Linga bell, linga bell, jingle all the way

[Note: this post contains material about bodily modification that some readers may find disturbing.]

Recently, the Art & Culture magazine published an article by Pittaya Bunnag related to the third part of the film trilogy, The Legend of King Naresuan, which portrays an intimate relationship among soldiers.[1] The article is interesting in several respects. Foremost, it introduces interesting historical material that has not been widely used in the study of Thai history especially during the Ayutthaya period. It is the record of Jacques de Coutre,[2] a Flemish merchant serving the Portuguese in Malacca who came to Ayutthaya for eight months during the reign of King Naresuan. With reference to this new evidence, the article also allows us to rethink sexuality and related practices in Siamese society including same-sex relationship and forms of sexual enhancement.

The main focus of this short article for New Mandala is the custom of penis inserts, particularly penis bells. The intention is not to introduce novel findings but to revisit and review the issue by putting Jacques de Coutre’s record into a broader historical and socio-economic context. It also aims to share this information with general readers who may not have been aware of it, as well as with non-Thai speakers who cannot access Thai language material.

Penis inserts: what, where, why?

An important study of this particular subject was undertaken by Donald E Brown, James W Edwards and Ruth P Moore in 1988 as a short essay and a survey of relevant literature.[3] It finds that insertion of objects in the penis is a common practice in Southeast Asia. These objects take the form of beads, bells and pins. They found that this practice is reported in most parts of Southeast Asia, from Burma, Siam, the Malay peninsula, Sumatra, Borneo, Sulawesi, Moluccas, and the Philippines. It is less common from the east of Bali to the Lesser Sundas and not reported in Indochina or Taiwan.[4] However, a study on reproductive health conduct in several Southeast Asia countries finds this practice not only in Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines, but also in Vietnam.[5]

Figure 1: Palang, penis pin inserted through the penis commonly found in Borneo[6]

Brown et al. (1988) found that five different forms of penis inserts are used across the region: (1) those inserted under the skin of the penis including solid balls, (2) solid non-spherical objects, (3) bells, (4) pins or bars with elaborations on the ends inserted crosswise through the penis, and (5) pins or bars through the penis holding a ring or rowel-shaped object around the penis[7]. However, in Thailand nowadays when men claim they insert objects under their penis skin or ฝังมุก fang muk (ฝัง  fang = to bury; มุก muk = pearl), they are mostly referring to a ball-shaped object or bead. Materials made into solid balls vary including glass, ivory, small stones, shell,  jewels and metal (such as tin, bronze, silver and gold). Bells are mostly made of metal with an object inside to create a noise. They come in different sizes up to the size of a small chicken egg. Pins or bars can also made from wood, animal bones, porcupine quills, horn, coral or feathers. They can be as long as five centimetres.[8]

Figure 2: Different penis inserts: (a), (b), (c), (e), (g) penis ring inserted across the penis in different parts; (f) solid penis insert underneath the penis skin (fang muk in Thai); (h) and (j) Palang found in Borneo, (i) Talede found in Sulawesi. Source: adapted from Rowanchilde (1995).[9]

Penis inserts are generally regarded as sexual enhancements as they are intended to increase sexual pleasure for women by creating more friction during intercourse. Brown et al. argues that this function signifies the status of women in Southeast Asian societies where women play somewhat equal roles and have the power to make men sacrifice for their sexual pleasure despite the torturous procedures involved. This differs from the use of penis sheaths found in Melanesian and indigenous Australian societies in which expressing male sexuality meant revealing weakness, resulting in the loss of control over women.[10]

Figure 3: Dani tribe men wearing penis sheaths in Papua [11]

There are also some references to spiritual and medicinal benefits similar to other types of body magic, including amulets, piercing, and tattooing.[12] Inserting an amulet or sanctified object under men’s skin around their shoulders or arms is believed to be a way to possess supernatural power that can protect an individual from harm. Similarly, inserting objects in the penis also stimulates ‘charms’ in men so that they will be attractive to women. In addition, the term used for penis inserts in certain parts of Southeast Asia may have some religious association. Sacra (penis rings) in the Philippines and cakras (penis pins) in Sumatra are examples of a religious link to Hindu and Buddhist Tantric belief in the centres of energy in the body (called cakra in Sanskrit). One of these centres is the genital area represented by a lotus symbol.[13] Brown et al. also suggest an older link, prior to Hindu influence, by looking at a Balinese deity, Tintiya, who is portrayed as having crescent-shaped protuberances on his penis.[14]

Figure 4: (Left) Cakras in different positions in the body; (Right) the symbol of Muladhara chakra at the ovaries/prostate [15]

Figure 5: Tintiya deity (or Ida Sanghyang Widi Wasa, Sang Hyang Tunggal, or Sang Hyang Acintya)[16]

Another reason for penis inserts found in the literature is related to the prevention of men from engaging in sodomy. This justification for penis inserts brings us back to the Legend of King Naresuan film and Jacques de Coutre’s record in their accounts of same-sex relationship. Same-sex relationship in Thai society seems to be common and somewhat socially accepted nowadays. While there are quite a number of historical records of same-sex intimacy during the Bangkok period, pre-Bangkok evidence is uncommon. In the article in Art and Culture, Pittaya suggests that the film-maker Momchao Chatri Chalerm Yukol (or Than Mui) may only intend to portray a platonic admiration among Thai soldiers in his film, and he may not have been aware of the existence of such same-sex relationships in Ayutthaya. However, from an interview on a TV entertainment report, Than Mui seems to be half-realising the existence of such relationships by saying, ‘In the ancient time, men loving men was normal. Men were for love, women were for reproduction.’[17] Despite his attempt to explain this as platonic love, one of his actors also told the same news reporter that Than Mui had asked him to think that this admiration can arise ‘even one smelling each other’s body odour or sweat’.[18] That sounds quite erotic!

Figure 6: The expression of admiration and love between men in The Legend of Naresuan[19]

Jacque de Coutre’s record adds evidence on this front as it may suggest that same-sex relationships prevailed not only in Ayutthaya but also in other kingdoms in Southeast Asia during the same period. In Chapter 13 of de Coutre’s account, he says:

A woman told me later that the inventor of it [penis bells] was a queen of Pegu. Indeed, in her time there were a lot of inhabitants of that kingdom having [same-sex] affection. They inherited us one of the greatest punishments [penis bells for men]. The women with their vasquinas (a kind of petticoat) kept open from the navel to below, so that their thighs were exposed when walking. They did that so the men would have more taste [interest] in women and sodomy would drop. The bubbles may be of gold, silver or brass… Countless small shops in cities and towns sell nothing but such bruncioles. Those who do not wear them have bad reputation as [gay] men.[20]

Figure 7: Mon ladies wearing high cut skirts[21]

The rise of penis bells: historical records

Jacques de Coutre seemed to witness how bells were inserted into the penis skin:

…all lords, the middle class and even the small people [commoners?], on the glans penis two bubbles are in the flesh penetrated. They call them bruncioles. They seem to be as big as nuts and sound very clear; men wear two, four, six or more. Accompanied by five Portuguese I visited a mandarin, who had just asked a surgeon to pull one of the bruncioles out, because it hurt him and his penis was so swollen. During our visit, the surgeon inside, as was customary in that country, did the surgery without being ashamed to let us see by our eyes. First he used the razor to open and take it out. He later sewed the head to close, [with] curing water, repeat surgery to put the bell back by stabbing [when the wound is healed]. [22]

In fact, the use of penis bell inserts is quite unique to mainland Southeast Asia. Although there are reports of using bells attached to the penis in Java and Bali, it is not a surgical implant.[23] Records of penis inserts in mainland Southeast Asia date back to the 14th century account of a Chinese man, Zhou Zhizhong (周致中), who travelled to foreign kingdoms and reported this custom in Siam: ‘all males cut their penis to insert eight gems, [so that] people will marry their daughters to them’. [24] However, penis bells are not reported. Not until 1433 were penis bells documented by another Chinese voyager, Ma Huan (馬歡) who accompanied General Zheng He on his Western Ocean trip.[25] This period corresponds to the reign of King Borommarachathirat II (Chao Sam Phraya, reign: 1424-1448) of Ayutthaya.

Ma Huan’s description of penis inserts in Ayutthaya gives a comprehensive picture of how Siamese people practised this custom, including the socio-economic context of the period. He says:

When a man is over twenty years old, they take the skin which surrounds the membrum virile, and with a fine knife shaped like [the leaf of] Chinese chives they open it up and insert a dozen tin beads inside the skin; [then] they close it up and protect with medicinal herbs. The man waits till the opening of the wound is healed; then he goes out and walks about. The [beads] look like a cluster of grapes, there is indeed a class of men who open shops to specialise in inserting and soldering these beads for people; [and] they do it as a profession. If it is the king of the country or a great chief or a wealthy man [who has the operation], then they use gold to make hollow beads, inside which a pebble is placed, and they are inserted [in the membrum virile]; [when the man] walks about, they make a tinkling sound, and this is regarded as beautiful. The men who have no beads inserted are people of the lower classes. This is a most strange thing.[26]

Interestingly, this description is very similar to what Jacques de Coutre wrote in his record when he arrived in Ayutthaya a century and a half later in 1595.

Not only in Siam were penis bells documented, they were recorded by foreigners in other places in mainland Southeast Asia as well. In Burmese/Mon kingdoms it is thought that penis inserts were used for as long as in Siam. The available record is found dating back to 1435, a few years after Ma Huan’s record, by a Venetian Nicolò de Conti, visiting Ava. He writes:

In this city … there were several shops of ridiculous and lascivious things … in these shops only women sell things which we call ‘ringers’ because they ring out like bells; they are made of gold, silver or brass, and are as big as a small nut. The men, before they take a wife, go to these women (otherwise the marriage would be broken) who cut the skin of the virile member in many places and put between the skin and the flesh as many as twelve of these ‘ringers’ (according to their pleasure). After the member is sewn up, it heals in a few days. This they do to satisfy the wantonness of the women: because of these swellings, or tumour, of the member, the women have great pleasure in coitus. The members of some men stretch way down between their legs so that when they walk they ring out and may be heard…[27]

However, according to Sun Laichen’s collection of Chinese historical sources of penis bells, evidence from Burma seems to be more frequently recorded since 1583.[28] That is why the penis bells are called ‘Mian Ling’(緬鈴;緬= Burma,鈴= bells) in Chinese or ‘Burmese bells’.

Sun (2007) argues that ‘Burmese bells’ spread to China as a part of the Chinese search for sexual aids and aphrodisiacs dating as far back as the Western Han Dynasty (206BC-25AD) and especially the sex revolution during the Ming Dynasty around 1430-1640 Prior to the interest in Burmese bells, opium was used not only for medicinal purposes but also as a sexual enhancer in Chinese aphrodisiacs. Opium was recorded as being imported from Southeast Asia both through maritime trade and land routes linking Western Asia, India and inland China.[29] However, penis bells started to catch the attention of the Chinese during the Ming-Chinese frontier war in the 1570s when many Burmese/Tai soldiers were captured or killed. An anonymous record titled ‘Xiyang fentu ji’ (西南夷風土記 or ‘Record of south-western barbarians’ custom) in 1583 says:

[The Burmese males] insert Burmese bells into their penises, some two and some three. Some chieftains of the three Pacification Commission (Nandian 南甸, Ganya 干厓, and Longchuan 隴川) and the six Pacification Offices (Ava Monyhin, Chiang Mai, Cheli [Sipsong Panna], Hsenwi, and Lan Sang) also insert them.[30]

This statement confirms that the penis bells were common among people in mainland Southeast Asia, at least, including Tai/Siamese, Lao, Burmese, and perhaps some groups in northern Southeast Asia bordering Yunnan. Several records mention the use of penis bells amongst the Lao by a Korean envoy in 1790 who was offered penis rings to buy by a Lao diplomat on the birthday ceremony of the Chinese emperor, Qianlong.[31] Use of penis bells by the Lao was also mentioned in the book of John Bulwer, Anthropometamorphosis (1653). Other European records also mention penis bells among the Siamese, including the Portuguese Tomeì Pires in 1515, the Florentine Francesco Cerletti’s observation of Siamese sailors in Macao in 1600, and a Dutch record of golden bells worn by wealthy Siamese in Patani.[32] Similar documentation is also found for people in Tenasserim and Martaban in 1511, and Arakan in 1724.[33]

Figure 8: A geographical distribution of penis inserts of every type (orange line) and penis bells (red circle), and their historical spread (red arrows) and spread in modern time (blue arrows).

The Chinese adopted the use of penis bells and later reinterpreted the use of bells differently. Apart from using bells as sexual enhancers in men, Chinese women also used bells as part of their foreplay or masturbation by inserting the bells into a ball for the vagina. These balls could be as big as hazelnut and had a knob tied with a string so that they could be pulled out safely. The balls were hollow and contained some small bells and mercury. The small bells moved around slowly in the mercury, creating a titillating effect.[34] This practice was reported as early as the early Qing Dynasty, in some Chinese novels in the early 1730s, by a British traveller in mid-nineteenth century in Beijing, and by a French officer in the Chinese district in Saigon. However, the transformation of these bells into the hands of women did not continue the ‘tinkling’ function and eventually they simply turned into balls.

The decline of the use of Burmese bells among the Chinese was perhaps a result of several factors. First, without an established cultural norm of penis bells embedded in Chinese society, the painful foreign practice may have lost its attractiveness as time past. Confucian belief also disapproves of bodily injury as stated in Confucius’ treatises on Classic of Filial Piety (孝經):

Our body and hair and skin are all derived from our parents, and therefore we have no right to injure any of them in the least. This is the first duty of a child…[35]

Moreover, according to the argument put forward by Browns et al. (1998) the willingness of men to insert objects into their penises in Southeast Asia countries reflects the relatively equal role of women in these societies. The more patriarchal Chinese society may not have been able to accommodate or sustain such practice. Chinese women are expected to obey, serve, and follow what men suggest or order. Women are viewed as being subordinate to men in Confucianism. Women’s roles are mainly as a wife who has to be obedient to her husband, as a mother who has to raise and educate her children and obey her grown-up sons, and as a daughter who has to obey and take a good care of her parents.[36] Therefore, women are less in a position to ask men to give them sexual pleasure, not to mention going through the pain of bodily piercing or penis inserts for sexual purposes.

The fall of penis inserts?

With regard the ‘penis bells’ in particular, the reason for the decline of this custom is unclear, to the best of my limited knowledge. My hunch is it may be attributable to two main factors. First, the social chaos, famine and a decade of war during the fall of Ayutthaya may have caused many groups of people to discontinue the practice. However, this theory is called into question by available Chinese records dated after the establishment of Bangkok in 1782. A record of Lu Fengzao dated 1804 during the reign of King Rama I (reigned: 1782-1809) reports penis bells in Siam, but this is second-hand information. If penis bells were still used during the early Bangkok period it was probably only among small groups as no record from the later period has been found.

The second possible reason for the decline of penis bells may be the impact of Western colonialism and modernisation in the region. Western colonial masters may have viewed it as a barbaric practice and directly forced people in their colonies to abandon it. In the case of Thailand, it may have involved voluntary abandonment by the upper class first as a showcase for modernisation and civilisation. This abandonment may then have gradually spread to commoners. The last Chinese first-hand documentation of penis bells in Burma was dated 1799 during the reign of King Bodawpaya (known in Thai as Phrachao Padung, พระเจ้าปะดุง), eight decades before British colonisation.

However, the question still remains why the practice of general penis inserts or fang muk has continued. Possibly, once the penis inserts became less popular and were only used by small group of lower class people, the sophistication of the inserts declined meaning that  only easily acquired solid objects were used.

Despite the disappearance of penis bells, penis inserts in general are still observable among Southeast Asian men. In Thailand, many men still get fang muk. Advertisements about this service are not difficult to find in both men’s magazines and on the internet[37]. These emphasise their sanitation and innovation including different types of materials and techniques. Interestingly, the insertion of moving beads is also found in some discussion web boards. However, there are mixed reports of increased sexual pleasure on web boards that discuss the subject.[38]

The contemporary revival of penis inserts in the Chinese speaking world is likely to have spread from Thailand as the modern Chinese term also carries the Thai meaning, ruzhu (入 ru = enter, insert; 珠 zhu = pearl). Sun (2007) also reports the increasing popularity of ruzhu in Taiwanese men presumably introduced by Thai seamen and workers since the 1980s. Sun also mentions advertisements on the internet in many Taiwanese cities that claim their shops have customers from Southeast Asia, Taiwan, and Japan.[39]

Another transformation of penis inserts practice can be observed in terms of social groups.  As noted in many historical records, penis implants were common among men in Southeast Asia ranging from the king to commoners. Those who did not have inserts in their penis were either pre-pubescent children or men who engaged in same-sex intercourse. Men without penis inserts may have been denied marriage. However, the modern practice seems to be confined within small circles of men. A research group found penis inserts among working class men in Thailand, other parts of Southeast Asia and Melanesia.[40] In Thailand, men with penis inserts are also perceived to be those who are, or have been, involved in criminal groups.[41] The practice is widely reported to occur in prison.[42] One website mentions that forced penis inserts was normal for new inmates in Bangkhwang Prison.[43] Another study found that among a study group of men who had penile modification, 60 percent inserted objects in their penis skin (fang muk), 80 percent did this in prison or detention, and 80 percent had it performed by friends in prison.[44]

However, the work of Sun (2007) also gives a picture of a revival of penis inserts in the Chinese speaking world from Taiwan to Hong Kong, Macao, and mainland China.[45] Although the image of having penis inserts is still associated with the criminal and lower class, the current development in the Chinese world suggests gradual expansion to a larger circle of the male population. The use of expensive materials (such as Burmese jade) and modern technique/tools are less likely to suit low-income workers.[46] Moreover, penis insert services are also found in many tattoo shops opening the opportunity for a wider group of customers.

In sum, the custom of penis insert in Southeast Asia is solidly confirmed by many historical records since the 14th century. The penis bells were unique to mainland Southeast Asia and had spread to China through the contact as a result of war and commerce. The main purpose of using penis inserts and penis bells was generally to increase sexual pleasure for women. This indicates a positive status of women in Southeast Asian societies and that they were able to negotiate with men on sexual matters.

Ayutthaya must have been an interesting place. At its zenith, its charm and grandeur must have derived not only from flourishing international commerce, people from diverse backgrounds and races, glittering golden pagodas and palaces, and tropical fruits and animals, but also from the sound of jingling bells  in the markets, canals, and even in the temples! Another little curiosity of mine when writing on this subject is how men at that time managed to maintain their privacy when they had a woody!


[1] Pitaya Bunnag (2010) ‘”Chai rak chai” nai nang “tamnan somdet phra naresuan phak 3” khong than mui’ [‘Men love men’ in Than Mui’s film ‘King Naresuan legend 3’], Art & Culture Magazine, Vol.31, No.3, pp.38-39.

[2] Aziatische Omzwervingen, Het Leven van Jacques de Coutre, en Brugs diamanthandelaar 1591-1627

[3] Donald E Brown, James W Edwards, and Ruth P Moore (1988), The penis inserts of Southeast Asia: an annotated bibliography with an overview and comparative perspectives, occasional paper No.15, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of California at Berkeley.

[4] Brown et al. (1988), pp.5-6.

[5] Terence H. Hull and Meiwita Budiharsana (2001), ‘Male Circumcision and Penis Enhancement’ in Southeast Asia: Matters of Pain and Pleasure’, Reproductive Health Matters, Vol. 9, No. 18, pp. 60-67.

[6] http://www.lelong.com.my/Auc/Archive/DetailStd.asp?When=2009-05&ProductID=34152139

[7] Brown et al. (1988), p.1.

[8] Brown et al. (1988), pp.2-3.

[9] Raven Rowanchilde (1995), ‘Male genital modification: a sexual selection interpretation’, Human Nature, Vol.7, No.2.

[10] Brown et al. (1988), pp.14-15.

[11] http://www.irianjaya.com/kobela.html

[12] Brown et al. (1988), p.9; Hull and Budiharsana (2001), p.63.

[13] Read further details in Brown et al. (1988), pp.9-10.

[14] Brown et al. (1988), p.10.

[15] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chakra

[16] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Acintya_Bali.jpg

[17] Momchao Chatri Chalerm Yukol, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ooq8_znzm4 , at 0.18-0.20 mins.

[18] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ooq8_znzm4 ; at 0.50-0.56 mins.

[19] http://www.t-pageant.com/webboard/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=163642&st=0&sk=t&sd=a&start=0

[20] Jacques de Coutre, Coutre Aziatische Omzwervingen, Het Leven van Jacques de Coutre, en Brugs diamanthandelaar 1591-1627, edited by Johan Verberckmoes and Eddy Stoles (1988), Berchem, Netherlands : EPO, pp.85-86.

[21] http://www.kroobannok.com/28619

[22] Jacques de Coutre in Verberckmoes and Stoles (eds) (1988), p.85.

[23] Browns et al. (1998), p.2.

[24] Sun Laichen (2007), ‘Burmese bells and Chinese eroticism: Southeast Asia’s cultural influence on China’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol.38, No.2, p.250.

[25] Sun (2007), p.260.

[26] Cited in Sun (2007), p.250.

[27] Cited in Sun (2007), p.259.

[28] Sun (2007).

[29] Sun (2007), pp.251-254.

[30] Cited in Sun (2007), p.255.

[31] Sun (2007), p.257-258.

[32] Sun (2007), p.264.

[33] Francois Valentijn (1724) cited in Browns et al.(1988), p.58.

[34] Sun (2007), p.265.

[35] Ivan Chen (1908) The book of filial duty, Hazeli, Watson and Viney: London, republished in Hsiao Ching (2004), The book of filial duty, Adamant Media: Boston, p.16. The original text goes ‘身體髮膚,受之父母,不敢毀傷,孝之始也…’

[36] Joseph A Adler (2006), ‘Daughter/wife/mother or sage/immortal/Bodhisattva?: women in the teaching of Chinese religions’, ASIANetwork Exchange, vol.xiv, no.2, viewed 4 September 2010: <http://www2.kenyon.edu/Depts/Religion/Fac/Adler/Writings/Women.htm>

[37] For example, see http://www.aesthecaclinic.com/th/service.aspx?id=38 ; http://www.thanavattclinic.com/th/webpage.aspx?id=3 ; http://www.bioclinic.co.th/tabid/596/Default.aspx ;

[38] For example, see http://webboard.pooyingnaka.com/show.php?Category=sex&No=13274 ; http://www.cmxseed.com/cmxseedforumn/index.php?topic=30758.0 ; http://www.showbanban.com/forum/index.php?topic=5105.0 .

[39] Sun (2007), .269.

[40] N Thomson, C G Sutcliffe, B Sirirojn, K Sintupat, A Aramrattana, A Samuels, D D Celentano (2008), ‘Penile modification in young Thai men: risk environments, procedures and widespread implications for HIV and sexually transmitted infections’, Sexual Transmitted Infection, vol.84, June, pp.195-197; Hull and Budiharsana (2001), p64.; Terence H. Hull (2000), Engaging and serving men in the Indonesian reproductive health program: issues and obstacles, a paper presented at Population Association of America 2000 Annual Meeting, March 24, 2000, p.6.

[41] Thomson et al. (2008).

[42] See, for example, http://guru.google.co.th/guru/thread?tid=0c585d63b77bb9dd; http://atcloud.com/stories/54728; http://forum.atcomink.com/index.php/topic,199.0.html

[43] http://www.thaisexdee.com/bbs/show.php?Category=thaisexdee&No=64

[44] Thomson et al. (2008), p.196.

[45] Sun (2007), p.270.

[46] Sun (2007), p.270

About Pongphisoot Busbarat, Guest Contributor