Photographer David Longstreath and zReportage (ZUMA Press) share this look into a sacred tattoo festival in Thailand.
Shrill shrieks pierce the humid morning air outside the famous tattoo Thai temple of Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Chai Si, Thailand. On this clear, hot morning more than ten thousand have gathered to be a part of festival that honors Buddhist monks and others who ink the sacred lines into the bodies of the devoted. Through the morning, first one, then two and then many will transform into what appear to be an altered state and played out to the crowd of onlookers gathered in the graveled parking lot. These Thai men, all devotees to Wat Bang Phra, have entered into a trance called "Khong Khuen," or a magical force rising, and this is the festival known as "Wai Kru."
As they enter into trance their faces become a mishmash of expressions: fear, rage, fits of excitement and eyes rolling into a "crazed look." Suddenly, they begin leaping to their feet. Their arms waving wildly, they run screaming toward a sacred shrine at the temple and a statue of their former master Luan Por Phern. Naked from the waist up most are covered in an ancient form of Sanskrit writing from the Khmer or Cambodian language.
The origin of the "Wai Kru" or paying respect to the teacher, is a centuries old custom in Thailand. The "Sak Yant" tattoos the devotees have inked into their bodies go back to ancient times as well. The term "Sak" means to tap, which is how the tattoos are applied with a long steel spire and "Yant" comes from the Sankrit word "Yantra" meaning an instrument or mystical diagram. Many say the lines in the tattoos represent the umbilical cord to the Buddha while the round tattoos are believed to represent the face of the Buddha. The tattoos are thought to possess magical qualities and are amulets which can protect the wearer from harm, believers claim. In ancient times, according to website Thailand-tattoo.com, tattooing became a popular way of identifying civil servants and soldiers. While tattoos are worn as adornment in the West, most Thais do not show off theirs.
Sitting on a simple wooden stool, his fingers stained black, Ajarn Harn Submomgkol, a 38-year-old tattoo master and Thai soldier, accepts offerings of orchids, incense, candles and cigarettes from devotees. He then clears his mind, picks up a long, pencil-thin, steel spike with a deadly sharp point, dips the instrument into a well of black ink, said to contain magical ingredients, and then begins tattooing a young male devotee's back. As the process begins you can hear the sound. A methodical, dull, tap,tap,tap,tap,tap,tap.
In a corner not far away, a cheap plastic electric fan struggles to move the air. It's 7am and already the temperatures are in the 90's. The devotee, hunched over, is held down by friends and family, their hands on his back to keep him still. All the while, Submomgkol taps the design into the back not a word is said. No joking, no talking. This is serious business and the faces of the devotees show it. One devotee holds an iPad and videos the event for others to see. As the design is completed the tattoo masters leans overs and blows gently into the tattoo speaking a secret phrase.
"During the Wai Kru, I may do as many as 100 Sak Yant tattoos" he says as he looks to add ink to his steel spike. As he finishes the tattoo the devotee turns and offers a traditional "wai" hands clasped together and bows to Submomgkol who smiles and bids him farewell. Others are waiting. The temple grounds are packed. In corner areas and inside rooms at Wat Bang Phra, in the town of Nakhon Chaisi. This scene is repeated though out the morning. Before continuing Submongkol speaks about the process. "The subjects of the tattoo, well-known in providing supernatural powers, are the images of the Tiger, Hanuman, (Hindu god who is half monkey-half human) and the Crocodile. They give magical power to the wearer providing them protection."
Outside, the crowd that is almost exclusively Thais, has grown to over 10,000. The gravel parking lot, nearly empty two hours ago is packed. It's a carnival now. Old women, with wrinkled faces and short cropped grey hair wearing sarongs, seize on the yearly opportunity to sell dried squid, a popular Thai snack, and "Nam Dang," or red soda pop. Most are locals and this event means extra income for them. Buddhist monks have begun seating themselves in red plastic chairs of importance as everyone else sits cross legged on a thin layer of plastic sheeting also hawked by the locals. For those new to the event there is a keen sense of anticipation as they have come to see devotees work themselves into a "Khong Khuen" or trance like state.
Standing on fringes of madness, Theerawat Kantaviro, a Buddhist monk, much older than the others looks on as he sips a "Nam Dang" red soda. As devotees enter the "Khong Khuen" or trance-like phase he watches with eyes that never leave the chaos. A small army of volunteers, mostly members from what Thais called the "Body Snatchers" or volunteer emergency workers catch, tackle and corral the crazed men as they run wildly toward the stage. Each is calmed and then allowed to return to the seating area. It's a wild scene of devotees, volunteers and foreign tourist with cameras. Kantaviro has been coming to particular "Wai Kru" for a number of years. "The tattoos have a strong power that makes me fear them. If I go into the ritual area and participate in the Wai Kru ceremony, I might be in a trance state."
Soon the Buddhist monks at Wat Bang Phra will call a halt to the events, spray holy water on the crowd all before the morning gets too far along. Devotees will gather belongings, cover themselves and drift away into a country road traffic jam outside Wat Bang Phra that will last for hours. Now that is madness.
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