This is our last day in Bhutan, and today Carol is going to go up to the famous Tiger’s Nest. I will be seeing some of the other places that do not require such a climb. Our first three day’s activities can be seen in these posts:
The day starts out cloudy, with mist covering the nearby hills.
We left a bit before school starts. Here are some school girls in their uniforms.
As we see the clouds, Carol starts to wonder about her climb up to the Tiger’s Nest. Yesterday, Lhendup said that we shouldn’t go if it was raining. But today he was pretty confident that the rain would be minimal and the trek would be doable. Since Carol’s friends had told her that the Tiger’s Nest was the absolute highlight of their trip to Bhutan, she was very motivated to go.
Paro Taktsang (The Tiger’s Nest)
After maybe 20 minutes of driving we arrive at the starting point for the trek up to the Tiger’s Nest. There are a few other vehicles there already. People get an early start; the climb is about 3000 feet and takes two hours or so, (much less if you are in good physical shape). Each way. You can hire horse to take you up, but still must hike down yourself.
This sign sets out the rules and timings. Note that your guide must arrange the permit in advance.
Here are Carol and Lhendup, ready to go. Lhendup has his umbrella, in case of bad weather. Carol has one walking stick. Note that all the clothing that Carol has on was totally inappropriate for this adventure today. The tennis shoes had no tread. The shawl was neither water-resistant nor warm. Thank goodness for the waterproof Tilly hat.
Looking up into the mountains. I can’t believe how cloudy it actually is!
Here they go. I trail along behind them a bit so I can take a few photos of them.
They have started up the trail. You should notice how muddy the footing looks to be. This is just the beginning.
This is a description of the path up the mountain (Atlas Obscura):
As one climbs the well-maintained but very steep trail over ever more vertical switchbacks, the monastery seems to appear and disappear in and out of the trees and the mists.
What they did not talk about in this description is how muddy and slippery the path gets when it rains. Carol’s biggest memory of the climb is of the mud. She will tell the rest of the story from here, since I only know what the pictures show.
Along the way we see chortens, and prayer flags.
And small streams filled with water, and prayer flags.
A sign marking the way, and prayer flags.
Up we go. It is grey and wet, but not really raining. Yet.
After some time, we can see the Tiger’s Nest though the clouds. In the foreground is a row of prayer wheels for climbers to set turning while they go up the path.
About the Tiger’s Nest
Paro Taktsang (spa phro stag tshang / spa gro stag tshang), is the popular name of Taktsang Palphug Monastery (also known as The Tiger’s Nest), a prominent Himalayan Buddhist sacred site and temple complex, located in the cliffside of the upper Paro valley. A temple complex was first built in 1692, around the Taktsang Senge Samdup (stag tshang seng ge bsam grub) cave where Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche or "Precious Master", also known as the "Second Buddha" of Bhutan) is said to have come, when evil spirits abounded and harmed people in Bhutan, and to have meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours starting in 747 CE. Padmasambhava is credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan and is the tutelary deity of the country. Today, Paro Taktsang is the best known of the thirteen taktsang or "tiger lair" caves in which he meditated.
According to the legend related to this Taktsang (which in Tibetan language is spelt (stag tshang) which literally means "Tiger’s lair", it is believed that Padmasambhava flew to this location from Tibet on the back of a tigress from Khenpajong. This place was consecrated to tame the Tiger demon.
The monastery is located 10 kilometers (6.2 mi) to the north of Paro and hangs on a precipitous cliff at 3,120 meters (10,240 ft), about 900 meters (3,000 ft) above the Paro valley, on the right side of the Paro Chu (‘chu’ in Bhutanese means ”river” or “water”). The rock slopes where the Tiger’s Nest is situated are very steep (almost vertical) and the monastery buildings are built into the rock face.
Guru Padmasambhava founder of the meditation cave. The image below is a wall painting on Paro Bridge in traditional style of the master.
An alternative legend about the Tiger’s Nest holds that a former wife of an emperor, known as Yeshe Tsogyal, willingly became a disciple of Guru Rinpoche in Tibet. She transformed herself into a tigress and carried the Guru on her back from Tibet to the present location of the Taktsang in Bhutan. In one of the caves here, the Guru then performed meditation and emerged in eight incarnated forms (manifestations) and the place became holy. Subsequently, the place came to be known as the “Tiger’s Nest”.
The popular legend of the Taktsang monastery is further embellished with the story of Tenzin Rabgye, who built the temple here in 1692. It has been mentioned by authors that the 8th century guru Padmasmabhava had reincarnated again in the form of Tenzin Rabgye.
Many well known Tibetan Buddhist figures are known to have come to meditate here, starting in the 11th century. These include Milarepa (1040–1123), Pha Dampa Sangye (died 1117), the Tibetan yogini Machig Labdrön (1055–1145) and Thangton Gyelpo (1385–1464).
It is said that, like Mecca for Moslems, Taktsang is a place that all Bhutanese should visit at least once in their life.
We had been walking up the hill for at least an hour. Poor Lhendup had to wait multiple times for me to catch my breath. A few hikers passed us along the way. They were covered with proper rain gear, wearing proper hiking boots, and carrying two walking sticks. Uh-oh, I thought.
The higher we went, the muddier and more slippery the trail became. It crossed my mind that it would be possible to turn back. I had no idea how I was going to survive the trip back down these slippery paths. Lhendup kept encouraging me, and promising to keep me safe on the way down.
A group on horseback arrives at the spot beyond which the horses can’t continue. The climb so far had been difficult enough for me that I really regretted not going up by horseback.
This is one of Richard’s favorite photos. You can see how steep the terrain of the monastery is. Paro Taktsang looks so mysterious through the mist.
Lhendup sits for a bit by a big prayer wheel.
The path here has a few stairs. This is not the big stairway that is farther up, at the approach to the monastery. A friend who had made this trip warned me about all the stairs, numbering in the hundreds.
High in the mountains, and still good cell phone reception. Lhendup was speaking to our driver, who was escorting Richard at this time.
More prayer flags.
Prayer flags and a row of tsa-tsa set high in the mountains to ease the transition of the departed soul.
Here is a close-up of the tsa-tsa. You can see from the different colored tops that these were placed by at least three different people.
Moss hangs from the trees along the trail, the kind of moss that thrives when it rains a lot. Like today.
This small building along the way marks the birth spot of a significant recent holy man, Gendun Rinchen.
This sign commemorates this place.
Gendün Rinchen was born here in 1926. Born in a cave, as a child he was nicknamed "Dragphugpa"(Cave Man). At a young age he showed great interest in the Buddhist religion and at seven he received novice ordination at Tashichö Dzong in Thimphu and was given the name Gendün Rinchen.
He was the 69th spiritual head of Bhutan, the Je Khenpo, the Chief Abbot of the Central Monastic Body of Bhutan. Geshey is a scholastic title.
One earlier Buddhist saint whom he admired, and wrote a popular biography of was Drukpa Kunley (1455 – 1529) also known as Kunga Legpa, the Madman of the Dragon Lineage. From Wikipedia, here are a couple of verses from The Madman of the Dragon Lineage:
The five spiritual ways
I practice the path of self-discipline. I meditate every day.
I go the way of embracing love. I work as a mother and father of all beings.
I do the deity yoga. I visualize myself as a Buddha in the cosmic unity.
I read the books of all religions and practice all at the right moment.
The life is my teacher and my inner wisdom is my guide.
Poem about happiness
I am happy that I am a free Yogi.
So I grow more and more into my inner happiness.
I can have sex with many women,
because I help them to go the path of enlightenment.
Outwardly I’m a fool
and inwardly I live with a clear spiritual system.
Outwardly, I enjoy wine, women and song.
And inwardly I work for the benefit of all beings.
Outwardly, I live for my pleasure
and inwardly I do everything in the right moment.
Outwardly I am a ragged beggar
and inwardly a blissful Buddha.
He was known for his crazy methods of enlightening other beings, mostly women, which earned him the title "The Saint of 5,000 Women.”Among other things, women would seek his blessing in the form of sex. His intention was to shock the clergy out of their prudish behavior and neurotic ways of teaching Buddhism. He is often credited with introducing into Bhutan the practice of painting phalli on walls and placing statues of them on rooftops to drive away evil spirits. According to local legend, he turned demonesses into protective deities by hitting them with his penis. Because of this power to subdue demons, Kunley’s penis is referred to as the "Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom" and he himself is known as the "fertility saint".
Prayer flags adorn the house (naturally). Like we have seen elsewhere, there is a row of animals just below the roof, symbolic guardians I would guess.
Here is the Tiger’s Nest. We are getting close now. Except for the last sets of steps. When I heard that there were all those steps, I was afraid they would be too difficult for me. But it turned out that when we arrived at them I was so very grateful to be walking on something other than mud!
A close-up of the Paro Taktsang.
Now we start down the last set of steps, over 700 steps in all. First we must go down deep into the valley before we climb back up to the monastery.
The area of these 700 steps to the Tiger’s Cave is decorated with many strings of prayer flags.
As one climbs into the canyon, a one-hundred-meter-high waterfall is next to the path.
It comes out of the mountain.
Down the steep rock face.
And passes beneath the steps.
To explode in mist below.
Many tsa-tsa are placed amidst the rocks here. This is a good place for your ancestors.
Below, our first glimpse of the Lion Cave where Yeshe Tsogyal, the consort of Guru Rinpoche, meditated. This cave is much less visited than the Tiger´s Nest, and it is much more intimate with only one small room with an altar on one side and the unpainted and uncovered rock on the other.
Here is a sign commemorating this important cave.
Singye Phu Lhakhang – the Snow Lion Cave Temple. From Geocaching.com:
Vajrakilaya is a wrathful deity representing compassion and wisdom that is used to concentrate the mind in meditation.
Yeshe Tsogyal was the consort of Guru Rinpoche and after many years of diligent study she achieved a level of enlightenment equal to his. It was she who took the shape of a tigress and carried the Guru to this high place. She was the main compiler of Guru Rinpoche’s teachings, wrote his biography, and it was she who concealed most of the religious treasures later to be found after a period when Buddhism had been persecuted in Bhutan.
Some schools of Tibetan Buddhism recognize Yeshe Tsogyal as a female Buddha, who after many years emerged from an isolated meditation retreat in a state of full enlightenment.
A better view of the Lion’s Cave, really perched up on the cliffs. If you look closely you can see steps rising in the center right of the photo.
This photo puts the location of the Lion’s Cave in better context. You can see that it is built on a sheer rock wall.
Here is a description of the Tiger’s Nest, from Reader’s Digest Asia:
Called Taktsang, or Tiger’s Nest, the monastery – painstakingly restored after a fire in 1998 – now has more than a dozen shrines and temples and accommodates a small group of monks. Other monks live in nearby retreats, some remaining in solitary meditation for several years.
Place of pilgrimage
Seen from the main gate, a thin ribbon of white walls and pagoda roofs are squeezed up against the cliff face, linked only by steps and passages cut into the rock and rickety bridges. The occasional small terrace offers the visitor relief from the vertiginous path and the reward of spectacular views of the Paro Valley far below.
Temples jostle for space. Inside, the walls are covered with murals depicting gurus and gods gazing through clouds of incense among gilded statues and altars piled high with offerings of flowers and fruit and butter sculptures. Among them are Guru Rinpoche and his consorts, the Copper-Coloured Paradise, the God of Long Life and the God of Wealth. Devotees peep through the grille into the holy cave, known as Pel Phuk, in which Guru Rinpoche lived and meditated, where now butter lamps flicker in the dark and images of the Bodhisattvas are just visible. Now and then, the deep chanting of monks echoes along the walls, punctuated by cymbals and gongs.
A small shrine along the way.
We are now on the last set of stairs, approaching the Tiger’s Nest from directly below.
Rules and timings for the Tiger’s Nest.
Looking back at the path near the entrance to the Tiger’s Nest. Many visitors have piled cairns of stones along the wall. Past this point, photos are not allowed.
Before entering the monastery, we were asked to relinquish our cameras and our carry bags at a check-in point. I was sorry to have given up one of my not-very-warm shawls, because the drizzle had left me cold and damp by that time. Oh well.
The interior of the monastery was amazing. We stopped and meditated by the entrance to the cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated. We ascended the various levels of the building, where there were huge, astounding sculptures of various gods and guardians. We sat nearby while old monks chanted and blew their horns. It was a magical experience.
As we re-emerged from the monastery, I was unhappy to see that the rain had increased in intensity. It looks like the trip back down the steep muddy paths will be even less fun.
And I was right! There were countless times when my feet slipped and Lhendup caught me from falling. Then there was the one time when he couldn’t grab my arm in time. I slid down on my bum, and legs and rear got covered in mud. Lhendup felt so bad that he had failed me, but I had to keep telling him how grateful I was to only have fallen once!
Halfway back down the trail there is a restaurant, a common stopping-off point for everyone. Before we entered, Lhendup took a bottle of water and tried to wash off my backside. It wouldn’t have been good form to get the seats inside all muddy. We went inside for lunch, although I was too cold and wet and miserable to have much of an appetite. The hot tea was comforting, though.
From the restaurant, one more look at this special place.
These lighted oil lamps decorated the outside of the restaurant. This was the last photo I took along the way, deciding to concentrate on surviving the rest of the walk without a real calamity.
At the end of the day, I was most happy to have made this trip, even with the difficulties and mud. It was a memorable accomplishment. And I will always be grateful to Lhendup for his patience and care.
While Carol and Lhendup were on their climb to the legendary place, I will see some other sites that do not required me to climb a half mile up a mountain.
The day is cloudy, but nice, and the countryside is pretty.
I love how the Bhutanese cover things like bridges with prayer flags.
Ruins of Drukgyel Dzong
After we dropped Carol and Lhendup off for their Tiger’s Nest climb, our first stop was at Dukgyel Dzong. From the Unesco listing of tentative world Heritage Sites:
The ancient ruin of Drukgyel Dzong, considered as the most beautiful and famous archaeological sites in Bhutan, is situated on a ridge in the upper Paro valley. Since its construction in 1649, Drukgyel Dzong had been served as an important base for defense in the region until 1951 when it was destroyed by fire. Even after the destruction, the ruins of the Dzong continued to be protected as an important monument linking people of Bhutan with the great events that contributed in maintaining sovereignty of the country.
Drukgyel Dzong is one of the Dzongs built by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the linage holder of the Drukpa-Kagyud Buddhist School and the unifier of Bhutan who came to Bhutan in 1616 escaping the conflict over recognition of the principal abbot of the Drukpa-Kagyud School in Ralung, Tibet. Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal and his successors constructed several fortresses called Dzong in the process of gaining control over different regions of the country, which were dominated by clergies and leaders of different Buddhist schools. These Dzongs were designed as fortress at the time of power struggles as well as a court of clergies and administrators after Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal established the unique dual government system headed by Je Kenpo (the Head of religious affairs) and Desi (the Head of temporal affairs).
Unlike other Dzongs built by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal and his successors, Drukgyel Dzong was served solely for defensive purpose without administrative and religious functions, especially against external threats from the border. The Dzong had housed the best armory in the country at the time. As the name of the Dzong indicates (Druk is the local name for Bhutan, while Gyel means victory), it is said that it was built to commemorate Bhutanese victory over the combined forces of Tibetan and Mongolian army, which attempted several invasions to the country. Thus, the Dzong was built at the strategic site near the border with Tibet for strengthening defense against future invasions.
The existing ruins of the Dzong are comparatively well preserved. One can without much difficulty understand or distinguish features of the complex. Although most of timber components of the Dzong such as roof truss, door and window frames, and floors and ceilings are almost totally absent, major portion of stone and rammed earth wall structures are still standing. They provide for visitors in understanding ideas and practices for defense in the olden times.
The Dzong consists of Utse, the central tower building, which housed a shrine of guardian deities, and Shabkhor, rectangular buildings surrounding the courtyards. It was built adapting to the geographical condition of the hill and formed a distinct design. The high and massive stone masonry walls of Shabkhor buildings stood on the steep slope of the hill entirely enclosing the inner space of the Dzong, making approach to Dzong possible only from the single entrance, which is heavily guarded by several ta-dzongs (watching forts) cylindrical in shape situated between the entrance and foot of the hill. Secret tunnels providing protected passages to fetch water from the river below the hill as well as to send troops during the time of war are said to have existed. Presently, cylindrical tower buildings called chu-dzong (water fort) can be seen connected with each other with paths enclosed by defensive walls.
Drukgyel Dzong from the valley below.
The entrance to the area.
A large prayer wheel at the entrance. The young man pictured below was our driver for our four-day Bhutan adventure, accompanying Richard while Lhendup was with Carol.
The rest of the way is up.
Here is one of the ta-dzongs (watching forts), that an attacker would have to face if they tried to conquer this fort.
Pretty flowers were on the hillside.
Up some more. The cobblestones were wet from the rain (but not steep and muddy, like Carol was facing).
The last stretch up to the fort.
This is an arrow slit, from which defenders would fire at any attacker. It is a great defensive spot.
The entrance into Drukgyel Dzong.
One of the interior buildings, a Shabkhor.
The Utse, the central tower, is high above all the other buildings.
You can see that this building was made from stones, fitted together.
The valley below with the terraced rice paddies.
Views from within the grounds.
As I walked down, I took more photos of the site. It looked like it would be imposing for an attacking force (before the advent of gunpowder).
A small shrine on the grounds.
Many tsa-tsa are set about the shrine.
Statues of various gods and saints are mounted in niches up in the wall.
One last look at the imposing walls of the fort.
The Jowo Temple of Kyichu is one of the oldest temples in Bhutan, originally built in the 7th century by the Tibetan Emperor Songsten Gampo.
In the 8th century the temple was visited by Guru Rinpoche and it is believed he concealed many spiritual treasures here.
This temple is one of 108 built by King Songtsen Gampo to subdue a demoness who prevented the spread of Buddhism. Temples were built across the Himalayas to pin her body down. Kyichu Lhakhang pins down her left foot and Jamba Lhakhang in Bumthang her left knee. Guru Rimpoche came here to meditate in the eighth century. Pilgrims turn the many prayer wheels along the walls as they circumambulate the temple. The fine statues of the Bodhisattvas and the Buddha are national treasures.
Approaching, we see the towers of the temple. They are particularly colorful, with golden cloth hanging from the eaves of the roof.
We enter through this small gate.
Wall lined with small prayer wheels. Visitors will spin these wheels as they enter.
The chorten on the grounds, maybe 20 feet high.
The figure at the top of the chorten, gazing upon us through the glass.
The golden roof, looking more golden due to the gold cloth hanging from it.
A guardian painted on a wall.
The entrance to the Inner Sanctum. No more photos inside here.
A local man visiting the temple today.
Spinning prayer wheels on the way out.
Tsa-tsa set behind the prayer wheels.
A local woman entering the grounds of the temple.
Shopping in Paro
Picturesque shops line the street in Paro.
A common item in the shops were these phurbas, iconic Tibetan Buddhist implements, three-sided daggers.
The phurba is a significant religious artifact. From Wikipedia:
As a tool of exorcism, the kīla (phurba) may be employed to hold demons or thoughtforms (Tulpa) in place (once they have been expelled from their human hosts, for example) in order that their mindstream (sems rgyud) may be re-directed and their inherent obscurations transmuted. More esoterically, the kīla may serve to bind and pin down negative energies or obscurations from the mindstream of an entity, person or thoughtform, including the thoughtform generated by a group, project and so on, to administer purification.
The kīla as an iconographical implement is also directly related to Vajrakilaya, a wrathful deity of Tibetan Buddhism who is often seen with his consort Diptacakra. He is embodied in the kīla as a means of destroying (in the sense of finalizing and then freeing) violence, hatred, and aggression by tying them to the blade of the kīla and then transmuting them with its tip. The pommel may be employed in blessings. It is therefore that the kīla is not a physical weapon, but a spiritual implement, and should be regarded as such. The kīla often bears the epithet Diamantine Dagger of Emptiness (see shunyata).
As Müller-Ebelling, et al. (2002: p. 55) states:
The magic of the Magical Dagger comes from the effect that the material object has on the realm of the spirit. The art of tantric magicians or lamas lies in their visionary ability to comprehend the spiritual energy of the material object and to willfully focus it in a determined direction. . . The tantric use of the phurba encompasses the curing of disease, exorcism, killing demons, meditation, consecrations (puja), and weather-making. The blade of the phurba is used for the destruction of demonic powers. The top end of the phurba is used by the tantrikas for blessings.
While the Tibetans hold that these should only be used by someone who has had much spiritual training and adept in their use, they have become a popular item for tourists.
Boots, made in the Bhutan embroidery tradition.
The head of Tamdrin, a protective deity.
It is argued by social science researchers that the phallus is a representation of "Worldly illusion of desires", and it is said that as a symbol of power and fertility of the animists of the Bön religion, the phallus’s representation got enmeshed with Buddhism in Bhutan. Similar phallic depictions can be found in Thailand, on Bali and in other cultures.
The belief that such a symbol brings good luck and drives away evil spirits is so much ingrained in the psyche of the common populace in Bhutan that the symbols are routinely painted outside walls of the new houses and even painted on number plates of trucks. The carved wooden phalluses are hung (sometimes crossed by a design of sword or dagger) outside, on the eaves of the new homes, at the four corners. The wooden phalluses are also driven in the agricultural fields as a kind of scarecrow, when the crops start sprouting.
If you don’t already have one, you can buy one for yourself here.
Last we went to one more temple.
Jangtsa Dumgtseg Lhakhang
The temple is notable as it is in the form of a chorten, very rare in Bhutan. It is located on the edge of a hill between the Paro valley and the Dopchari valley, across the bridge from Paro. The Buddhist iconography depicted in the Chorten is considered a unique repository of the Drukpa Kagyu school.
According to a local legend, the Lhakhang was built in 1421 by the saint Thangtong Gyalpo to subdue a "serpentine force" that was located at the foundation of the chorten. Another legend says that Lhakhang was built on the head of a demoness. According to a Bhutanese source it was built "on the nose of a hill that looks like a frog in order to counteract Sadag (earth-owning spirit) and Lunyen (powerful naga spirit). It is said that the hill, by which the temple is built, is a black vicious snake moving downwards."
The Lhakhang is conceived as a mandala, with the three three floors corresponding to the different levels of initiation. The three floors are said to represent hell, earth and heaven. It is in the shape of a chorten with a white tower on top, very unusual in Bhutan. The monastery contains many steep ladders to reach the different levels. Lhakang contains a massive collection of Buddhist paintings and iconography, said to rival those of any Tibetan Buddhist monastery.
- The ground floors holds the Five Buddhas of Meditation and forms of Avalokiteshvara, Guru Rinpoche and Thangton Gyelpo.
- On the second floor are depictions of Mahakala on the outer wall with hundred peaceful and wrathful deities and Bardo on the interior wall, the intermediary state between death and rebirth.
- On the third floor of Dungtse Lhakang are Tantric deities. Depicted on the exterior wall are Guhyasamaja, Vajrabhairava, Cakrasamvara, Hevajra,Kalacakra, Vajravarahi, Hayagriva and Mahamaya. This is the five-deity mandala of the Shangpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, founded by Khyunpo Naljor.
- On the inside wall are depictions of the 84 Indian saints and Tibetan saints such as Marpa, Milarepa (which has a majestic looking statue dedicated to him) and Gampopa.
Jangtsa Dumgtseg Lhakhang from the road.
The gate to enter.
Row of prayer wheels, to spin upon entry.
Tsa-tsa placed at the temple.
Entrance to the Inner Sanctum. The light inside was only by oil lamps, so it was dark and mysterious. This made it the more interesting as giant wrathful gods appear painted on the walls. I could climb to the top, using steep narrow wooden stairs. I loved it in here.
Back to Nepal
The next morning we had to leave.
Paro Valley from our hotel.
Then to the airport and our flight to Kathmandu via Druk Air.
Himalayas to the Right
This time we were seated on the side of the plane where we would see the Himalayas. Sure enough, high snow-covered peaks started to appear.
We were excited when we were told that we would see Mt. Everest. Maybe this is Everest? I think so.
This is as close as we will ever get to Everest.
More snow-covered mountains.
Then we were back in Nepal, the four-day adventure in Bhutan over. Most interesting, Bhutan is a special place, and not like the others we have visited. Expensive, but worth the trip. Maybe someday they will let you travel on our own, without the (high cost) guides.