This commonly seen yon, copied from the Braid of Documentation on Khmer Tradition and Culture, is called the Divine Circle. The inscription is supposed to protect the owner from any kind of weapon in ten directions.
isplayed prominently in most homes and shops, and emblazoned on the flesh of fighting
men for centuries, traditional protection spells, called yon, are a quintessential
component of Cambodian culture.
Inscrutable, beautiful and sometimes simple, yon are astounding for their depth of
history and breadth of eccentricity. According to experts, the supernatural diagrams
can be either playful or potent, and are believed to provide everything from bulletproof
protection to lures for love.
"Yon are very complicated drawings. The more complicated, the more powerful.
They are different combinations of pictures, words, letters and numbers. Each combination
has a different meaning," said Miech Ponn, 74, an adviser for the Council of
Khmer Culture at the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh.
"Within the yon you can see alphabets and characters. We now believe that the
only person who knows clearly what they mean is the person who wrote it. No document
can say how old they are, but my estimate is before history."
Experts agree that the script written on the yon is a modernized medley of Sanskrit,
Pali - both brought to Cambodia from South Asia - and Khmer. In his book Yantra et
Mantra, author Olivier de Bernon wrote "The richness of [their] inspiration
is entirely subject to the rules of composition. Symbolic, geometrical figures serve
as frames for the mantras, the Vedic chants for protection. [Their] origin can be
traced to Buddhist or Brahmanist formulas, or it could have been inspired by the
religion of errant hermits."
According to Ponn, the single characters of the untranslatable "special alphabet"
can signify whole sentences or even entire prayers. The renderings of real and mythical
animals, such as tigers, dragons and fish, are meant to bring powers and special
"Yon are inscriptions on paper or cloth that possess magical powers to protect
the owner from all kinds of weapons, like guns, knives or swords. Yon are also used
to protect the owner from evil spells, ghosts and sickness," said the owner
of the KS 181 Auto Parts store in Phnom Penh who has several yon hanging in her garage
near Psar Depo, but declined to be named. "You can also use the yon to promote
harmony and good business. I asked a well-known monk to make a yon that will protect
me from weapons and attract customers to my garage."
The varied applications for yon may be explained by their multi-faceted composition.
Even one uninitiated in the ancient art will notice a syncretic mixture of mystical
scripture, numerology, indecipherable symbols and heraldic beasts.
"There are many different drawings and ways of using yon. Common people, businessmen
and government officials come every day to request yon from me. Some want it to keep
in their pocket and some for their house," said Khem Sambath, chief monk of
Nhean Ransei pagoda and famous yon artist or kru. "I do not ask for money, but
some believers bring money, incense, tea or sugar depending on their kindness. Sometimes
they ask me to bless their personal items such as telephones and passports."
Tong Chong, 27, was interviewed by the Post while at Nhean Ransei pagoda to commission
a yon. He said he plans to hang the yon in the rafters of his home - a common custom.
"I heard that this monk is well-known for drawing yon for people and they are
very effective," Chong said. "I came to request yon from the monk to make
my business good and to have prosperity. I believe in yon, but this is my first one."
Believed to protect the wearer and intimidate enemies, yon have been inscribed as
tattoos since the Angkor era when the practice was recorded by a Chinese visitor.
The popularity of yon as body art - or armor - mushroomed during the civil wars of
the 1970s. It became common practice for soldiers in Battambang and other provinces
in Cambodia's northwest. Today, yon tattoos are frequently seen on the arms and legs
of prominent kickboxers.
Ponn, who himself was tattoed with a yon during the Lon Nol era, isn't ready to assert
that it spared his life - but concedes he took the precaution anyway.
"I am not sure if it worked, but I was in the front lines and thousands were
killed and my life was saved," he said. "One time I was fighting in an
intense battle, the bullets were like rain. I kept a yon in my pocket and one in
my mouth. Bombs burst all around me. I was covered in dirt and grass. I didn't think
I would survive but I did."
According to experts, the belief in the supernatural has waned with the younger generation
but is still deeply entrenched as cultural tradition.
"I am not sure how much faith Khmer people have in the future, so they try to
protect themselves," said Ponn. "Go check in every house, they all have
yon. Top people like Prime Minister Hun Sen have yon for protection. Even me, I have