Sat. Dec 4th, 2021

The sky was streaked with purple when I boarded the early-morning train from Bangkok to the Nakhon Chai Si District in central Thailand. For the entire hourlong ride, a monk sat quietly in front of me, smiling, gusts of wind swirling the orange robes over his tattoos.

We disembarked at the same stop, a small station surrounded by thick trees and rice paddies. I watched as he took a seat on the back of a motorcycle and sped off, followed closely by several other passengers. One of the last people left at the station, I asked the only remaining driver if he could take me to the Wat Bang Phra.

A few minutes later, the golden spires of the temple, glowing in the sunlight, came into view.

It was 2016, and, having just completed an assignment in Bangkok, I had a free day before departing for Cambodia.

For years I’d been intrigued by the designs of certain tattoos I’d seen throughout Southeast Asia, and I wanted to find out more. A close friend, hearing of my interest, directed me to Wat Bang Phra.

The early history of Wat Bang Phra is murky, though the temple likely dates back hundreds of years. By the 20th century it had become the renowned home of the practice known as sak yant, a form of tattooing that, according to believers, conveys protective powers along with the ink of its scripts, geometric patterns and animalistic designs.

The monk Luang Phor Pern, a venerated guru who served as the abbot of Wat Bang Phra and died in 2002, is credited with refining and popularizing the temple’s sak yant style. (The idea that tattoos confer special powers has existed in parts of East Asia — from China and India to Thailand and Cambodia — for thousands of years.)

When I arrived at the temple, I walked past the imposing statues of tigers guarding the main entrance and slowly made my way through a maze of ornate buildings and pavilions. Removing my shoes and entering a crowded hall, I found myself weaving through dozens of tourists who had arrived hours before me and were sitting on the floor, waiting in the dim light.

In front of them, two sak yant masters were tapping on the backs of two men with long thin needles, intently focused on their swift, precise and hypnotic jabbing.

After a few moments of disorientation, I made my way to the grand hall, where the temple’s current abbot, Luang Phor Samang, was sitting before a long line of devotees. The visitors were on their knees, holding trays of offerings.

I purchased an offering set for around 100 Thai baht, or about $3, and joined the line. When it came time to speak with the abbot, I described my intentions: I was not here for a tattoo, I said, but was hoping to take pictures of the monks and their practice. While photography, under normal circumstances, is strictly forbidden, the abbot smiled and granted me permission.

Translated literally, sak yant means “to tap yantras,” a word that refers to the geometric designs used as aids in tantric meditation. Yantras are believed to bring health, wealth, protection and a number of other benefits. The practice is embraced by some Thai monks, though it is not specifically related to traditional Buddhist teachings. The practice’s origins — and its purported effects — are both spiritual and superstitious.

The designs used in sak yant include geometric motifs, animal shapes and divine representations, accompanied by phrases and spells in Pali, an ancient language closely related to Sanskrit.

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