Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Intricate, beautiful, basic: Yon spell protection

Intricate, beautiful, basic: Yon spell protection

Intricate, beautiful, basic: Yon spell protection

intricate.jpg
intricate.jpg

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.

D

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

properties.

"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

one."

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