The Sacred Tattoo of the Khmer People
A FILM IN THE MAKING BY MAGGIE PADLEWSKA
An ancient practice and set of rituals once used to protect monks and warriors from harm during the pre-Angkorian period has managed to survive in Cambodia until the present day.
Unlike the various versions of the sacred Sak Yant tattoo that exist and thrive in Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Laos, the distinct and unique Khmer spiritual practice was nearly lost in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge genocide in the late 1970s.
"Many Masters were murdered and much of their ancient texts and drawings were destroyed" says Sambath Sakk, a young Sak Yant student and practitioner with the Federation Khmer Sakyant located within a stone's throw of the main entrance to the revered Angor Wat archeological complex in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Typically consisting of a combination of Buddhist and Hindu sacred images, Pali script, Buddhist Sutras, sacred geometry, and other unique symbols and designs, the Sak Yant is a sacred tattoo that aims to connect its bearer with the spiritual world while providing him/her with the protection or benefits they seek. From safety, to peace, calmness, fortune or love each Sak Yant is created and designed specifically for each individual, which is then drawn by the practitioner and "pocked" (tattooed) into the skin using a stick with a needle dipped into black ink that is carefully secured onto its tip with a string.
FAR MORE THAN A TATTOO...
"People from our generation are like "Ok, I'll get a tattoo" but what happens with this one is so much more special..." says Manila Bachan, a young traveller from India who along with her husband Sankash Sood decided to get tattooed and partake in the Sak Yant ceremony during their visit to the ancient land of the Khmer Empire that thrived here between the 9th-15th centuries.
"Without the blessing, the tattoo is incomplete" explains Sambath.
After lengthy discussions, the design and application of the Sak Yant, its bearers undergo a spiritual ceremony that culminates with the offering of blessings from Master Say Tevent who has devoted much of his life to seeking out, recovering, collecting and gathering whatever he could find to preserve and protect the ancient practice.
"Without the blessing the Sak Yant is like an empty house...any spirit, good or evil, could enter" says Sambath.
Unlike the more popular Sak Yant "bamboo stick" tradition of tattooing being practiced in Thailand which gained widespread visibility due to western film stars like Angelina Jolie, and its vibrant annual ceremonies where devotees become possessed by animal spirits and enter trances to re-energize their protective tattoos, the Khmer practice is lesser known.
"We should collaborate, to learn more, and to do it the proper way" explains Sambath when asked about this distinct ancient and spiritual Khmer practice today. "The challenge is to preserve it for thousands of years to come" he adds.
SHORT VIDEO: BRIEF INTRODUCTION/PREVIEW (DRAFT-Compressed)
THIS STORY IS CURRENTLY BEING PRODUCED
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I've devoted much my life as a documentarian and messenger to trying to help raise awareness about threatened traditional human practices, cultural beliefs and traditions. I knew that the ancient practice of the Sak Yant was alive in Cambodia (where I've been based for a few years now), but it isn't until a few weeks ago that I felt its significance and power.
Over the past two+ years I, like many people around the globe perhaps, felt immobilized, uninspired and lost...but it is during the most recent Khmer New Year celebration that took place in Cambodia, that I noticed foreigners coming in and out of a temporarily erected road-side tent where they received traditional "bamboo stick" tattoos. Unaware of what was happening, my first thought was that I walked past an ancient practice being bastardized. Concerned and confused - I reached out to its authentic practitioners.
In a form of meditative calmness Sambath explained to me that their presence at the city-wide New Year celebration was intended to raise awareness about the ancient and threatened rituals of the Sak Yant as practiced by the Khmer People...and it is at that precise moment that I reconnected with my purpose, and committed to documenting and sharing this story.
As much of the urban world appears to be distancing itself from our spiritual and natural human existence, engaging in time and life-consuming activities centred around and focused on modern-day gadgets and technologies, I found a solitude and reconnected with my deeper sense of meaning and passion upon meeting Sambath, his fellow practitioners and their Master Sey Tevent.
- Malgorzata "Maggie" Padlewska