Land of the Lingam
When you first arrive in Bhutan, a land the size of Switzerland touted by some as the real Shangri La, nothing can prepare you for the spectacle. I’m not talking about the serene, kind people, or the lush rice terraces, or even the 100-foot Buddhas towering over valleys that host some of the highest peaks in the world.
I’m talking about the proliferation of painted penises – you heard me – adorning monasteries, homes, and many a public-space walls. The phallus, it turns out, is a Bhutanese symbol of protection and token of good luck. I suppose you could do a lot worse.
Never mind the quiet of the land, the serenity and respectful nature of the people, or the clear lines and simple beauty of their traditional Dzong architecture, a distinctive fortress/monastery found only in Buddhist Himalayan lands. Or even the hypnotic tinkle of the prayer wheels. Shangri La, as it turns out, has embraced painted penises for deliverance, as we would our gods, or in some quarters, a gun.
The painted public penis (lingam in Sanskrit) is the legacy of the Divine Madman, aka Drukpa Kunley, one of Bhutan’s more revered saints, a 15th century poet, tantric artist and holy Llama (enlightened monk) who, as legend goes, not only mastered the art of mahamudra (hand gestures that invoke deep spirituality), but would defy demons by bonking them on the head with his … well, you catch my drift.
While we’re accustomed to a perhaps more sadistic and long-suffering religious iconography (crucifixion, crown of thorns, anyone?), the public penis spectacle does take some getting used to. I’d expect to see something like this in any one of the globe’s red light districts, but Shangri La? What would Buddha say? Given the Divine Madman’s sanctity, he’s obviously on-board.
Enlightenment, it turns out, comes in all forms, and as a Buddhist land steeped in the reverence for all living things, Bhutan boasts an ethical, gentle people, who, unlike so many others, are driven by sacrifice and not materialism, and who genuinely seem to want the best for everyone.
Maybe there’s some wisdom to this phallus thing after all.
The largest misconception about Bhutan is that it is “untouristed”. That perception is based on a well-honed marketing myth that skillfully promotes the aura of an exotic, untraveled Buddhist Himalayan land. The truth is something far more mundane. There were tourist quotas in the 1970’s, but there are none – zero – to be found now.
The only thing resembling a quota is how few airline seats there are. That’s because there’s only one airline flying into Bhutan, Druk Air, owned by the government. And they have only 4 planes. Do the math. So few seats = so few tourists, and a limited supply of anything will always create an increased demand. The government’s clever PR campaign, based on Bhutan’s quota history, has made a virtue (so hard to get in) out of a vice (too few airline seats).
With Druk Air’s 4 planes flying at or near capacity, 52,783 international tourists visited Bhutan in 2013. No small number for a landlocked, mountainous country with an endless system of valleys whose population totals less than a million.
Most of these tourists all travel the same worn circuit, maintained and regulated by the government. This includes Paro, Punakha and Bhumtang. Most of them are pretty much all well-off retirees, insulated from the local culture and rarely, from what I gather, get to see past the government’s tightly regulated “film”. Nor did it appear that they cared to.
They eat in government sanctioned restaurants (beware of the “Tastee Powder” = MSG!), and don’t really get to engage the local culture. The assumption being that tourists will buzz on MSG, but don’t really want to get “down and dirty”. The government, a recent Buddhist democracy, presided over by a ceremonial monarch, also does not want to see their culture watered down by decadent Westerners. For example, cigarette smokers, caught without a “license” can receive up to three years in jail.
To really discover the Land of the Lotus Flower (symbolizing the purity of Buddha’s body, speech and mind) you have to get past the official “film”. You must deviate from the heavily-constrained official joyride. It’s getting harder and harder to do, but like anywhere, your attitude dictates your latitude, and also where and how far a journey like this can go.
The locals are reserved at first, unlike the gregarious Nepalese, but given the chance to warm up, they do thaw. And once thawed, they treat you like a guest of honor, and the superior nature of their let-and-let-live Buddhist culture is revealed. They’re tolerant. They’re not punitive. They’re a gentle people centered on their religious world view, in a culture full of believers. And like so few other lands, they do not force conversions, or raid other countries in the name of their god(s), and they never proselytize. In respecting the sanctity of all living things, they truly have created a peace-loving society. When someone says that they prayed for your ill mother, you know that these are not empty words, and that it comes deep from the heart.
Would you expect anything less of a country of 750,000 people with 2,000 monasteries?
The best hidden secret in Bhutan is the trekking. Of the 50,000 turistas, only about 3,000 go there to trek (2,943 to be exact), and on a variety of routes, so you can just imagine how sparsely populated those routes are. Compared with the 133,000 people who trek Nepal, or the 40,000 who do Kilimanjaro annually, this is nothing.
This October, we’ll be taking a select lucky few to trek on the Bhutanese Jomolhari Lingshi trail. Less than 900 people a year (848 to be exact) do this trail. Just think. We’ll make up a dozen or so of that “quota”.
When we first set out to Bhutan, for us it was a destination unknown. I deliberately did not research. I wanted to use my old school approach, pre-Google, pre-Lonely Planet Guide: land and learn. Absorb. The information comes after the trip. I wanted to find the magic. Feel the awe. It worked. We found more than we ever dreamed of. In the Land of the Lotus Flower, with such serenity and unspoiled beauty, there was no destination. There was only the journey.
Buddha was everywhere.