Bhutan – a country where myths, magic and the supernatural meets reality
Bhutan is a country of flying tigress, and phallus subduing demons…
Let me begin with a disclaimer - if you wish to visit the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, you have to come with an open mind. It is better still if you leave behind your logical sense of reasoning. If you are a science nerd, beware! Because you will be knocked off your senses when you hear the stories of flying tigress, levitating monks, phallus subduing demons, and… many more.
In the small Himalayan kingdom, a newborn is a year old the moment they are born. And newborns are named, not by their parents, but by high lamas and preferably by reincarnate lamas. In some cases, parents go to offer their prayers right after a child is born and end up taking the name from the temple caretaker lama who offers a bubble gum container full of rolled papers with different Bhutanese names. Thus, life begins by entrusting oneself in the supernatural.
The Bhutanese people have no surnames and the gender is confirmed usually by the last name, which is not a family name. With time, parents have also become innovative. Some take names from several lamas and the child ends up inheriting a name so long and unique that he can spell it only in his teens.
In school, Bhutan History is an invigorating subject. Let us not even talk about legends and mythology. It does not exist - both are combined chapters of Bhutan history. Let Bhutan’s national animal, the Takin, tell us its story. In the late 14th century, a revered Tibetan lama popular for his eccentric ways of teaching was asked by Bhutanese people to perform a miracle. He agreed with a condition that he was given a cow and a goat for lunch. The people offered him the two animals. After his lunch, he took the skull of the goat and placed it to the skeleton of the cow and snapped his fingers uttering a spell. Up came to life the Takin. The animal still has the features of the goat and the cow. It happened – it is written in history.
The most popular icon of the kingdom is the Taktshang Monastery known as the Tiger’s Nest. It is a science-defying temple perched on a vertical cliff-face about 700 meters from the ground. Tourists hike for about 3-4 hours to reach the temple and the visit to this temple is usually described as the best part of the travel to Bhutan. Tour guides share the story of this temple without any second thought as they would have told the story hundreds of times. But it begins in the 8th century when an Indian saint, believed to be the reincarnation of Gautama Buddha, flew to the site on a tigress and meditated there. The tigress is believed to be his ever-accompanying consort and devotee. Bhutanese will never question whether he flew on a flying tigress. For them, a more confusing question would be how long did he take to fly and reach the site.
Once in Bhutan, even before you are intrigued by intricate Bhutanese architecture of local houses, you would be taken aback by huge wooden phalluses, some the size of a human being, grounded on poles and sometimes hung from the ceilings and even painted on the doors. It is believed to ward off evil spirits, not you. The phallus tradition began in the late 14th century courtesy to the same Tibetan saint who snapped the Takin to life. His stories are celebrated in the tiny kingdom and there are numerous accounts of how he subjugated evil demonesses with his ‘thunderbolt’. The only fertility temple in the country is in western Bhutan about two hours drive from the capital – which is also a testimony of the same Tibetan saint. There are amazing stories of childless couples from all over the world gifted with kids after a visit to this temple where the main relic is a wooden phallus used to bless all visitors.
Bhutan also boasts of having the highest unclimbed mountain in the world in the form of 7,570 m Mount Gangkar Puensum - the names translates to the “white peak of the three spiritual brothers”. Locals belief the name literally and worship the spiritual brothers. In respect of the local belief system, the government prohibited mountaineering of peaks above 6,000 meter in 1994 and prohibited mountaineering altogether in 2003. Similarly, most of the lakes, ponds, many rocks, and even some trees in Bhutan are revered and irrespective of your mood, there is no way to mess up with them.
Excuse the science of climate change, when there is no rainfall during the cultivation season, villagers spend fortune and conduct rituals to appease the rain god. Some seek the help of soothsayers to find ways to let the rain god hear their prayers. People even resort to animal sacrifices.
Today, Bhutan is not inept to the forces of modernization. Information Technology has changed lives. Urbanites enjoy Desperate Housewives and laugh their heart out watching the Big Bang Theory on cable television. But the country has efficiently preserved its culture and identity in a manner worthy of being experienced in person. And only a visit to this tiny kingdom would justify.
Now let me lift the disclaimer and wish you a happy visit to the land of happiness.
NOTE: I wrote this article to give an insight to travellers planning to visit Bhutan. My name is Tashi Dorji and I am the owner of Green Mandala Tours in Bhutan.