the abbot and the monks he assiduously trained. By the time Luang Pho Poen passed away in 2002 at the age of 79, he was one of Thailand’s most well-known and beloved monastics.
Wat Bang Phra today maintains a pre-eminent position in Thailand for its long sak yan tradition. Currently around a half dozen resident monks, along with the occasional assistance of visiting white-clothed lay masters, work tirelessly to ink increasing numbers of disciples.
During the monastery’s annual wai khru, when disciples return to pay respect to their masters, re-new the spiritual power of their sak yan, and receive additional tattoos, the number of supplicants approaches a thousand. The most dedicated disciples—as opposed to sightseers and the curious—come two days before the wai khru to participate in khraup khru, a special ceremony that pays homage to the spirit of the reusee (forest sage) tradition, during which a monk momentarily places a gilded reusee mask on each disciple’s head.
The disciples of every tattoo master in Thailand organize wai khru events on different dates. Beyond re-affirming the disciples’ affiliation with the masters, the occasion allows the masters to re-consecrate all of the sak yan previously inked on their disciples. The day spent with a master also gives his disciples a chance to re-establish the correct moral conduct for maintaining the power of their tattoos. If their adherence to the code has been less than sterling during the intervening year, the tattoos will have lost a corresponding amount of power and efficacy. The code also serves as an invisible layer of power and protection.
The wai khru day gives everyone a chance to compare tattoos, receive new tattoos if they so wish, and seek counsel from the master on problems they may be experiencing in their lives.
In 2016, the 19th of March is the designated date for Wat Bang Phra tattoo disciples to visit the temple for the ceremonies. Because it’s the biggest and most well-known wai khru day in Thailand, the Wat Bang Phra event is often referred to as a “tattoo festival.”
On the appointed day, thousands of tattooed disciples gather in a large open space in front of a huge black statue of Luang Pho Poen in order to undergo consecration rituals. In front of the base of the statue, the temple’s current tattoo masters, both monks and white-clothed laymen, line up to perform the rituals, which include the sprinkling of holy water onto the crowd of disciples. To reach the massive crowds at Wat Bang Phra, the monks use fire hoses instead of the reed whisks commonly used in smaller versions of the ceremony.
As the water sprays the crowd, hundreds of disciples enter into trance, particularly those tattooed with animal figures such as tigers, lions, and Hanuman, the monkey lord. Many break into a sprint to try and throw themselves at the granite base of the statue. A ring of volunteers stand in front of the statue to catch the wayward disciples, lift them off the ground, and bring them out of trance by grasping their ears and shaking them while whispering soothing words. Once the disciples emerge from the trance, they calmly walk back into the crowd.
During the entire ceremony, a monk delivers a lengthy sermon through an outdoor speaker system, reminding the disciples that sak yan mean nothing without a firm Buddhist foundation.
If you’re interested in getting a sacred tattoo at Wat Bang Phra, you should know that different monks specialize in different designs. Phra Ajahn Ting, Luang Pho Poen’s senior-most disciple, studied with him from 1981 until the abbot’s passing in 2002. Nowadays Phra Ajahn Ting focuses almost exclusively on two sak yan, both originally made famous by Luang Pho Poen. One is the saarikaa lin thong (golden-tongued sarika), a design in the shape of the sarika (Indian mynah), which enhances one’s power of verbal persuasion. The second is kwaang liaw lang (deer turning to look back), which boosts personal charisma. Any disciple coming for one of the aforementioned tattoos will usually also receive na naa thong (goldleaf blessing on the forehead). In fact many Thais visit Luang Phi Ting only for na naa thong, which is particularly popular with women visitors.
Quiet, bespectacled Phra Ajahn Tauy, also known as Luang Phi Tauy, is the next senior-most disciple of Luang Pho Poen. He usually works in a larger hall together with lay master Ajahn Nuad (see below), his principal student. Here he sits beneath a large portrait of his late master, Luang Pho Poen. His knowledge of sak yan designs is quite broad but he is well-known for yan hom siang (a grid of 108 small squares containing Buddha-like figures, a powerful protective yantra) and phra jao 5 phra ong (five Buddha figures conferring Buddhist virtues, prosperity, and protection).
Wat Bang Phra
Mu 3, Bang Kaew Pha, Nakhon Chaisi District, Nakhon Pathom | 0 3438 9333 | facebook.com/Bp.or.Th/ (mostly Thai)
Wai Khru: 19 March 2016