Bhutan: Land of the flaming phallus

In Bhutan, all things are considered sentient beings.

Published : Mar 09, 2023 10:40 IST

Paro, Bhutan

Paro, Bhutan | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Our Drukair flight swerved its way through folds of blue, pine-covered mountains towards Bhutan’s Paro International airport, tucked in Paro Valley on the bank of the river Paro Chhu. I shrieked as the plane approached the runway: surrounded by peaks as high as 18,000 feet, Paro is considered to be one of the trickiest runways to navigate. Once safely on the ground, we made our way to the capital, Thimphu, 50 kilometres from Paro.

As we drove along the gushing Paro Chhu river, our guide Sonam told us proudly that while the Bhutanese constitution mandates that at least 60 per cent of the country remains under forest cover, currently the figure is over 70 per cent. Driving past droopy willow trees with bright ochre leaves, Sonam said: “In Bhutan, we consider all things as sentient beings. We believe that anything might have been our mother in another life: so, we protect everything.”

In Yowakha village, walls of houses were adorned with paintings of the phallus.

In Yowakha village, walls of houses were adorned with paintings of the phallus. | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thimphu, the largest city in Bhutan, felt delightfully quaint and small. For a number of years, the “land of the thunder dragon”, as Bhutan is also known, remained cloistered and gradually opened up in the 1960s. While signs of change abound, it still operates at its own pace, making its own rules. Ever since the first car was allowed in 1962, the number of vehicles on the roads has increased rapidly, but everyone follows traffic rules without being monitored.

There were no traffic signals in Thimphu’s main Norzin Lam street, and at one intersection—said to be the busiest—we saw two traffic wardens regulating vehicles using a system of graceful hand movements. They were called the “dancing policemen”.

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The next day we drove through cloud forests to the scenic Dochula Pass and onward to Punakha district. Down in the valley, we followed Sonam along a narrow mud path running through barren fields and alongside a babbling stream to Yowakha village. And, all of a sudden, the phallus was everywhere.

“Despite the violent legend, there was a palpable sense of calm at the small temple, with its slanting white walls and prayer bells.”

The walls of the simple two-storey houses in this village were all adorned with paintings of the phallus. Souvenir shops sold phallus-shaped keepsakes, which are meant to ward off evil. The symbol is associated with the Tibetan lama Drukpa Kunley, also known as the “divine madman”, who was famous for his love of alcohol, women, and unconventional teaching methods. The small 15th century Chimi Lhakhang temple is dedicated to him.

The story goes that Lama Kunley once heard of a demoness up in Dochula Pass terrorising passers-by. To teach the demoness a lesson, he went to Dochula and hid behind a tree, waiting for her. A terrible fight ensued once the demoness showed up. To her shock, the lama lifted up his robe and struck her with his flaming phallus. She turned into a dog and ran for her life, but Lama Kunley caught her and buried her alive shouting “chi med”, or “no dog”. Today, a stout black stupa stands on that very spot at Chimi Lhakhang, which literally means “no dog”.

A view of Punakha, Bhutan.

A view of Punakha, Bhutan. | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

We walked up broad mud steps to reach the temple built atop a mound, that according to Lama Kunley, resembled a woman’s breast. Despite the violent legend, there was a palpable sense of calm at the small temple, with its slanting white walls and prayer bells. Inside, the altar was crowded with offerings ranging from elaborate handmade ritual cakes, fruits, and butter lamps to incense, and alcohol bottles. Beside the altar, there was a large wooden phallus, which Sonam told us, is used to bless couples trying to conceive. Before we left he showed us a book with messages, and photographs of babies sent by grateful parents from around the world.

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It was dark by the time we reached our homestay in Mendrelgang village, where our host, Kinley Choden, had laid out a feast of local dishes, including Bhutan’s national dish—ema datschi. The mild-tempered Bhutanese love their fiery chillies, which are not an addition but the main ingredient in ema datschi, a stew made of chillies, cheese, onion, tomato, and garlic. Eaten with warm red rice, the dish surprises and warms up one from the inside—just as a visit to the Himalayan kingdom does.

Chaitali Patel is a Dubai-based freelancer who writes about travel, food, and culture.

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