Into the Land of Thunder Dragon : Bhutan Travelogue - Taktsang Monastery

I am not sure how I would describe my irrepressible desire to visit Taktsang Monastery from the very first moment I came to know about it. Was it my devotion towards Buddhism? Was it the adrenaline rush that filled my veins at the mere thought of doing something as rigorous as hiking up to 3000 ft? Or was it just a desperate attempt to create some temporary purpose in my apparently directionless life? Whatever the objective might be, I am sure it was definitely not salvation. I don’t have that hope anymore. I have gone beyond help long time ago. Perhaps that’s why I no longer feel any guilt while committing or even thinking of something aberrant.

Every country, every culture has something of its own to represent its unique identity. India has got that colossal mausoleum made by an erratic, incompetent emperor in the loving memory of his wife who died giving birth to their fourteenth child. Why does it always have to be so ironic and hypocritical whenever it comes to India? Anyway. Taktsang Monastery is Bhutan’s cultural icon. There is not a single write up on Bhutan that does not come with a picture of this ancient monastery hanging dangerously from the side of a precipice. It is needless to say that a Bhutan trip is all but complete sans a visit to this seventeenth century marvel. Even Kate Middleton and Prince William would agree with that.

The myth surrounding Taktsang Palphug Monastery dates back to the 8th century when Guru Padmasambhava flew in on the back of a flying tigress from Tibet and meditated here in the Taktsang Senge Samdup cave for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours. In 1692, Tenzin Rabgye (the same guy who renovated Tango Monastery) built a monastery around the cave. However there is a more interesting story behind Guru Rinpoche’s flying adventure – and that story involves a woman. Well, love inevitably either leads to something legendary or something equally disastrous. Lucky are those who make history out of them. However it was not a conventional one.

Yeshe Tsogyel was the queen consort of the first Tibetan king Trisong Detsen who ruled Tibet during the 8th century. During his rule, King Detsen invited Nalanda University abbot Santarakshita to preach Dharma to Tibet. That time, the people of Tibet used to follow a shamanic religion named Bon. Upon his arrival, Shantarakshita started to build Samye Monastery, the first monastery of Tibet. But his task was hindered due to the demonic disturbances in the area. So the Emperor invited Guru Padmasambhava and sought his help. Rinpoche subjugated the demon and got Yeshe Tsogyel in reward. Yeshe became one of his most important consorts. Rinpoche taught Yeshe that a female body is not a hindrance to enlightenment, it is rather an asset. Yeshe Tsogyel later became a Tantric teacher herself and she is considered to be a female Buddha. In his book “Sky Dancer : The Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel” Keith Dowman depicted how Guru Rinpoche’s ‘flaming vajra’ took command of her ‘lotus throne’ – the description of the initiation ritual is a pure delight to the senses.

One might wonder why I took all the trouble to talk about an ancient Tantric goddess here. It is because my dear reader it was none other than Yeshe Tsogyel who flew in Guru Rinpoche to our cave. She was the flying tigress.

After having breakfast when we reached the base it was 10 o’ clock in the morning. There was a small makeshift market where local women were selling trinkets, artifacts and of course, walking sticks. I told S that if we took walking stick for a 3 hours’ hiking, we should drown ourselves in our own spit and die. So our journey began. The rocky winding trail starts from the base and soon vanishes into the woods. And it gets steeper and narrower with time.

I am highly sensitive to the cold and Paro’s cold had induced me to wear three layers of sweaters and jackets. I had thought I was going to climb up to 3000 ft (10240 ft from the sea level) so I must need additional protection. I wasn’t wrong exactly but after 20 minutes into hiking I was covered in sweat and panting heavily. I saw nobody else was around except two of us. I told S to stop and keep an eye on the road while I took off my jacket and top and left the sweater on.

The best part about trekking is that you end with the same people you started your journey with, but in between it’s a game of taking the lead or trying to catch up. We started with a not so small group of teenagers with an ‘insufferable know-it-all’ looking older guy who was definitely the leader, another group of two dudes (they were very much interested in me, but couldn’t do much about it as they must have thought S was my bae or something. Word of advice – never travel alone with your forever friendzoned companion. You would be a loser from both ends.), a Bangladeshi couple and a group of very good looking tall, dark, handsome men who if I’m not too wrong were from Tamilnadu. On our way we kept bumping into the ones who had already accomplished their mission and coming down with smug faces and patronising attitudes. Some were telling how little we had reached so far. Some were advising to halt and take rest on regular intervals. The local guides and porters were returning with their horses and asking if we needed one.

Very soon we found our Bangladeshi couple sitting on a rock and discussing whether they should go all the way to the temple or go until the view point. Here is a little thing that I must point out. So far every blog, every travelogue I read about Tiger’s Nest Monastery I couldn’t help noticing one thing – all the photos were taken from the same angle and same distance. And I wondered why. Ok I knew that photography was not allowed once you are inside. But what about from outside the gate? Why is every photo taken from a convenient distance and not any closer? And I found my answer on the way. Most people (and by most, I mean 95% of people) do NOT visit the monastery. They go until the view point, jump and make faces, take photos, come back and then brag how they have gone up to the famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery.

There is a small cafeteria on the way where one can halt and recharge. Everything was exorbitantly priced there but given the difficulty to run a cafeteria so high up there in the middle of nowhere, the pricing was totally justifiable. We were sitting there sipping juice and patting a bunch of dogs who were more than happy to let me scratch their bellies when two people dressed in uniform came up to us and very politely requested us to move as the princess of Thailand was coming to sit there. Generally it would have evoked my anger and I would have lectured them that we were in God’s abode and everyone was equal etc etc. But they were so polite I couldn’t say anything and I was rather curious to check out the princess. I thought I would see a stunning woman wearing bejeweled gown and tiara but all I saw was a very inconspicuous looking girl in tracksuit and sneakers. Alright I have a wild imagination. Who would go hiking in gown?

The group of teenagers and their leader had already pissed the hell out of us. S and I were trying to figure out where they were from. “They must be from Bombay. Or Pune.” “No no. Look they are listening to Honey Singh on speaker so loudly. They are definitely from Delhi.” “I think we should shut our ears or our IQs would also drop.” “I’m going to stay back until they are out of sight or I will definitely push that trekking expert leader off the cliff.”

This is a cave that we spotted on the way. His Holiness Je Khenpo Gendun Rinchen was born in this cave. Je Khenpo means the chief abbot of the central monastic body of Bhutan. Gendun Rinchen was the 69th Je Khenpo of Bhutan. His mortal remains are kept in a stupa at Tashicho Dzong, Thimphu.
We are so much nearer now.
The weather had changed drastically and it’d become cloudy and foggy. We were not carrying umbrella so the premonition of rain did not feel very welcoming. The temple closes at 1 o’ clock and does not open for an hour. We were running out of time. We had started walking faster now. However it was not easy as the trail had started to become steeper and rockier. We had decided not to stop at the view point to take pictures as we should have ample time on the way back. The trek became trickier after the view point. Now we began to descend. In the end we would have to cross two sets of winding staircases placed like a gigantic ‘V’ sign on the hilltop. And that’s why unless you climbed those treacherous stairs at the end; you did NOT visit Tiger’s Nest. Because that is the hardest part. The stairs were not only narrow and very steep; each flight of stairs was so high that it was very difficult to keep one’s focus intact. S, like many others, was having a serious bout of vertigo. I am not an expert at trekking but I know this much – never look all the way up whiling climbing, always focus on the next step only. So to me it was not a few hundred steps ahead but only one at a time. Whoa. There was a small tea junction in the middle of the staircase there! I seriously couldn’t believe my eyes. The little shop was bustling with exhausted tourists trying to get some refreshment. The shop bore a signboard requesting people to wash their own cups before leaving. Self service takes a different perspective all the way up there.

Ah the iconic shot

When we reached at the monastery gate, it was 12.30 on the clock. I wanted to fly the last few steps away but my body was totally exhausted and it felt like somebody strapped two large stones to my thighs. One guy from the sexy Tamil group offered me his walking stick (Ok why do I always find something dirty in almost everything?). Honestly, I would have happily obliged if he rather carried me up.

Oh finally
The temple authority has a large locker room where the tourists can deposit their belongings. We also had to show our passports and give details of our whereabouts. After that we finally entered the monastery. And again another humongous staircase was waiting to welcome (or mock) our arrival. I thought I would have to crawl up those gigantic stairs to finally reach the main temple premises. Seriously, people who only go up to the view point have no right to brag about the Tiger’s Nest hike.
There are eight temples inside the monastery, dedicated to different gods and monks who had come and meditated in the caves there. There is a main temple dedicated to Guru Padmsambhava with an idol of the Guru on the back of the tigress. The abbot told me the main temple was built facing the cave Guru Rinpoche had meditated in. he also gave me a handful of potato chips from the offering plate. The Himalayan gods are quite liberal about their food offering. Time was running out really fast and we did not have enough time to visit all the temples. Not to mention I was taking too much time in each temple, prostrating and circumambulating and everything. It was my desperate attempt to be on the good book of the gods. The monastery comes with a residential part meant for the monks who stay and study there. We met some little monks at the balcony. They were busy twittering (not the social media) while eating fried instant noodles. A little puppy was nesting comfortably in the middle of them. Obviously I did not forget to cuddle him before we left.

Now that the most important part was over, everybody got busy taking pictures. Once you have done something so rigorous it becomes your permanent bragging right. And we were all busy gathering proofs that we had but indeed visited the temple, not chickened out and turned back from the view point. There was a little outlet of spring water at the gate of the temple bearing the sign ‘Holy water’. I filled my empty juice bottle hoping to achieve salvation while thanking gods for not dumping the bottle on the way.

Another cave near the entrance. Yeshe Tsogyel herself meditated and practised Vajrakilaya here. And that's the locker room at the right.

The stairs that literally took our breath away. And this is just half of the whole thing.
An exhausted yet happy Kuheli. And yes I had put the jacket back on.
The return journey took much less time naturally. But now we could fill the soreness of our legs. Gravity bitch was pulling us towards herself and the pressure mostly felt on the knee joints. Thankfully none of us fell on our face. The Honey Singh loyalist group had started much earlier than us (we waited until they left) and the return journey was much more peaceful with no one praising the effects of ‘chaar bottle vodka’ or some dumb chick’s blue eyes. On the way we met an American man going up with his guide enquiring whether he would get to eat momo up there. No comment. It was around 4.30 in the afternoon when we reached the base. I looked back. The ancient architectural marvel was still nesting on the cliff above like it was in the morning. It did not look any different at all. I couldn’t believe we had been up there just a few hours ago. And when I looked carefully up at the monastery, I am sure I saw a man on the back of a tigress, smiling upon us, in that dwindling glimmer of twilight. And I bet the tigress had wings.

And that was the reward on our last night in the land of the thunder dragon. A stunning view from Paro valley after we got back.

The end