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Yantra: From Sacred Geometry to Sacred Tattoos


What is a Yantra?

Yantra (ยันต์) is a holy set of symbols originated from BrahmanismHinduism and typically made up of a series of circles, triangles, and other geometric shapes. Yantras are believed to hold great magical power and the cosmic forces that connect yantra holders with the universe and deities. As the key to unlocking the celestial power, yantras are incorporated in many ancient rituals and practices and their sacred symbols can be drawn on any surfaces or objects.


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Brief History of Yantra

As Yantra finally made its way from India to Southeast Asia, it encountered the Buddhist influence. In Thailand, yantras have been an integral part of Buddhist spiritual practice for many centuries. The sacred geometric shapes were complemented with, if not totally replaced by, Buddhist mantras, spells, and symbols. In short, yantras underwent a Buddhist reinterpretation in Thailand.


Elements of Yantra

  • Shapes

There are four main forms of yantra, each with its own symbolism and meaning:

  • The circular yantra represents the face of the Buddha or the face of Lord Brahma. It is believed to represent the unity and integrity of the universe.


Photo credit: kroobannok


  • The triangular yantra represents the Triple Gem of Buddhism {(the Buddha, the Dhamma (Buddha’s teaching), the Sangha (Buddhist community)} or the three greatest gods of Hinduism (Lord Shiva, Lord Brahma, and Lord Vishnu). It is a symbol of balance and harmony.


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  • The square yantra represents the four continents or the four elements (earth, water, wind, fire). It is a symbol of stability and structure.


Photo credit: kroobannok


  • The picture yantra is generally composed of drawings of angels, humans, and animals. The meaning of the picture yantra lies in the very picture and the symbolism it represents.


Lion Yantra
Photo credit: kroobannok


  • Skeleton (กระดูกยันต์)



The skeleton here is not to be taken literally, but rather the lines that form the design of a yantra. They are often referred to as the “skeleton” of the yantra. While the skeleton is composed of lines crisscrossing inside the yantra, the lines drawn outside and detached from the main structure are called the “umbilical cord of the Buddha.”


  • Mantra characters


Different mantras written in Khom scripts

Different mantras written in Lanna scripts

Photo credit: พระจตุรเวทวิทยาคม, อักษรธรรมล้านนา


The mantra characters of a yantra are mainly Brahman or Buddhist spells or chants, often written in an abbreviated form. In Thailand, most of the yantras that we see are written in the Khom script. In the north of the country, it is popular to use the Lanna script, which is adapted from the ancient Mon script. Oftentimes, we can also find yantras’s mantras written in the Lao, Burmese, Mon, or Thai scripts depending on the region and lineages.


The Khom script, or Khom Thai script, is a system of writing which employs ancient Khmer script and some additional new characters to write texts in the Thai, Pali, and Sanskrit languages. It is important to clarify that this is not cultural imitation, but a product of the shared culture in this region. The ancient Khmers played a key role in spreading Brahmanism in the region. Thus, ancient texts and practices related to Brahmanism-Hinduism were recorded using Khmer inspired scripts, even if the recorders or practitioners were not Khmers. It is then logical that yantras, which came from Brahman-Hindu practices, are accompanied by the Khmer script. In addition, many ancient societies in Mainland Southeast Asia adopted the Khmer script as their “central” written language, similar to how East Asian societies such as Korea and Japan adopted the Chinese script or the West adopted Latin alphabets. At the time when the Thai script had not yet been invented, the Thai society modified the ancient Khmer script to serve the purpose of communication. Even after the invention of the Thai alphabets, the Khom script is still regarded as sacred and employed in occult practices due to its association with Brahmanism.



  • Buddha image

The outline of a Buddha image represents the Buddha. It consists of one circle and two ovals for the head, the body, and the feet.


  • Urna

The Urna appears in the Buddhist art and culture as a spiral resembling a conch shell, positioned on the forehead of Buddha images. In a yantra, the Urna refers to the enlightenment of an arahant, one who has attained nirvana.



  • Moon and Sun

The crescent moon illuminates the night while the sun bathes the earth with light in the daytime. All beings born into this world are under the influence of the moon and the sun.



  • Consecration of yantras and meanings of mantras

The characters appearing in yantras in Thailand represent Pali words in a shortened version of Buddhist prayers. Most of them convey a similar meaning: the respect to the Buddha and the request for his protection. Some of the most popular yantras in Thailand include


  1. Maha Uttama Yantra (ยันต์มหาอุตม์) represents invincibility and popularity.



  1. Nine-spire Yantra (ยันต์เก้ายอด) symbolizes the nine virtues of the Buddha, believed to provide the yantra holders with protection from all weapons.



  1. Five-row Yantra (ยันต์ห้าแถว) refers to five blessings: popularity, luck, success, zodiac energy, and charm. This yantra is believed to be omnipotent and can alter the path of destiny. It is a popular motif for yantra tattooing.



  1. Diamond Shield Yantra (ยันต์เกราะเพชร) is believed to be the strongest yantra to guard against danger.



  1. Vessavana Yantra (ยันต์ท้าวเวสสุวรรณ) depicts the Buddhist deity Vessavana, King of the Northern direction, guardian of earthly wealth, and Lord of ogres and phantoms. It is belived to ward off evil spirits and welcomes wealth and strength.



In addition, while writing a yantra, one must recite a spell (คาถา) to consecrate it. There is a specific spell for every element of the yantra. For example, while drawing a symbol of four elements, recite “na ma pha tha” (นะ มะ พะ ธะ) which means “water, earth, fire, wind” respectively. In general, one should recite the spell that corresponds to the purpose of the yantra. To exemplify, the yantra of invincibility calls for the invincibility spell, or the yantra of popularity calls for the popularity spell. However, there is one versatile spell, called the worship of “Tri Saranakom” or the worship of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, which applies to all yantras.


Purposes of yantra

Yantras are used for a variety of purposes. In Thailand, we can identify six groups of yantras based on the values people believe these mystic shapes will bring them, including 1) protection/ invincibility 2) popularity/love/charm 3) fortune/wealth 4) general auspiciousness 5) prestige and 6) others.


  • An amulet

Pha Yant (ผ้ายันต์) is a yantra written on a piece of cloth to be carried with oneself or worshipped at home or other places. As an auspicious item for muay Thai fighters, Pha Yant is seen wrapped in a roll of fabric and tied around the head, called Mongkhon (มงคล), and if tied around the arm, it is called Prachiad (ประเจียด). Engraved on a metal sheet and rolled up, this type of yantra is called Takrud (ตะกรุด). Yantras are even written on the shirts worn by soldiers going to war, and on many other objects regardless of size: cars, doors, rings, banknotes, weapons, and other amulets, you name it.


  • A guardian

Yantras can be drawn on all kinds of buildings – houses, offices, schools, business establishments, religious places – to bring forth prosperity and security. In ancient times, Pha yants were put in containers of important items or commodities like rice. Today, with the aid of technology, anyone can carry whatever yantra they wish to keep. How? Simply by downloading it on their smartphones and set it as a wallpaper.


Sak Yant (สักยันต์): Yantra Tattooing

Some people tattoo yantras onto their skin to invite the sacred powers of the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha to enshrine within themselves, and as a form of personal expression. This is called Sak Yant, which involves the use of colored ink (or oil for those wishing to have invisible tattoos) to make markings on themselves. In ancient times, tattooing was often used as a way to build morale, confidence, and spiritual protection and invoke miracles.


  • History

In addition to Hinduism and Buddhism, Yantra is instrumental in expressing the animist beliefs prevalent in Southeast Asia. Animism is the belief that non-human beings, such as animals and plants, possess spirits and powers. This is why we see animal drawings on yantra in addition to sacred scripts. By tattooing certain animals to their skin, individuals can invoke the powers of said animals. For example, a tiger can invoke power and authority, while birds can invoke charm and grace. When the belief in yantra was adopted by the people, in addition to tattooing animistic totems, people began tattooing Buddhist and Brahman-Hindu spells to invoke powers of the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, and deities as well.


Each yantra tattoo master has a unique style of tattooing, with nuances in details. For example, a tattoo of Hanuman, the mighty monkey character in the Ramayana epic, can be portrayed in different apparels and decorations, but the key features of the character remain unchanged.


In the old days, Thai men had themselves tattooed with invincibility yantras as they had to venture into the forest and fight in wars. These sacred tattoos were, therefore, their spiritual anchors, assuring them of safety. Nowadays, yantra tattoo is popular with men and women, many of whom prefer yantras of popularity and fortune to bless their businesses and livelihoods.


  • Values

Yantra tattoos can be seen as a strategy for people to behave well. To wear a yantra is to invite the sacredness of the Triple Gems (the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha) into one’s body. Thus, people with yantra tattoos must conduct themselves appropriately and worthy of that holiness.


To this end, it is not uncommon for tattoo masters to lay down a set of rules and prohibitions for themselves and tattoo wearers to prevent them from, for example, committing adultery, abusing their parents, and consuming certain kinds of food.


Flouting these prohibitions results in the yantra losing its magic and become nothing more than an ink mark on the body. On the other hand, a tattoo wearer who maintains a pure mind and body and respects teachers will be blessed with success in life.


  • Wai Khru Ceremony

Those who wish to have yantra tattoos must attend a Wai Khru ceremony before and after receiving the tattoos. The purpose of the ceremony is to pay respect, express gratitude to the tattoo masters, and apologize for any wrongdoings or offenses that may have been committed. It is also an opportunity for tattoo wearers to reaffirm their commitment to following the teachings and practices in Buddhism. The most famous Wai Khru ceremony is annually observed by disciples of the famous monk Laung Phor Pern of Wat Bang Phra. The disciples must vow to observe the five Buddhist precepts in their daily lives. The highlight of the ceremony is the eccentric movements and gestures of yantra tattoo wearers who are believed to be manifesting supernatural power of their tattoos.



Yantras and yantra tattooing reveal yet another aspect of Thai society’s openness and creativity of the Thai in adapting foreign cultures to their way of life. While yantra is a Hindu belief originally adorned with geometric patterns, the unique culture of Thailand offered yantra new elements, such as tattooing, Pali chants, spells, images of  the Buddha, and images of animals from animism, which added to the richness and sacredness of the pattern.


From a Buddhist standpoint, yantra tattooing conveys faith and respect for the Triple Gems in Buddhism, and encourages people to do good deeds and avoid evil, along with respecting their parents and teachers. In other words, the tattoo reminds the tattoo wearer to live as a good and respectful person.


And not to be forgotten is the bond and respect between tattoo masters and their disciples. Masters who draw yantras or give yantra tattoos view their practice as a compassionate action, guiding their disciples on the path to prosperity, safety,  and success.


The story of “yantra” and “yantra tattoo” is a sacred part of Thai culture and heritage. We saw how the essence of Thainess is represented through respect for divine powers, openness to adopt foreign culture and mix them with local beliefs, and compassion as reflected in the relationship between masters and disciples. Join us in exploring more stories of Thailand and the Thai people, as we take you on a journey to discover Thainess.





Author: Soonyata Mianlamai

2 March 2023