A Custom Mongkol Made from My Mother’s Skirt – Tradition and Woven History
Buying a Mongkol for myself the first time, almost two years ago, was a very important moment for me. Traditionally, Mongkol are traditionally given to fighters by their masters or are handed down as part of a gym’s lineage. From my experience, most fighters don’t have their own, personal Mongkol but rather all the fighters from a camp are adorned by the community Mongkol. Those that have been passed down or have spent a long time with a camp can be very cool, with a lot of different pieces of cloth attached to them (tied on, usually) as the Mongkol has been blessed over the years. For the years I was at Lanna Muay Thai Camp in Chiang Mai, I used the gym’s Mongkol, until the final few months. It wasn’t one of these very old, handed-down types – in fact, the Mongkols brought to fights were lost a couple times in the years I was there, simply forgotten at the venue too far away to try to recover it – but those items nonetheless felt important and bound me to the traditions and powers of the gym. So, when I bought my own Mongkol in Spring of 2014 it felt like I was taking a measure of independence and power at a time when I was feeling less connected to and cared for by that gym. It was, in fact, shortly before I left and moved down to Pattaya, ultimately settling at the gym, Petchrungruang, from whom I’d purchased that Mongkol out of the equipment shop (the black one seen below).
About the Mongkol and Meaning
The Mongkol (mong-con) headpiece is an extremely important piece in Muay Thai tradition. Usually made of ropes or braided cloth, the Mongkol loops around the crown of the fighter’s head and protects him/her from danger and brings good luck inside the ring. It’s considered an artifact from when Muay Thai was practiced by warriors in battle, along with the Prajaet (armbands), and it’s rare to see a fighter ever enter the ring without one. (Exceptions are Muslim fighters, who instead wear keffiyehs, and some non-stadium fights in the outskirts of the country where young and poor fighters might not own one.) As it happened, when I moved to Pattaya the opportunities for fights were far fewer than what I’d known in Chiang Mai. I could not simply fight “out of my gym” as I had for Lanna. As a result I had to branch out and find fights through outside parties and ultimately travel away from my gyms in order to be a “freelance fighter,” so to speak.
In that case, having my own Mongkol was incredibly important – it signaled my independence, that I would have to be fighting on my own often. It would have felt odd to be borrowing a Mongkol at each of these different locations. As I mentioned, they are often prized and personal keepsakes of gyms and something that bind the fighters to the camp community – it might be very out of place to ask to wear someone else’s Mongkol in this situation, especially as a woman, since there is still a broad spectrum on what women are and aren’t allowed to come in contact with in Muay traditions. I have seen Mongkols be borrowed, but only once or twice and it was by fighters who did not “belong to” but were absolutely familiar with the gym from whom they borrowed it. In fact, at one festival fight quite far from home I happened to be on the card with a couple of my teammates from my home gym. They’d forgotten to bring a Mongkol and the father of one of the fighters asked to use mine. It meant a lot to me to share it in this context and because of the complications of my gender in that situation, it felt very embracing to have this sacred item used by the boys at the gym as an expression of community. It had many memories, including this beautiful moment when Phetjee Jaa, as a young girl, gave me my fight blessing and removed it:
PhetJee Jaa removing my mongkol and giving me my fight blessing
And I lost that Mongkol. I had it for over a year and then in the chaos of a fight that ended with stitches and disappointment, the headpiece never was retrieved off of the ring and it was gone. I was very upset to lose it and made efforts to have it returned, but it was impossible. My next Mongkol felt a bit like a “stand-in,” rather than a replacement, although I did take measures to have it blessed and fought with it many times. But all this leads to my custom-made Mongkol. At the time that I lost my first one, it was very unclear how much longer I might be staying in Thailand due to financial contraints. It felt volatile and the possibility of having to pack up and return to the US, ultimately ending my life as a fighter, was very imminent. That might have added a lot to why this second Mongkol felt like a “stand in,” rather than something that would carry me through the next years of fighting. At the same time of me facing the financial reality of letting go of my life and work here in Thailand, my website – everything – it just so happened that my parents started pressuring me to quit fighting and come home. It was horrible.
Mongkol, Magic and History
There are legends about how Mongkol were traditionally made, including a method using a live snake.
“… when the selected snake opened its mouth, its tail was rammed down its own throat, forming it into a cirlce, in which state it was placed in the sun to die and dry for seven days and nights. The mongkon was then woven around this shape.” (p. 70, Muay Thai: A Living Legacy)
This example can neither be proved, nor disproved, as there’s no firm evidence in either direction. But it illustrates the importance of magic in the production of such a powerful item. A proven tradition is using something personal and venerable into the Mongkol, such as “a strand of [the fighter’s] father’s hair or even a thread from [one’s] mother’s paa-tung (sarong) used at the time of [one’s] birth.” (p. 69) My trainer at Lanna, Den, had told me a story about fighting Lakai (“the alien”). Lakai is a well-known fighter, used to fight on Channel 7, albeit he was a bit of a novelty in that he’s a dwarf. Den had noted that Lakai doesn’t let anyone touch him in the corner between rounds – no water on his body, no ice, just sips of water out of a cup. Den explained this meant Lakai is using magic. So, when Den was meant to fight against him for a big side-bet, Den decided to counter Lakai’s magic by tucking a piece of cloth from his own mother’s paa-tung into his anklet. “For me, no problem, because my mom,” Den explained, but a piece of birthing cloth – because it is a profane item associated with a woman’s reproductive organs (which is the kind of magic-negating power that keeps women out of some rings, why we enter under the bottom rope, away from sacred areas of temples, etc.) – had the power to negate whatever magic Lakai was using. As Den told the story, he kicked over Lakai’s head early in the fight – a move that caused the whole audience to laugh because they thought Den had simply missed and Lakai being short this was a joke – and by passing this piece of cloth over Lakai’s head, all his magic was nulled and Den ultimately won the fight. When he tells the story it isn’t, “I beat Lakai,” it’s about how he defeated Lakai’s magic by being more clever with his own methods.
As westerners, we don’t really have birthing cloths. However, seemingly out of nowhere I recalled this skirt my mother wore often when I was a kid. I called it her “flame skirt” because in my mind’s eye it always looked like a ring of fire. I loved this skirt and as a little girl I couldn’t wait to “inherit” it when I got bigger. Of course, by the time I was the age where I could have worn it, the impulse to wear my mother’s old clothes was gone. But I never forgot the skirt. It dawned on me to make a Mongkol out of it, to connect the power of my mother to the power of what I’m doing now. It felt like a bridge that stretched across the gaps in our understanding of each other’s paths. I consider my mother to be powerful, she’s enduring and expansive; there are complications that go into any relationship and certainly between daughters and mothers, but those are in the details of being full human beings – a “mother figure,” the gestalt impression of one’s mother, is as close to knowing a prophet or a deity as you get. So, in my mind, the memory of the skirt is like the shroud of this cosmic figure – Superman’s cape, Kali’s skull necklace, Reusi’s tiger skin. To turn this emblem into a protective, sacred headpiece is divine. Taking the profane – a cloth worn about the waist of a woman – and making it sacred, worn about my head, feels legendary.
I tried to figure out how to make a Mongkol myself. Pi Nu even lent me one that his son’s mother had made – it was unfinished, so I could see how the knots were made in the process, like an exposed engine. But this example was made from cords and my mother’s skirt is one large piece of cloth – it’s a wrap skirt. I’d have to cut it into strips or something. I felt overwhelmed by the process. When we were in Chiang Mai for a fight we stopped into Pi Boy’s Thaikla shop at the Night Bazaar, where I have my custom shorts made. Since the last time we’d visited the shop had started making Mongkols! They’re made from cord and wound – they’re beautiful and tidy – and I love the design. (I’ll write more about what he offers in a separate post.) I very excitedly asked if it was possible to make one out of my mother’s skirt and they understood the importance of the cloth but weren’t sure about the method. Because they are amazing they agreed to try. I think the issue was that it might not look as tidy as the cord, but I didn’t care if it was messy as all get out; it could be hideous, I didn’t care.
When I finally picked it up, I cried. It’s so beautiful. You can see the update that I made maybe 10 minutes after, above. I was still emotional. They’d shredded the skirt into strips and then twisted them into cords to wrap around the tubing at the center (which gives the structure and shape). The “flame” of the skirt comes off like tiger stripes on the Mongkol. My mom told me she’s born in the year of the Tiger, so that’s very cool, and I have serious Tiger energy going on in me, due to my sak yant. On top of everything Pi Boi and his wife wouldn’t let me pay for the Mongkol, calling it a New Year’s gift. It was a lot of work, I’m sure and not an easy thing to figure out how to make it. I was so overwhelmed by the gift, by how beautifully it came out, by how powerful and sacred it felt to hold it in my hands, with the little threads fraying out and escaping the wrap… I cried. I cried right there in front of Pi Boi’s wife as I thanked her. It’s a bit of a social gaffe to have emotional outbursts like that in public in Thailand, but hey… at least she knows how meaningful it is to me.
So this Mongkol is now my Mongkol. It’s my inheritance, my lineage and my legacy. It’s my Mongkol for the next 100 fights, carrying me to my Everest Goal of 200 fights and beyond. That I unexpected received additional Sak Yant the next day makes this mongkol as a transition even more significant.
The Blessing By Arjan Pi
Mongkols are taken to be blessed by monks at temples on a fairly regular basis. I’ve had my various Mongkols blessed at the Wat Chaimongkol here in Pattaya and the monks are always very happy to do it, mostly being pleased to have a nakmuay come by. My Sak Yant are all done by Arjan Pi Bangkating, who is not ordained (which is one reason he can tattoo women) but applies powerful incantations to his tattoos, to people, to objects, etc. I consider him to be my teacher and so it is meaningful to me to have my Mongkol charged by him, just as my Sak Yant (which are also protective, lucky and powerful) are charged by him. He has inscribed a small sheet of metal (tin?) with Yant and letters, which he then rolls tightly into a scroll and tucks into the tail of my Mongkol (you can see it in the video clip above). He’s done this twice now, as I lost the first Mongkol. He has said these inscriptions are linked to my Sak Yant. The way he charges the headpiece is very similar to the way a monk blesses it, holding it in his hands and chanting, then blowing on it. With Arjan Pi, he holds the Mongkol on my head while he does this, whereas monks and women cannot make physical contact so the blessing is applied to the item and then returned to me via a folded cloth which acts as a vehicle to pass things between women and monks. It’s quite a different experience – the experience with Arjan Pi is more like what happens in the corner of the ring before fights when the Mongkol is removed by your corner. Your corner will say a prayer or blessing, blow on your head and remove the Mongkol. Receiving the scroll is a step beyond, as it is an additional magic piece affixed to the already sacred object – like the amulet that is placed at the front of some Mongkol, or the amulets which are secreted away inside the Mongkol itself during construction. By having Arjan Pi bless my Mongkol, I feel like it ties together the various performances and applications of protection that go into Muay Thai: sealing the ring, my Sak Yant, my mental and physical preparations, the kata I recite. All of it comes together. At the beginning of each Ram Muay you bow and wai three times. Master K explained to me that for each bow you are wai-ing to your teacher, to the King, and to your parents/ancestors. I’ve always done this and I’ve always had gratitude for the number of mentors, supporters, teachers and powers that come into the ring with me. It feels to me that that list is always growing, and as it does so I am always looping back into my roots. Knowing your lineage is so important; bringing my mother’s powers into the ring with me, knotted and twisted into this sacred object of protection, feels like a power that stretches in all directions – all the way from my roots to the fruit that has yet to even spring.
I’ll be writing up a follow up blog post on Pi Boy’s handmade Mongkols, and also some other sources for handmade mongkols in Thailand.