Wai Khru Tattoo Festival

Wat Bang Phra, about 50 kilometres outside Bangkok, is the location for an annual event quite unlike any other that I’ve witnessed. Each spring, devotees gather to pay respects to their religious teachers in a ceremony known as Wai Khru (Honour the teacher). Spectators at Thai Boxing (Muay Thai) matches will have seen fighters pay respects in a similar fashion before each bout and Thai school students also perform similar rituals at the start of each school term.

Traditionally, Thai tattoos are believed to be more than just a decorative art. Recipients believe that each tattoo carries protective properties and it is in search of these that people gather at the temple every spring. The rituals are a complex mix of Buddhist, Hindu, Brahman and Animist beliefs. Devotees come to pay their respects to their religious teachers and to receive tattoos that are created at the hands of these spiritual leaders. It is not only the application of the tattoo that has significance, it is the magical activation of the designs that believers seek. Once applied, the tattoo is believed to offer protection and in a country with an unpredictable political future, such protection is increasingly in demand.

Inside the temple complex are various rooms where people queue quietly to receive their artful talismans. Outside, a crowd gathers to listen to the invocations of the temple abbot. The spirits contained in the tattoo designs are awakened and prompt the human host to enter into a trance-like state. Often the believer will begin to shake and growl, assuming the characteristics of their animal spirit. Eventually they will be drawn towards the front of the crowd, perhaps slithering along the ground like a snake or an eel or sprinting through the crowd like a tiger. Some become bird-like, others clench their fists or hold out their hands like claws.

At the front of the crowd, volunteers wait to restrain and subdue the devotees, vigorously rubbing their ears to bring them back to their senses. Despite the apparent chaos and what seems like a potential for injury, the events are in fact well-controlled and there is a sense of great respect throughout the gathering.

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Gavin also runs a series of workshops, details of which can be seen at www.gavingough.com/workshops/

All images copyright © Gavin Gough

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