By Jennifer Gampell
The sun was barely up at 6:15 a.m. on the last Saturday of February but already scores of men clad in scruffy jeans were doffing their cheap T-shirts as they streamed into Wat Bang Phra, a large temple located 30 miles west of Bangkok. The early morning light gave an eerie cast to the primitive blue-black tattoos adorning many torsos.
While some men sported one or two tattoos, others displayed more ink than skin. Rows of complicated Khmer script and symbols covered shoulders and upper backs. Encircled by intricate hieroglyphics, Indian deities such as Ganesh the elephant, Hanuman the monkey and Rishi the hermit appeared on backs and chests. Lions, tigers, pigs, frogs, turtles, snakes, dragons and birds were ubiquitous on all upper body parts.
Belonging to a stratum of society rarely acknowledged by middle- and upper-class Thais, the construction workers, motorcycle taxi drivers, debt collectors and assorted nak reng (gangster types) had come from all over Thailand to attend the temple's annual Wai Kru ceremony. For centuries, Thai pupils traditionally paid annual homage to teachers in gratitude for passing on the sacred entity called knowledge. Such rituals happen rarely in 21st-century Thailand except at schools or at boxing matches where an extremely abbreviated version is performed.
The teacher being honored at Wat Bang Phra was its 80 year-old abbot, Luang Phor Pern. More magical than intellectual, his "knowledge" relates to his skill in applying talismanic tattoos and to the potency he endows them with. The tough-guy mystics who decorate their upper bodies in arcane symbols believe tattoos empowered by great masters will protect them from danger (gunshots, knife thrusts etc.) as well as give them the personality traits of the particular image. Hanuman is clever and a great fighter; dragons are brave, wise and powerful; geckos are loving and kind, etc. The ailing abbot (he recently underwent quintuple bypass surgery) no longer practices the art he first started in 1975. However throughout the year at the temple his monastic disciples continue his tattooing traditions.
Before entering a huge dirt enclosure adjoining the temple compound--demarcated by nine rows of sanctified white string, many men stopped to buy a colored twine necklace hung with two amulets (a tiny tiger's head encased in a plastic ball and a small metal engraving of Luang Phor Pern). Inside the makeshift arena, some knelt at the rudimentary two-tiered Wai Kru stage with carved Hanuman masks and statues arrayed on its upper level. Palms together, they bowed in the traditional wai of obeisance and before heading towards the rear.
Tattooed toughies kept pouring in--a few accompanied by their girlfriends. By 7:00 a.m. the dusty ground was half full of people sitting cross-legged on old newspapers and pieces of plastic. (According to the following day's Bangkok Post, the event ultimately drew a crowd of 5,000.) Meanwhile the 50 green plastic chairs beside the stage were filling with monks who, like the laymen, had come from all over Thailand. On their upper arms and semi-exposed shoulders, dragon tails and cosmological symbols peeked out from under saffron robes.
Except for the absence of music, the festive atmosphere resembled that of any Thai temple fair. Non-stop messages blared out over the tall banks of speakers. The announcer said Luang Phor Pern would come on stage to begin the ceremony around 9 a.m. and reminded everyone that free food was available at the building next to the abbot's quarters. Vendors of ice cream, lottery tickets and various Luang Phor Pern paraphernalia were doing brisk business.
The first shrieks from the arena were nearly drowned out in the general cacophony. A young man seated at the back of the crowd trembled violently, then leapt up and started flapping his arms. With eyes rolled back in his head and arms outstretched, he pirouetted towards the stage screeching like a bird. Next, a burly, wild-eyed hulk whose tattooed torso stretched the confines of his tiny singlet hauled himself up, roared like a prehistoric behemoth and lumbered relentlessly towards the stage. "Oh soldiers," called the announcer to a 40-man uniformed contingent standing rigidly to attention near the parking lot, "You're needed at the front of the stage."
As if on cue, the arena suddenly erupted into roars, howls, hisses and squawks. Men in various trance-like states were leaping (Hanuman), hopping (frogs) and racing (lions and tigers) towards the stage. Others made the laborious journey crawling on the their stomachs in the dirt (snakes) or bent over and shuffling (Rishi). Some men changed persona in midstream, morphing from a raging tiger to a slippery eel.
Those who espouse occult tattoo theory--which the vast majority of Thai Buddhists do not--believe the spirits of the men's tattooed images were calling out to their monkish creator as embodied by the "Wai Kru" deities onstage. Fortunately for the rest of the audience the spirits moved relatively few of the assembled thousands during the next two and a half hours, but those who went into trance did so repeatedly. Several men went back and forth from the stage more than 10 times!
Before actually reaching the stage, the mesmerized tattooees ran into a human gauntlet of soldiers and male volunteers dressed in yellow Singha beer T-shirts. Tightly clutching the flailing men (it sometimes took six people to subdue one trancee), the handlers rubbed their ears, ostensibly the most effective technique for bringing bewitched people back to reality.
When Luang Phor Pern finally arrived at 9:30 a.m., the jam-packed arena looked like a religious mosh pit. Soldiers, yellow-shirted volunteers and many trancees were covered in dirt and bloodstains. For a few terrifying seconds it seemed the multitude was preparing to charge its beloved abbot. He exhorted his devotees to sit silently in meditation which, except for an occasional random yelp, they did. After giving a short blessing, Luang Phor Pern was lifted offstage and into a wheelchair. Using three hoses decorated with bamboo stalks, his acolytes proceeded to spray holy water over the ecstatic crowd. By 10 a.m., crumpled newspapers blowing across the hot dusty arena were all that remained of the morning's melee.
For the rest of the day scores of men queued patiently at several outbuildings to receive new tattoos or have old ones re-blessed by the temple's resident monks. One roly-poly bonze specialized in mumbling incantations, applying gold leaf to foreheads and blowing lightly to reactivate the spirit energy. Next door, a heavily tattooed monk in ink-spattered robes used 40-cm metal rods with split tips to create his small images. Grasping the top end of the "needle" like an ice pick, he made short rapid pricks, using wadded up toilet paper to wipe away the droplets of blood.
"I felt very agitated when I arrived here this morning," explained Mr. "Bo" (short for Rambo), a motorcycle taxi driver from north Bangkok. He's putting his T-shirt back on after getting the images and symbols on his heavily tattooed corpus re-blessed. "But now I'm at peace."
Ms. Gampell is a Bangkok-based freelance writer
Copyright © 2002 Asian Wall Street Journal