Everyone's got tattoos these days. Tribal tats, butterfly tats, ambiguous Chinese symbol tats. I've got a tat, I'm not gonna lie. It's a lotus flower that I got on my wrist in Nepal when I was twenty. When I was busy walking around Kathmandu, draped in scarves, finding myself. Immediately after I got it, I panicked a little. Was it a flower? Or a soccer ball?
Nobody knows for sure, but around World Cup time, it seems to come in handy when I'm packed into a bar with overzealous soccer fans. I'm really into this! It says, as I down another beer, and feign interest in whatever is happening on the big screen.
The real question, though, is not whether it is a flower teeming with hope and possibility or a soccer ball, teeming with...Pele-ness. The question people never ask is if it's a magic tattoo.
Spoiler alert: It's not. But here in Thailand, people take tattoos and their spiritual significance quite seriously. Every year in March, the Sak Yant Magic Tattoo Festival is held at Wat Bang Phra, 30 miles west of Bangkok. It is a time for those who have received spiritual tattoos from the monks of the temple to come back and get them "recharged" for a new year. People receive many different types of tattoos from the monks: animals, mythical creatures or Thai and Sanskrit script. The monks are said to channel the energy of Luang Poh Pern, a monk who studied magic and sorcery at the temple.
The reason that the festival is so well-known is because those who have received the tattoos are known to slip into a trance, often channelling the animals of their tattoos. I went to the festival, prepared to see men (and a few women) growling like tigers and howling like monkeys. This was quite intriguing to me, and I imagined a large crowd, and then a sort of...corral (?) in the front where these people/animals would frolic.
You guys, I didn't know.
It was only 7am when we arrived, but it was already hot. Naturally, a smart way to deal with this issue is to sell aluminum foil mats to sit upon in the blazing sun. Sheer marketing brilliance.
We obviously bought one.
As soon as we found a spot, we began to hear the screams. A shriek would rise up somewhere in the crowd, a moan, a wail and the sea of people would begin to part. It dawned on me that those who fell into trance were not going to be rounded up like livestock, but would rather allow the spirit to move through them. And through the crowd.
When in trance, people would scream and run through the crowd towards the shrine at the front. Sometimes they did howl like monkeys, or gallop like tigers. Other times they walked slowly, their brows furrowed in concentration. But when they decided to move, they moved. And if you were in their way, the only thing you could do was move yourself.
Many people crashed, fell and writhed upon the ground. Those that caught them would instantly begin to appease them the way you would an animal - tugging on their ears, cooing at them, stroking them gently.
It was extremely powerful.
I felt this sense of calm come over me. Yes, there were times I was frightened, as exhilaration and adrenaline coursed through my veins. But what I was witnessing felt real. These people were moved. They were connected to something greater than themselves.
And perhaps we can all find the magic if we look deep enough. Whatever we claim to call that magic, it exists somewhere in all of us. We just have to be open to it.
Even if sometimes all we see is the soccer ball.