What Is an Unalome?
While you may not recognize this symbol by name, most people know an unalome when they see one. The unalome is a sacred symbol in both Buddhism and Hinduism. This often simple (though sometimes intricate) swirling line is a common tattoo. The design is sometimes accompanied by a lotus flower, positioned above, below, or even directly at the center of the unalome design.
The Difference Between a Buddhist and a Hindu Unalome
In Buddhism, the unalome is a representation of an individual’s spiritual journey and path toward enlightenment. Because every journey is unique, the design of the unalome is usually specially drawn for each client. Some people even prefer to draw the symbol themselves, making the design extra special to them.
Unalomes start as a tightly wound spiral before loosening up and swirling into a straight line. In Buddhism, these curves are a reminder that the road to enlightenment can be a winding one and that progress is rarely linear. While the unalome can be positioned in multiple ways, it is generally accepted that the straight line should point upwards. This signifies an ascent into enlightenment. In Buddhist Thailand, the bottom of the swirl represents the crown of the head of an arahant (or arhat), an enlightened saint.
In Hinduism, the unalome represents Shiva, as well as the concepts of wisdom and protection. Shiva is one of the main deities in Hinduism, and the swirl represents his third eye, keeping watch as protector of the Universe.
Because of these religious and cultural ties, it is important that you regard the unalome tattoo and symbol with understanding and respect. If you find yourself interested in getting an unalome tattoo yourself, don’t treat that decision lightly. Be sure that you have a meaningful bond with the symbol, and make an effort to consult with an expert from the culture and practice before you proceed.
The History of the Unalome Tattoo
The first unalome tattoos are thought to have originated as part of a sacred body art called Sak Yant, which has been performed in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries for centuries. “Sak” means tattoo, while “Yant” refers to a geometric diagram.
Sak Yant tattoos are traditionally done by an Ajarn, a master who has studied Sak Yant styles and possesses deep knowledge of the relevant beliefs and spiritual elements. Ajarns usually hand-poke the tattoo with bamboo, in the classic Thai style. In some Sak Yant designs, multiple unalomes may be included.
While there are still practicing Ajarns and monks who design and tattoo in the traditional hand-poked style, it is much more common to be tattooed by an artist with an electric tattoo machine. This is due in part to the widespread availability of modern tattoo shops as opposed to more traditional bamboo offerings.
Meaning of an Unalome Tattoo’s Placement
As the unalome is often thinly lined, most people opt to place their unalome tattoo in a delicate area. Additionally, because of the long vertical line in the symbol, it’s best placed somewhere that leaves room for the design to flow freely.
Popular locations are the wrist, the nape of the neck, and the back. While placement on the ankles and feet is fairly common in the west, this should not be done unless you’ve consulted with a Sak Yant expert, as the feet are generally considered unclean in Buddhism, and placing an unalome (or any other symbol associated with Sak Yant) there is usually viewed as disrespectful.
Where a person places their unalome tattoo can represent their feelings or thoughts about this journey. For instance, placing it on your wrist can be a constant reminder to seek enlightenment in your daily life. A placement on the back, perhaps near the Solar Plexus Chakra, may indicate that this path and pursuit of spiritual elevation are a key part of someone’s identity.
What Does it Mean to See an Unalome Tattoo on Someone?
People get unalome tattoos for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they are just starting out on their spiritual journey and wanted a tattoo to quite literally mark the occasion. Others choose to get the symbol after they have overcome obstacles or hardships. The unalome can inspire them to keep going, reminding them that they shouldn’t give up, even when there are bumps in the road.
Many people who choose to get an unalome tattoo are yogis or spiritual leaders, though others may have a personal relationship with the symbol or feel that it represents their belief system. If you feel comfortable, it may be worth asking someone about their unalome tattoo. Their answer could be enlightening!
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