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Bhutan: The Land of the Holy Phallus

Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Blog

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Published on November 28, 2009 with No Comments

I could hear the sound of a fast-flowing river and chirping birds although I was still in bed, buried beneath my blankets. I knew the sun was out and that it was time to get ready, but my eyes refused to open and my body was reluctant to leave this comfort zone.

I had spent so many days without a hot shower or a comfortable night’s sleep while in Tibet that all this sudden comfort felt like heaven. My time in Bhutan is limited though, so sleeping it away is a waste. I forced myself out of that lovely, luxurious room and met Lotay at 7:30 am as scheduled to have breakfast and hit the road.

Today was an auspicious day in Bhutan. Locals were expected to go to the temples and perform ceremonies to remember Guru Rinpoche, the founder of Buddhism. Lotay, like the other Bhutanese, needed to stop at a temple. We drove through some rural areas along the river and reached one of the oldest temples in Bhutan: Kyichu Lhakhang. It is believed to have been built in the seventh century by the Tibetan King Songten Gampo, who ordered the construction of 108 temples in a single day to destroy an ogress that was trying to stop the spread of Buddhism.

Dozens of prayer wheels painted in bright colors bordered the Kyichu Lhakhang Temple. Lotay and I turned them as we passed, hoping to accumulate merit. At the entrance, the temple looked small. Its golden roof and some orange trees in the small courtyard stood out.

“Do you see those trees? Those trees have oranges all year around, no matter the season. People only eat the oranges when they fall to the ground. It is special,” said Lotay.

We took our shoes off to enter one of the two shrines inside the temple. A huge statue of Guru Rinpoche stood in the middle of the altar.

“Daniela, we first prostrate to our Lama or head teacher, and then to Guru Rinpoche. Our masters helped us walk the path of enlightenment,” explained Lotay.

Lotay turned to the photo of the local religious master, put his hands in the prayer position—placing them first on his forehead, then on his face and on his heart—and kneeled down. He did the prostrations three times. Then he turned to the altar for Guru Rinpoche and did the same.
There was some activity outside the shrine. Bhutanese people wrapped in red robes were entering the other chapel. I thought they were monks preparing for a special ceremony.

“These are nuns,” said Lotay.

Their bald heads and baggy red robes made them look like men.
We followed them inside the temple.

The nuns sat on the floor around the altar. Their teacher sat on a higher seat. The chanting began. The young nuns looked at me and giggled as they chanted. I sat next to an old woman, who stared at me with curiosity as she spun her prayer wheel and mumbled mantras. She was also smiling. Suddenly, the chanting stopped. Two nuns sitting on each side of the altar beat drums. Two more young nuns blew their trumpets, while another two blew long horns. An older nun sitting close to the master hit the cymbals. The chant grew louder. The ground vibrated. I got goose bumps.

As the nuns continued the ceremony, Lotay and I walked to the altar. A seventh-century, young Buddha was inside the locked shrine. When I turned to the nuns, they did a few prostrations on the floor and then sat cross-legged. Their fingers were crossed as well, their hands moving softly as they chanted. I was mesmerized.

I was in Tibet for ten days without seeing a Buddhist ceremony. This wasn’t the first Buddhist ritual I had seen—I still have vivid memories of the beautiful Buddhist rituals in Dharmasala, India—but this was my first ceremony during this trip. I was expecting to see and experience such ceremonies in Tibet, and was sad when I didn’t. But Bhutan made up for it.

On the road from Paro to Thimphu

On the road from Paro to Thimphu


We left the temple and continued our drive to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, an hour away from Paro. The curving road bordered massive, forested mountains. A crystal river accompanied us. The sky was cloudless and bright blue. The air was clean.

“Lotay, what was it like to grow up without television?” I asked during the drive. I have worked in television all my life, and I grew up watching it. Even in the most remote and impoverished places I have visited, I have seen locals with improvised antennas and old television sets.

Lotay told me that when he was in seventh grade, he and his friends used to go to the Indian compound after school, where the doctors had access to television. Lotay and his friends watched the World Cup through a window.

Lotay’s mom still lives in Haa, about three hours from Paro. The village didn’t have access to roads, phone service, or electricity until last year. “I couldn’t talk to my mom for two years while I was abroad. My mom got news about me through my sisters, who are in the cities,” said Lotay.

“What is Bhutanese TV like?” I asked.

“There is only one TV station, and it state owned,” Lotay began. “It is not a 24-hour channel, and it airs mostly interviews. However, many Bhutanese families have cable TV from India now, and they have access to the BBC and other channels. Lotay smiled. “Kids want to watch cartoons, moms the soaps, and dads the sports. With only one TV, there are many arguments about who controls the remote control!”

“What is the biggest export of Bhutan?” I asked.

“We export electricity, steel, and happiness!” Lotay replied.

Lotay explained that Bhutan could make money by exporting wood, since most of Bhutan is covered with trees. However, to protect the environment in line with the pillars of Gross National Happiness, the constitution requires that 60% of the forest in Bhutan must be preserved for years to come.

Bhutan has some of the highest peaks in the world, but no one has climbed any of them. They could also make money from technical mountaineering, as Nepal and China do, but this sport is forbidden in Bhutan to protect the mountains from contamination. Also, the Bhutanese believe that spirits live in the mountains, and they don’t want to disturb them. In Bhutan, people, plants, and animals receive equal protection. Lotay said that most meat in Bhutan is imported, since the Bhutanese don’t like to kill animals. Horseback riding is also uncommon, as the Bhutanese feel it is painful to the horses. I found all this fascinating and admirable.

Buddhist ceremony

Buddhist ceremony


“We will stop at my aunt’s home on the way. There is a ceremony going on,” said Lotay.

We stopped at a two-story house on the side of the road. Chanting came from one of the rooms. Lotay said some monks had been invited to the house. The ceremony had started in the morning and would extend until the night. We entered the living room. Lotay’s aunt brought milk tea and four huge baskets of different grains and cereals: sweet butter-fried rice, dry rice, popcorn, and something that looked like hard, flat corn. She also offered us chewy yak cheese in what seemed to be in hot water with butter. I was supposed to put sugar on it for more flavor, but it was tasteless.

“Let’s go to the other room for the chanting,” suggested Lotay.

The room had an elaborate shrine. Six monks, including the master, chanted as they played their blow horns, little bells, and trumpets. The fact that the ceremony wasn’t being performed in a temple, but in someone’s home, made the experience more personal.

We hit the road again, and soon we arrived in Thimphu. With a population of only 90,000 people, the Bhutanese capital is not really a big city. But the only expressway in the country is here, connecting the two ends of the capital.

Buildings lined each side of the road. Architecture in Bhutan is completely different from any other place in Asia. It actually looks like a European chalet. Two or three-story white houses have carved wooden surfaces that are painted with floral patterns, mythical animals, and . . . large, erect penises of all sizes and colors, sometimes with hair! Sometimes a wood-carved phallus and a wisdom sword hang together from the corners of the roof as well.

The holy phallus

The holy phallus


At first, it felt strange to see penises in the most random places. The penises are supposed to scare evil from the home and bring good luck and fertility to new couples living in the house. The painted phallus is supposed to be the holy penis of Lama Drukpa Kunley, or the Divine Mad Man! He came from Tibet to Bhutan in the fifteenth century and used “crazy wisdom” to spread Buddhism across the country. The Divine Mad Man thought that religion was too serious, and to make it more appealing to the masses, he promoted it through sex, humor, and dance. One popular story says Drukpa Kunley once received a blessing thread at a temple, and instead of placing it around his neck or wrist, he put it on his penis, hoping he could be luckier with the ladies! The Divine Mad Man is still one of the most important Buddhist figures in Bhutan.

As we drove through the city’s main road, Norzin Lam, Lotay pointed at a police officer with white gloves. “That’s the traffic officer.” He stood in a traffic circle directing traffic. Lotay told me that Bhutan had no traffic lights, and their one attempt at having one was unsuccessful. People complained that it was too impersonal. So, the traffic light lasted for only one day.

Lotay stopped by the Chamlimgithang Archery Ground, where a tournament was going on. People asked for a day off from work just to be part of the game. Wearing the traditional gho and carrying their long bows and arrows, the players stood on each end of the field, waiting to see who hit the target first. When it happened, the players celebrated by dancing back and forth toward the target.

We then drove to the farmer’s market—an open market with fresh fruits and vegetables that was spotless, organized, cheap, and odorless. On the other side of the road was a flea market—neat, but expensive. Things I could find in Tibet and Nepal for $20 cost $200 here! Lotay told me that there were no beggars in Bhutan, but I ran into one on the stairs of the flea market. He was a man with leprosy. But in Bhutan, I have not been harassed by beggars or shop sellers.

We drove to the National Memorial Chorten, a large stupa built in 1974 to honor the memory of Bhutan’s third king. Many locals were there, most of them elderly, walking clockwise around the chorten, mumbling mantras and holding prayer wheels.

Happy in the Himalayas!

Happy in the Himalayas!


The next stop was the Folk Heritage Museum. The government bought the museum from a private owner to show people a typical rural Bhutanese home. A large, red, erect penis carved in wood sat atop the house’s main door. At the entrance, a seller promoted his wood-carved phalluses to visitors who didn’t seem very excited about bringing one home!

We made a brief stop at Changgangkha Lhakang, a twelfth-century monastery built into a hill overlooking the city, which included a massive statue of the Buddha of Compassion in his 11-headed manifestation. We received blessings from a monk who gave Lotay and me holy water.

We went to the National Institute for Traditional Arts and Crafts, and then to the Institute of National Medicine. When Bhutanese people get sick, they first consult with a local healer, then try traditional medicine. Western medicine is a last resort. A board at the Institute of National Medicine had statistics of all the cases treated at the center. A sign explained that traditional medicine had eight branches, including “Disorders caused by evil spirits.”In those cases, a shaman was consulted.

Lotay tried to squeeze as much as he could into my itinerary so I could make the most of my days in Bhutan. We walked by one of the two movie theaters in Thimphu. It only showed Bhutanese movies, mostly about landscapes. It looked small and very old. A few people were buying tickets.

“We will stop at my sisters’ home so you can meet them,” said Lotay. I was tired, but I didn’t yet know that spending the evening with three sweet, energetic Bhutanese girls would become the highlight of my day.

Feeling like the queen of Bhutan

Feeling like the queen of Bhutan

As soon as Lotay and I got inside the apartment, Dechen and Thin, Lotay’s sisters, welcomed us. At 24, Dechen was the youngest. She worked at the National Gross Happiness Commission. Thin was 26, and she was married with a seven-month-old boy. Their English was impeccable. We immediately started in on guys and clothes, which scared Lotay away. Karma, their cousin who worked at a Bhutanese Bank, soon joined us.

“It is a shame you are staying so short,” said Thin. “We were thinking of doing something special for you.”

They asked me what I thought about Bhutan. I told them how impressed I was. I have seen beautiful countries, and Bhutan is certainly one of them, but I was most fascinated by their commitment to protecting the environment and the culture, and how they put people’s interest first instead of money. Bhutan doesn’t have many international relationships; according to Lotay, that’s because the Bhutanese government carefully selects its partners so as not to compromise its Gross National Happiness.

Dechen was wearing a black and orange kira, which made her look stunning and elegant. She said it was a simple kira that she used for work.

“Do you want to try a kira? We have two very nice ones,” Dechen said.

Soon, the three Bhutanese women were dressing me up like one of them. Putting the kira on was more difficult than I imagined, but also more comfortable than I expected.

Girls night in Bhutan

Girls night in Bhutan

Dechen and Karma skillfully wrapped and folded the long cloth around my body, pulling it tight at the waist with a cloth belt. I could hardly breathe. I wondered how they and Lotay could wear such excruciatingly tight garments all day and not die. The girls then made me put on a silk blouse and a short jacket that opened in the middle. To hold it together, Dechen used a golden clasp that had the face of the new king on it.

“You look great. This color favors you!” said Dechen. Karma nodded.
Trying to hide my difficulty breathing, I came out of the room feeling like a Bhutanese queen. A few minutes later, I got used to the tight dress and started breathing comfortably.

Thin’s husband, Nima, was in the living room. He became our official photographer. We posed and laughed together in our kiras, standing, sitting, turned to the side, turned to the front, and so on.

When we took a break from “modeling,” Dechen lowered her voice and asked, “Do you have a boyfriend?”

“No, I don’t. I had two recent loves, but neither worked!” I confessed. “How about you? Do you have boyfriends?”

They said they were not interested at the moment. Both wanted to do their masters before settling down. They were both beautiful, career-oriented, well educated, and ambitious.

“Please come back to Bhutan soon,” urged Thin. “Next year for longer! We will do something special.”

It was 10:30 pm when Lotay and I left. We drove away from the city’s center.

“We are going to stay at my aunt’s guesthouse,” said Lotay.

In his aunt’s home, my room was big, and it had a heater, a large living room, and a hot shower! This was starting to feel like a true vacation.

The next morning, Lotay’s aunt came into my room with breakfast. She brought so much food that it looked as if it was for two or three people.

Dochula Pass

Dochula Pass

We left Thimphu to travel to Punakha Valley. It was sunny and warm, and the sky was clear. The road climbed through the mountains covered with pine and cedar forests. We arrived at the Dochula Pass at 3,050 meters in elevation, which afforded a panoramic view of my beloved Himalayas. The view wasn’t as dramatic as those in Tibet, but it was still beautiful. The white peaks contrasted with the green mountains and the bright blue sky.

We went back to the car for a long and entertaining ride. I was happy to be surrounded by such beautiful landscape, and I enjoyed breathing the pure air. But I also had my own personal singer! Lotay is a “bathroom singer,” and I am a “living room singer,” so we passed the time singing together. We sang everything from Bob Dylan and U2 to Christina Aguilera and Enrique Iglesias.

From the pass, we descended by a zigzagging road to a valley at 1,350 meters called Punakha. The weather was much warmer. I saw bananas trees, flowers, rice paddies, and crystal-green rivers.

We went on a short hike to Chimi Lhakhang, a temple built on a small hill in the valley and dedicated to the Divine Mad Man—the one responsible for the holy phallus displayed across the country! Couples from all over the world come to this temple seeking fertility and blessings. Dozens of child monks wearing red robes and cleaning candle holders gathered outside the temple’s entrance. Inside, teenage monks loudly recited mantras in unison.

Little monk at the Divine Mad Man Temple

Little monk at the Divine Mad Man Temple

We took our shoes off and went inside the temple. A large statue of the famous Divine Mad Man stood in the middle. He looked happy and had a thick mustache. Paintings of bright colors covered the walls, all displaying the famous saint.

“Daniela, let’s receive the blessings so you can have a thousand babies,” said Lotay.

I don’t consider myself very motherly, and I don’t think I am ready to have a kid yet; but just in case my motherly instincts awake in the future, I accepted.

Lotay bowed. The monk mumbled a prayer as he held a wood-carved phallus and an elephant tooth—also carved into a phallus—over Lotay’s head. He did the same for me. The monk then approached a young Indian couple, who closed their eyes as they received the blessings. They put a donation on the altar afterwards.

Minutes later, the Indian couple sat on a bench outside, looking at the temple. I wondered if they were one of those couples who come to Chimi Lhakhang in their quest to become parents.

We still had a few places to see, but I was happy Lotay didn’t make me rush.

Traveling with Lotay felt more like traveling with a friend than a guide. Sometimes I looked at him as if he was one of my international friends in Boston.

Monastery in the valley

Monastery in the valley


We finished the day in Punakha Dzong, a gigantic fortress decorated with red and black carved paintings and a gold dome. It stood at the confluence of two rivers, known as the female and male rivers. An elaborate bridge connected the fort with the main road. The 180-meter-long fortress is now the winter home of Bhutan’s spiritual leader, but it also serves as a monastery and an administrative office for the local government. Outside the Dzong, monks of all ages wandered near the river and played with a rubber ball on an empty field. Inside was a large assembly hall for Buddhist ceremonies. Three huge gold statues were at the altar: Guru Rinpoche, Buddha, and Zhabdrung. Brightly colored murals covered the walls and the high ceiling. Tall golden pillars supported the temple. It contained the most spectacular assembly halls and shrines I’d yet seen on this trip.

It was the perfect sight to finish another busy day in Bhutan. Lotay and I returned to the car and continued singing all the way back to the hotel.

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