Crazy monks, strange creatures roaming the mountains, thunder dragons, flying gurus, and penis art. Bhutan is a little bit special and so is its folklore.
Preserving mountains for the spirits
It’s the highest mountain in Bhutan and possibly the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. Until recently, no-one was even sure where Gangkhar Puensum was or how high it is. When Bhutan was opened for mountaineering in 1983, four expeditions to climb Gangkhar Puensum resulted in failure. The Bhutanese read the signs and banned further attempts. Ever since 1994, Bhutan has expressly prohibited climbing on the mountain citing a lack of available rescue services in the area, but mainly because of local customs that view the peaks as the sacred homes of holy spirits.
Since 1994, climbing of mountains in Bhutan higher than 6,000 metres has been prohibited out of respect for local spiritual beliefs, and since 2003 mountaineering has been forbidden completely. The Bhutanese need only take a short glance at humans despoiling Mt. Everest or Ben Nevis for a reminder to why this may be a good decision.
Land of the Thunder Dragon
Along with its Happiest Nation in the World epithet, Bhutan is also known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon from the violent thunderstorms that sweep through its valleys and mountains. The flare and light of thunderbolts were believed to be the fire of a dragon or druk.
The druk is the national symbol of Bhutan, appearing on the flag and holding jewels to represent wealth. It was first adopted by the Drukpa Lineage, which spread to Bhutan from Tibet. According to traditional accounts, when the sect’s founder, Tsangpa Gyare, began to build Ralung Monastery, there was a violent storm. Thunder, or cloud-voice, is seen as the roar of the dragon and, deciding that this was an omen, he named the monastery Drug-Ralung, adding the word thunder dragon to the name. The disciples at the monastery were known as Drugpa, or Those of the Thunder. As the sect became more popular, it set up monasteries in what is now Bhutan, with the result that the area became known as Dug Yul, or Land of Thunder, among both Tibetans and Bhutanese.
Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Paro Taktsang)
The Tiger’s Nest monastery is one of the most beautiful and atmospheric holy places to visit in Bhutan. It hangs off a precarious cliff and everyone – pilgrims, royalty and tourists alike, has to make an arduous but rewarding trek to reach it. Everyone except its founder, Guru Rinpoche, who flew here from Tibet on the back of a tigress in 747AD to subdue a local demon. It is said that the tigress was the manifestation of Rinpoche’s consort, biographer and disciple, Yeshe Tsogyal. He then meditated in a cave and emerged in eight incarnated forms (manifestations).
Another legend says that the monastery is anchored to the cliff by the hairs of khandroma (dakini; female celestial beings), who also carried the building materials up onto the cliff on their backs.
Hiding treasure in the sky
Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava, is one of Bhutan’s most important historical and religious figures and a source of many legends. He and Yeshe Tsogyal hid treasures, terma to be revealed by treasure revealers or tertons. Rinpoche saw that some teachings, relics and texts would have to wait for a more auspicious time to be revealed by powerful Buddhist treasure revealers called tertön, often to renew wisdom and teaching after a time of trouble or decline.
Earth terma are physical objects or sacred texts hidden in the physical landscape. Mind terma are located in consciousness (or sky) and discovered by meditation and visions. Many ter were collected by Jamgön Kongtrul and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo in the 19th century. It’s worthwhile reading further on this fascinating aspect of Rinpoche’s legacy and Buddhist thought.
A sanctuary for a creature that (probably) doesn’t exist
Most countries create sanctuaries to protect their landscape and wildlife. Only Bhutan would create a wildlife sanctuary for a mythical creature whose existence has not been scientifically confirmed but has an important place in local belief and folklore.
Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary was partly created in part to protect the migoi, the Tibetan word for wild man or, more common to Western culture, the Yeti. The migoi is an ape-like creature said to inhabit the Himalayan region of Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan. They are known for their phenomenal strength, magical powers, the ability to become invisible and the trick of walking backward to fool any trackers.
The scientific community generally attributes sightings of the yeti to the misidentification of the Tibetan Blue Bear or the Himalayan Brown Bear. The Bhutanese know better and their folklore is full of migoi tales.
Crazy saint: the antics of the Divine Madman
Monk, poet, lover, troubadour, fertility saint, mad man, probable sex pest. The lama, Drukpa Kunley, was a Buddhist monk and missionary who wandered the country spreading his wisdom, partying and having as much sex as possible.
His antics were outrageous, earning him the nickname of the Divine Madman or The Saint of 5,000 Women. He urinated on sacred thangkas, had a penchant for taking his clothes off and once offered his testicles to a famous lama. Anyone who came to seek his guidance had to bring a beautiful woman and a bottle of wine. He was known for sleeping with the wives of his benefactors and hosts. Once, he was gifted a sacred thread to put around his neck. Instead, he caused shock by saying that he would tie the thread around his penis in the hope that it would bring him luck with women.
Indeed, the Divine Madman’s penis became its own legend, becoming known as the Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom. He hit the evil forces with his penis or cohabited with them and turn them into protective deity spirits.
According to the legend he subdued the Demoness of the Dochu-La Pass, who was terrorising the local people, using his “magic thunderbolt of wisdom”. The Chimi Lhakhang temple was built in his honour which also preserves a wooden effigy of his thunderbolt. The demoness is apparently trapped in the black chorten nearby, although it is also said to be a more protective entity. Little of this stands the light of a modern feminist interpretation, yet it’s still a place of worship for childless women seeking a fertility blessing.
If you walk across the cultivated fields and rice paddies to Pana, the nearby village, you’ll notice the houses and buildings are adorned with erect penises ejaculating with a flourish over the walls. Many of the penises are depicted with the Divine Madman’s thread, elegantly tied in a bow.
Look closer and numerous shops sell all kinds of phallus carvings, jewellery and anything else that can be sold to delighted tourists. Flying phalluses hang from rooftops of houses to drive away evil. Wooden phalluses are used in the fertile fields as a kind of scarecrow, when the crops start sprouting.
Drukpa Kunley is credited with introducing the use of penis painting and statues in villages. Research suggests that the penis was part of a religion that existed in Bhutan before Buddhism became the official religion. The phallus paintings protect fertility and drive away the evil eye and malicious gossip. They are also a symbol of crazy wisdom, a truth and a discomfort to point out hypocrisy. (Incidentally, modern urban Bhutan reportedly dismisses phallus culture as embarrassing rural folklore.)
There was method behind the madness of Drukpa Kunley. He wanted to expose the hypocrisy of society, challenge strict Buddhist rules and show that enlightenment could still be achieved without celibacy or puritanical austerity. He felt that social conventions were preventing people from learning true Buddhist teachings. He represented the Tibetian tradition of crazy wisdom, but he’s also the typical rebel figure rejected and admired across so many societies. Blake’s path of excess leading to the temple of wisdom. A counter-culture figure celebrated through phallic worship.
Bhutan’s national animal
One day in the 15th century, devotees gathered to witness the Divine Madman’s magical powers. They demanded a miracle. The saint agreed but first asked for lunch. He ate a whole cow and a goat for lunch. After letting out a huge burp, he took the goat’s head and stuck it onto the bones of the cow. He commanded the strange beast to rise up. To the astonishment of the watching devotees, the animal rose up and lumbered off to graze in the meadows.