Unlike people from Western countries who wear tattoos for decoration or ego hikes, most Cambodians actually tattoo themselves only for self-protection. Khmers believe in Tantras and the magical power they harbour. Few would wear a tattoo just for show sake. People in Cambodia have tattoos on their body to ward off evil or harm and it is widely believed that a certain Yantra crafted by a monk or a holy person on the chest of a believer, will even bounce off a bullet or fragments from a hand grenade.
One old chap from Kampot who wishes to be known simply as Nith even claimed that he cannot die because he has a longevity tantra tattooed on his back but quickly added, "unless I default in my vow of abstinence from certain vices as required of me when I begged the monk to tattoo the tantra on me."
In Cambodia today, except for those who joined the army, the number of people sporting a tattoo has reduced largely. Ordinary people, nowadays, do not like the idea of having their skin pierced and stained permanently. Many soldiers in the army, armed themselves not just with their issued weapons, but also yantras and tantras. Usually when a man decides to join the ranks of any uniformed unit of defense, he would go to consult a spiritual person (usually a monk) to receive blessings and request for a talisman of sort. Although some are given amulets, many would prefer to tattoo a yantra on their body instead. In some instances, the ritual may also require that the person receiving the tattoo should abstain from talking to anyone for three days and three nights. The master guarantees that no harm will come to the person who can faithfully keep the abstinence; not even a gun would fire and neither would a knife cut.
For those who had for some reason or other spoke out during the period of silence, they would have to observe the 5-holy Buddhist Abstinence for as long as they live-they cannot kill, steal, cheat, be intoxicated by alcohol or lust for woman.
Usually, friends and relatives are allowed to be at the ceremony when the master tattoos a yantra on the devotee's body.
The master slowly rubs a Chinese Ink-stick on a dish shallowly filled with water, to produce the coloring for the tattoo, as he instructs the devotee. In the meanwhile, an instrument of what looks like a sharp-pointed bayonet is being sterilized in boiling hot water nearby. Some pieces of cut lemon too are on standby beside the holy man. When the ink in the dish appears thick and dark enough, the master removes the instrument from the pot and grazes it with the lemon pieces. With ink all ready, the master moves swiftly on the devotee's body with the sharp instrument, piercing the skin in rhythm like a sewing machine as he recites his mantras. Regularly padding the devotee's skin with ink as it dries, the master's zaps gradually produce letters in what looks like Khmer alphabets yet none at the scene was able to comprehend. Some murmured that those letters must be Pali, yet those who understood Pali seemed confused as well. Soon, as rows of alphabets became more apparent, the master paused for a break and explained that the mantra tattooed on the body are holy verses derived from Pali. Even as a member of the audience, the stress was quite unbearable; one cannot imagine what the humancanvas must be going through. "The tattoo is important indeed but more important is the perseverance in keeping the abstinence," Master Prum Yan stated. "The devotee must be clean in thoughts and conduct himself well. Besides, the magical power in the tattoo will only be effective and even strengthened if the devotee continues to observe all religious festivities, spend time in meditation and regularly pays respect to the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha". Recorded also in the literatures of Chi Takwann, a Chinese author during Angkor Funan era, ordinary people and not just soldiers wear tattoos. Besides their magical powers, Yantra were ornamental arts of the Khmer people at that time. People use little clothing and coupled with their preventive power, many people had tattoos on them.
Youngsters today prefer the washable kind of stick-ons just for show. With so many variations coming into the market, who knows, one day people may be able to wear a different form of protection for each day of the week.
A protective Yantra being tattooed onto a devotee's back.
Picture by Olivier de Bernon, as published in the book entitled Yantra et Mantra.
A Protective Yantra of War tattooed
onto the back of a devotee.
A monk working on a devotee as
friends and relatives look on.