NAKON PATHOM, Thailand (Reuters) - Shrieks and wails hang in the air as thousands of tattoo devotees pack into a Thai temple for an annual festival they believe renews the protective magic in the elaborate designs on their skin.
Crowds seethed through the temple grounds, with men roaring, hissing and screaming while imitating the creatures tattooed on their bodies, as if they had been possessed by them. One pecked towards the ground as if he was a chicken, others flung up their arms and danced.
The yearly ceremony took place at the weekend at Wat Bang Phra in Nakon Pathom, 80 km (30 miles) west of Bangkok, which is known for magically charged tattoos and amulets said to protect their bearers against danger.
While honouring the founding masters of the Buddhist temple, the gathering is also seen by believers as an opportunity to “recharge” their tattoos.
“You get many things: to pay your respects, to make your body and spirit happy, to worship our masters,” said Nakhom Tonghum, 35, who had a tiger tattoo on his back and chest.
The tattoos vary from legendary heroes from epics such as the Ramayana to mythical creatures or Pali and Sanskrit writing. In most tattoos, animals such as panthers, tigers and snakes are intricately woven into magical signs and scriptures.
“I’m a believer. I like this,” said Akkaporn Silom. He said that when possessed, it’s an out-of-body experience and one goes numb and gets goosebumps.
Not all Thai Buddhists believe in the mystical powers of protection of the sacred tattoos, known as Sak Yant. But many do, and an increasing number of Westerners are also being enticed by the purported magic.
Nearly 100 people come to Wat Bang Phra for tattoos every day, drawn by the fame and artistry of the temple’s founder, late tattoo master Luang Poh Pern.
“People come here for tattoos because they want protection and also have faith in the monks,” said Kampanat Jittayano, a monk from the northern province of Nan.
The monks who inscribe the tattoos will dip the tip of a 46-cm (18-inch) needle into a mix of special ink made with a small proportion of snake venom, herbs and cigarette ash.
A typical tattoo takes about 3,000 pricks of the needle and about 15 minutes to complete, though elaborate ones take longer.
Once done, the monk will bless the tattoo and blow on it to infuse it with power.
To maintain the holiness of the tattoo, people who bear them are required to obey five more precepts of Buddhism, such as abstaining from taking life, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and drinking or taking drugs.
But never fear. Should believers break any of the rules, the festival gives them a chance to make their tattoos holy once again, thus keeping the protection going for another year.
Editing by Elaine Lies and Robert Birsel