The Magic Tattoo Festival: RECHARCHING THE MYSTICAL POWERS

A devotee with a small zoo of animals tattooed on his body speeds toward the large statue of the Big Master, jumping over others and making unusual sounds and gestures. A volunteer standing in his way is big but fortunately very quick to stop the frantic run before a man crashes into the stage. A tattooed man bounces off the volunteer’s huge body, wakes-up from the trance and calmly goes back into the crowd. The air-bag volunteer turns to his colleagues and, as if nothing special is happening, comments in the ultra-cool manner of Bud Spencer (remember the Banana Joe movie?) “It is hot today. Very hot.”

A devotee in a state of trance is calmed by volunteers during the annual Magic Tattoo Festival at Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Prathom province

And it’s hot indeed. It’s the beginning of the Thai summer. Only a few hours after the sunrise, the temperature is over 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). It is also abnormally humid. However, people who came to Wat Bang Phra today don’t really care for such banal things as heat and humidity – they are here for a higher cause.

Every year, on a special day in March thousands of devotees from all around Thailand (some from abroad, too) travel for the Magic Tattoo festival to Nakhon Prathom province, just over an hour drive from Bangkok. The festival takes place at a temple well known for “magically charged” tattoos.

ees wait to be sprayed with holy water during the annual Magic Tattoo Festival at Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Prathom province

People with such tattoos believe the inked drawings with elaborate designs of animals and sacred scripts give them mystical powers – protection from bullets and other danger, along with other benefits. They are made all across the country and very different people wear them, just like the amulets you can see everywhere in Thailand. When soldiers from the Thai army went to Iraq on a peacekeeping mission, 443 of them carried 6000 magic amulets for protection.

A devotee with a tiger tattoo attends the annual Magic Tattoo Festival at Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Prathom province

Tattoos and amulets are made elsewhere but Wat Bang Phra is a special place and the most famous for its powerful, magic tattoos. A few days before the festival, I spoke to a young man from Bangkok’s notorious Khlong Toey slum about his tattoos. Salut got his first tattoo at the age of 17. Now, nine years later, most of his skin is covered in inked drawings and there is barely enough space for another. But, he needs more tattoos, saying they protect him from danger and give him extra self-confidence. After observing his body and smoking a menthol cigarette (that, along with flowers, is offered in exchange for tattoos), a Buddhist monk pulls out a traditional half meter long needle and starts inking sacred script in the tiny empty space around the young man’s left nipple.

A Buddhist monk uses traditional needle to tattoo chest of Salut at Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Pathom province

With just a needle and ink made of herbs, a tiny amount of snake venom, cigarette ash and some other ingredients, master monks at the temple make beautiful tattoos with computer precision and great speed. The recipe for the ink differs from master to master. Some use just the oil, from sesame or coconut, to make invisible tattoos that have the same powers once they are finished and blessed. At any given time, there is a line of people patiently waiting for their turn to get tattoos. Not many questions are asked and everything goes very quickly and smoothly.

The sacred tattoos, known as Sak Yant, can be inked at the temple anytime but today is the festival and a special day – its powers can be renewed. According to Buddhist belief, to maintain the holiness and powers of the tattoo, bearers have to obey certain rules – not to kill or steal, no drugs or drinking, no lying and no sexual misconduct.

A devotee in a state of trance mimics the creatures which are tattooed on his body during the annual Magic Tattoo Festival at Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Prathom province

Perhaps, there are some people at the temple on Magic Tattoo day who don’t follow these rules very strictly so recharging is needed. Lots of devotees who we would colloquially call “tough guys” wait in the crowd and seem to be very determined to get the most of what the special day offers.

As the pleasant dawn turns into a very hot morning, tattooed devotees start working themselves into a trance. At some point, one by one, they jump-up from the praying position and start making their way toward the statue of the Big Master. Some of them run maniacally, others crawl, but all mimic the creatures that are tattooed on their bodies.

Devotees in a state of trance mimic the creatures which are tattooed on their body during the annual Magic Tattoo Festival at Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Prathom province

Over the next few hours, there will be many tigers, some chickens and snakes and at least one of something powerful I can not recognize trying to make it all the way to the statue. On their way, the wall of air-bag volunteers stands making sure devotees are calmed before someone gets hurt.

Most of the devotees are men, some teenagers and some older gentlemen, but there are a few women and foreigners in the crowd, too. The foreigners, called farang here, take it very seriously. Thai people don’t seem to care about these weird looking white people and it all goes smoothly. As one of the devotees said, “We are one big tattooed family here.”

The tattooed family continues the religious performance until its culmination a few hours later. Just as the heat becomes unbearable, as if someone gave an order (they probably did but I didn’t hear it) everyone jumps at the same time and starts charging toward the statue. I’m talking about few thousand people, many of them in a trance.

If a photographer on site (me in this case) didn’t climb on the stage where the monks and shrine are, no pictures would be taken and it would not be fun anymore. Based on the good advice of more experienced colleagues, I’m with the monks above the devotees before it’s too late. The sound is (as is the case for such religious ceremonies) way too loud and I don’t think I can even hear my own thoughts. Maybe that is the whole idea with these monster speakers at religious places – who knows.

Devotees reach for food and flowers given by Buddhist monks during the annual Magic Tattoo Festival at Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Prathom province

The horrible noise means there will be no ambient sounds recorded this time for my multimedia report so I go back to where I belong – to make more intense pictures of believers trying to reach the statue and the shrine. Monks use hoses similar to those of firefighters to spray the crowd with holy water. They also give them flowers, fruit and other food including the smiling pigs head from around the statue. Everyone on the ground seems to be desperate to get some and, at one point, the whole scene reminds me of food distribution in an overcrowded refugee camp but with more smiling people.

Soon afterwards it’s all over – no one is in a trance anymore except the person with the microphone who continues to test my nerves and the limits of over-sized speakers installed everywhere. Luckily, in the quiet corners of the temple some refreshing food and drinks are served by ever smiling volunteers.

After we all leave and the Magic Tattoo festival is over, the temple will go back to its routine – more magic tattoos will be made for those who need and believe in them. It is Thailand after all; the land of smiles and rituals that people from different cultures consider strange and perhaps don’t fully understand. But for local people it all seems to be working well. See you next year at the temple – just bring the ear-plugs.

A Buddhist monk uses traditional needle to tattoo the body of a man as others wait for they turn at Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Pathom province

For more pictures and sounds from Wat Bang Phra check the Reuters Wider Image application for iPad. Or look the gallery here.

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