Preserving the Khmer Tattoos of Cambodia

Cambodia is a country which suffered a devastating genocide by it’s own leader which resulted in almost a quarter of it’s population losing their lives between 1975 and 1979. The aim of the genocide was to push Cambodia into a Communist state and during this process many of the practitioners of the sacred tattoos in this region were lost as well. Sacred tattooing has been practised in Cambodia as far back as the 11th century, before even Angkor Wat (the largest religious monument in the world) was built. There is a close resemblance in both the designs and the meanings of these tattoos to the Sak Yants of Thailand. This is no coincidence because of the proximity of these countries and the religious and spiritual practices between them. The difference though is that because of the genocide many of the original writings and teachings have been lost in Cambodia and very few links to the original people who had this knowledge remains.

This is where Federation Khmer in Siem Reap plays a crucial role in preserving the history of the traditional tattoos of Cambodia. They are a small group of individuals dedicated to not only documenting and teaching these arts, but also tirelessly tracking down any survivors of the genocide who could provide knowledge and artifacts towards their cause. Their cultural preservation also extends to the traditional martial art of Cambodia called Bokator, a combat and battlefield oriented fighting style rather than the ring sport of Muay Thai (which also evolved from the wartime combat art of Muay Boran).

Like the Thai Sak Yants, Cambodian tattoos are meant to imbue magical powers and blessings to the bearer. There is even a tattoo which can be placed on the instep of the foot to protect the bearer from the large amount of land mines still active in that country. In order to receive a tattoo an offering of flowers, fruit and money needs to be presented and once the tattoo is completed it is blessed by prayer and holy water, just like the Thai Sak Yant.

Posted on