As we approach the Chime Lhakhang Monastery, it’s hard not to notice the penises. They’re painted on nearby houses, and like the monastery, they are there to honor one of Bhutan’s most revered saints, Drukpa Kunley.
Drukpa Kunley was not your typical BudDivine Bhutan and the Well-hung Lamadhist lama. He was a womanizer and a liberal drinker. People call him the “Divine Madman” for his crazy antics and unique approach to Buddhism.
Buddha advocated the “middle way,” encouraging others not to pursue extremes. The Divine Madman believed these constraints were too restrictive. He discouraged the pursuit of Buddha’s teachings to common people. To gain attention and spread his message that these strict conventions were absurd, he took on a meditation practice of “girls and wine,” using outrageous behavior to show there was more to Buddhism than the middle way.
The phalluses that hang from the eves of Bhutanese homes are reminders of this unusual brand of Buddhism. As the legend goes, the Madman would subdue demons by clunking them on the head with his penis, a symbol the Bhutanese have adopted to protect their homes from evil.
Our small bus stops along the roadway. There is hardly a sound, save for an occasional car and the ding-ding-ding of a nearby prayer wheel. This little village exudes solitude, but our tour group of women will soon learn there is more to its sacredness than meditation and chanting. We walk past fields of rice, wheat, and wild marijuana plants. In the distance, we see the monastery. Built in 1499, it sits atop a hill local residents compare with a woman’s breast.
Our guide on this 12-day tour is Tshering. Always smiling, he wears traditional garb, a gho, which resembles a heavy robe with white turned up sleeves. He shares one of the more popular stories about the Divine Madman with us.
“A man was eager to have his thangka (religious banner) blessed by the Lama. When he went to visit him, instead, the Divine Madman peed on it.”
The story goes that the man was so furious, he went to the Madman’s brother demanding an explanation.
“Upon unrolling the thangka in the presence of the Madman’s brother,” Tshering continues, “he saw that the urine had turned to gold.”
As we get closer to the temple, we hear droning horns. Six to eight feet long, they are played outside by monks practicing for ritual ceremonies. One young monk sits in contemplation, rocking back and forth, memorizing sutras written in Sanskrit. The sutras are copied on long rectangular sheets of paper, mass produced using carved templates, and bound together with two pieces of wood and string.
“This is a very sacred place.” Tshering explains as we enter. “Women visit here in order to become fertile.” He prostrates in front of the altar three times and I wonder, is he interested in increasing his brood or just being respectful? There’s nothing particularly sexual or crazy about the temple but the legend makes me nervous. Afraid of the possible results, I avoid the altar.
“A woman from your country came here to become pregnant after trying with her husband for many years,” Tshering says. “After visiting, she had a boy one year later.”
We trek back to the bus and continue eastward toward the Bumthang Valley in Central Bhutan. We pick up speed along what is jokingly referred to as the country’s only straight road. I’m riding shotgun when suddenly the women all scream. The driver smirks as he hits the brakes. This is obviously not the first time he’s made such an abrupt stop.
Out the left side of the bus, we see two of the largest painted penises yet. Each is the height of the house it protects. The women pile out and take pictures. To westerners, this is a site to be captured, but how much do these women understand the symbolism?
With legends like this, it’s no wonder sexual behavior and the sanctity of marriage are loosely interpreted in Bhutan today. Kinley, another guide, explains the loose rules around marriage.
“When a man and woman sleep together, the next day they are married.”
To Westerners, it might seem strict that simply by sleeping with someone, you’re married. But Bhutanese relationships are fluid. As quickly as a couple might be married (without a license or ceremony) they can just as easily divorce.
Husbands are responsible for paying alimony for their children, but as is the case in many cultures, this often doesn’t happen. Some men leave their wives or marry more than one woman at a time. In some communities, women practice polyandry, marrying more than one man at a time.
While the practice is lawful, things are changing. Most Bhutanese today choose just one spouse. The fourth king, who abdicated the throne in 2008 to his son, has four wives, all sisters. His son, however, has said he will only marry one woman. (At age 30, he’s quite the prospect and the dream of most every Bhutanese woman!)
The new king’s lifestyle choice symbolizes the many changes that have occurred in recent years as the government has slowly opened Bhutan’s doors to the outside world. Television was introduced in 1999. Today, most Bhutanese own satellite dishes, many have cell phones, those in the cities own cars, and some either own a computer or have access to one of the growing number of Internet cafes.
The Bhutanese have revered the Divine Madman for centuries and have held steadfast as a nation with a strong culture despite (or perhaps because of) their reverence to his lifestyle.
Changes are occurring rapidly in this tiny Himalayan Kingdom. I have my own brand of faith, however, that Bhutan will remain divine – a culturally rich country in a pristine environment, deeply rooted in its unique brand of Buddhism.
Beth Whitman is the author of Wanderlust and Lipstick: The Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo and Wanderlust and Lipstick: For Women Traveling to India. She is the editor of Wanderlust and Lipstick and leads Wandertours to India, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, and Bhutan.
Sankranthi in a Town Called Hampi by Beth Whitman
Sacred and Profane: Tantric Buddhism in the Land of the Thunder Dragon by Tony Robinson-Smith
Breakfast in Bhutan by Michael Buckley
Other Asia stories from the Archives
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