A trek up the mountains to the Tigers Nest Monastery in Bhutan.
BRILLIANT sunlight, filtering through drifting cotton-white clouds across a clear blue sky, gave us ample warmth that early winter morning as we got ready to trek to the Taktshang Goemba (Tigers Nest) Monastery located above Paro Valley in the southwestern boundary of the Jigme Dorji National Park in Bhutan. It is one of the most awesome sights in Bhutan, precariously nestled as it is on a steep cliff face nearly 600 metres above the forest floor at an altitude of 3,060 m. Travel guide books have made the image of the monastery the symbol of Bhutan.
It was early December in 2007. We had just participated in an intense, but exceedingly useful, five-day workshop on Addressing human-wildlife conflict towards poverty alleviation organised by the Nature Conservation Division (NCD) of the Department of Forests, Ministry of Agriculture, Royal Government of Bhutan, with assistance from WWF-Bhutan and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The dawn-to-dusk sessions over five days had made us look forward to the trek to the monastery over the mountain.
I was accompanied by Jan Kamler, a specialist on Canid Ecology and Behaviour with an emphasis on International Conservation, and Elizabeth Fox, who was hired by the NCD to help organise the workshop. We were guided on the trek by Ugyen Dorji, who held a post-graduate diploma in wildlife training from the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra Dun. Many of the other participants at the workshop walked with us until a little beyond Ramthangkha (where the tourists vehicles are parked), at an altitude of 2,550 m. As we stood and watched, a few of them spotted nutcrackers (Nucifraga caryocatactes) feeding in the canopy of the abundant blue pine trees. Ugyen Namgyel, another young officer trained at the Wildlife Institute of India and a famed singer in Bhutan, sang us a farewell song. His melodious song, accompanied by the murmur of a nearby stream, glorified the etiquette of Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan, and the oath taken by him to practise and revere Dharma to attain enlightenment.
The others parted from our foursome near the stream, where there were many chortens (domed Buddhist memorials that hold relics) and where the steep climb to the monastery began.
The landscape of Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, is dotted with imposing fortresses saddled across hilltops, countless monasteries and gold-roofed chortens. Among all the historical and religious sites, the Tigers Nest is the most visited one. The legend of Taktshang dates back to A.D. 747. when Guru Rinpoche (Padma Sambhava), in the wrathful form of Guru Dorji Droloe, is believed to have arrived at this site on the back of a tigress, meditated in a cave for three months, and subdued the evil spirits in the region. The vanquished local deities eventually became the protectors of Dharma. The Guru, acclaimed as the second Buddha, blessed Bhutan as the second Kailash and heralded the coming of Buddhism to Bhutan. Before his time, the Bhutanese worshipped animals.
The monastery in its present form, which has on its premises the cave where the Guru meditated, was built in 1692 by the Bhutanese people in order to honour the good deeds of Guru Rinpoche. It suffered a devastating fire in April 1998, thought to have been sparked by either a lightning strike or an overturned butter lamp. With utmost care, and with the help of existing photographs, it was rapidly restored to its near original condition under the watchful guidance of King Jigme Singye Wangchuk.
The trail to the monastery, flanked by prayer flags, wound through forests of oak adorned with a dark canopy of blue pine, which looked yellowish green in the golden light of the winter sun, and various kinds of rhododendrons that had not yet started sprouting flowers. Rhododendrons make the Bhutan mountains look like a large, colourful flower garden in the spring.
Every year, some 100,000 local residents and tourists are said to trek up to the monastery. When we started the walk, there were already several tourists on the trail, some travelling on horseback and others, with greater fitness and stamina, steadily walking up. We came across a flock of snow pigeons (Columbia leuconota) flying overhead. Although the habitat looked suitable for the barking deer (Muntiacus muntjak), the sambar (Cervus unicolor), the leopard (Panthera pardus) and the black bear (Ursus thibetanus), we saw only dog tracks the dogs here have the habit of following tourists. We concluded that the numerous scats (droppings of large carnivores) along the edge of the road belonged to dogs as we did not see any leopard scrape marks. A few smaller scats indicated that leopard cats (Prionailurus bengalensis), usually common in the mountains, used these forests.
After an hour or so, we stopped for a long rest at a tea shop, which is at about two-thirds of the distance from the base. Over tea and locally made biscuits, we chatted with the owner about the animals seen in the area. He told us that leopards were seldom seen, though wild pigs (Sus scrofa) and barking deer were seen occasionally. The tea shop provided an excellent view of the monastery and it made us marvel that such an imposing structure had been built at such an inaccessible place.
Stopping for a long rest while climbing up a mountain is not, however, a good idea. When one starts climbing again, it has one gasping for breath for at least 20 minutes before one gets into the rhythm of climbing. After our stop at the tea shop, we went past a group of Black-faced Laughing Thrush (Garrulax affinis) which foraged unruffled by our presence in the understory.
Our next halt was at a place near a cafeteria, where horses and mules were tethered. It is most probably here that in February 1998 Prince Charles sat and painted a water colour of the monastery surrounded by the Buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.
We stood there wondering how anyone had managed to tie the numerous strings, with colourful paper flags, between that point and the monastery across the deep valley.
From this point, the monastery beyond the gorge-like valley is at eye level. With its blindingly white exterior, red adornments and gold cupola roof, it looks like a picture pasted on the cliff wall. The difficult part of the trek, to those not used to heights, comes beyond this point, as narrow steps go down to the valley and then up to the monastery. A few trekkers reportedly slip and fall to their death every year, but it is really not too dangerous if one is careful at the turns, where one has to walk along the edge of the valley. There are also railings for support in the more difficult points.
The trail goes past a cascading waterfall that appears to be almost 100m high. We walked past the fall, enjoying the spray, and encountered a few Alpine accenters (Prunella collaris) feeding on the ground, which are residents of the high-altitude Himalayas. Hovering up in the sky were lammergeyers (Gypaetus barbatus), vultures of the mountains, and a Cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus), which winters in the Himalayas. At the entrance to the monastery, security personnel checked our permits, which as non-Bhutanese we were required to carry. As photography is not allowed inside the Tigers Nest, we left our cameras in the custody of the security staff, to be collected before leaving.
Inside the monastery, it was icy cold. Tranquility reigned as the smell of burning yak butter candles and incense permeated the air. The lights of the candles flickered on the rock wall paintings, which briefly trace the countrys history.
Legend has it that the gold statue of Guru Rinpoche was too heavy for the men carrying it up the steep mountainside the trail in those days must have been extremely rudimentary. When the climb became very difficult, the statue spoke, asking the men to leave it behind and continue on their way up. When the men reached the site of the monastery, they found the statue already there. That spot eventually became the shrine.
We briefly enquired with a monk about wildlife sightings around. He said that he occasionally sighted goral (Nemorhaedus goral) and langur (Semnopithecus entellus) monkeys. He had, however, never seen a leopard.
As I descended slowly to Ramthangkha, my thoughts drifted back to the International Tiger Symposium held in Paro in September 2004. It was the first attempt by the royal government to garner the support of tiger experts to chart out a secure future for the globally threatened animal, which has about 20,000 sq km of continuous habitats in Bhutan, connected to the habitats in India. The habitat in Bhutan, however, is highly mountainous, which therefore has a limited capability to support high densities of wild ungulate prey and tigers.
However, we realised that it is possible, with sustained and scientific management, to support a population of about 100 adult tigers in Bhutan. This vision is likely to find support among the people of Bhutan. Thousands of local residents and tourists visit Tigers Nest every year, and many can be persuaded to aid tiger conservation efforts in the country. Besides, the people of Bhutan revere the tiger as a protector of their religion. There is every possibility, therefore, for the Land of the Thunder Dragon to become the Land of the Tiger.
Dr. A.J.T. Johnsingh is a wildlife biologist with Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, and Honorary Scientific Advisor to WWF-India.