The symbol, its origin, and its meaning

Most common unalome design

What is an unalome?

Both the representation and the symbolism of the unalome share many similarities to the right-turning conch shell design, one of the eight auspicious Buddhist symbols. The white conch shell represents the supremacy of the Buddha's teachings, the thoughts of the Buddha, and it may have actually been the inspiration for the unalome itself.

While the conch shell is more common in artwork, unalomes have become popular in Sak Yant tattoos, which are tattoos based on ancient Indic yantras (or yant).

To quickly explain what a yantra is, let's reference a similar word you probably already know: mantra. A mantra is a sacred syllable, a short sound that carries a spiritual power, repeated in religious rituals and meditative practices to cultivate a higher state of consciousness.

A yantra is its visual counterpart: they are geometrical diagrams used as magic charms to support mantras, with both psychological and spiritual power. While mantras work with sounds, yantras are graphical.

Complex Sak Yant tattoos embody the essence of their bearer's own identity, and often operate to attract mundane results (namely riches, health, appeal, and so on).

Na Yant, or small yantras, often based on syllables of the Khmer alphabet, remain closer to the original Buddhist teachings and often relate to spiritual qualities instead. The unalome belongs to this last group.

Like many Na Yant, the unalome is believed to mobilize energy, hiding a deep meaning behind its visual simplicity.

Here possibly lies the greatest appeal of this symbol: we see complexity all around us in everyday life and modern society, and we deeply strive to find our way through it, to bring everything down to simplicity in an attempt to reach our inner north, a meaning and a purpose to our own lives.

That's exactly what the unalome teaches, and it does it in the simplest way, with a single line, because simplicity is key to its symbolism.

We can identify three main parts of the unalome: a spiral, a wandering path, and a straight path. It's not uncommon to see a separate dot at the end. Each part carries a different significance and together they represent the path of personal growth toward spiritual enlightenment.

The center of the spiral represents birth, our beginning in life. The spiral itself represents our life going through several incarnations, as we are prone to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, yet learning from them and widening our perspective and consciousness until we succesfully break free from this cycle to really start our personal journey:

Unalome parts: the spiral

The central section corresponds to the second part of our journey, where we wander and move forward by trial and error, and by gaining more experience every time.

Even when the path seems to go ahead, we sometimes fall back. Learning from this can help us avoid repeating the same mistakes, making them less frequently, and eventually proceeding more and more consciously ahead, with every knot symbolizing a spiritual milestone.

Each individual will have a uniquely different path as there are not two identical persons who will share an exactly identical story. Each of us will have to find their own path to fulfill their true potential:

Unalome parts: the wandering path

The straight line at the end of the unalome represents when we finally find our path and follow it unwaveringly:

Unalome parts: the straight path

A dot, if present, symbolizes perfection, enlightenment. It is separated from the path because, according to the teaching of the Buddha, only by leaving material ties and pleasures behind us can we reach it.

Another interpretation suggests that the dot represents our true purpose in life, and the path to achieve it puts us to a test that challenges our spirit and fortifies it so that we can finally fulfill our true potential.

Orientation and masculine/feminine energy

The orientation of the spiral is sometimes associated with masculine or feminine energy. While we can't be sure it was originally so, it's a possibility that we should not dismiss if we consider the conch shell to be the origin of the unalome symbol.

The conch shell has a spiraling shape that ends with an opening on one end and a point on the other. From its point, the spiral can expand in a clock-wise (left-turning) or counterclock-wise (right-turning) direction. The latter is rarer and therefore auspicious.

Looking at the shell from the side of the point (which makes it look similar to the unalome representation), the direction and symbolism of the unalome spiral duplicates the direction and symbolism of the conch shell:

Unalome orientation: feminine or masculine energy

Based on the tradition that associates the left with female energy and the right with male, the orientation of the spiral is associated with feminine or masculine energy accordingly.

Important note about positioning

If you wish to get a unalome tattoo without being disrespectful of the religion it comes from, consider placing it higher than your waist. All that is lower, closer to the soil, is considered earth-bound and impure.

Placing it on the foot, for example, would be considered highly disrespectful, whereas the ideal positioning would be on a higher chakra (chakra means "wheel, whirl", these are energy points in our body), with the straight line pointing upward.

Position of the 7 chakras

Modern designs

Modern designs keep the unalome as their base and expand it or blend it with other traditional symbols like the lotus flower, the moon, the sun, and more.

If you want to know more about unalomes, or get ideas for a small but truly meaningful tattoo, you can check our PDF book: it comes at the price of a coffee!


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