Sacred and Profane: Tantric Buddhism in the Land of the Thunder Dragon
By Tony Robinson–Smith

In the sensory overload of smoke, butter tea, and a cacophony of atonal instruments, a visitor tries to make sense of a purification ceremony in Bhutan.

We arrive at dusk. A handsome, two–story house built on a hillside fifty meters above the road. White mud–brick walls, orange window frames, a monsoon–proof tin roof making the house seem top–heavy. Joists poke out from under the eaves, the end of each decorated with a flower, a cloud, or an auspicious sign. There are two cows roped to a stake in front, prayer flags on bamboo poles and a rhododendron bush with crimson flowers to the side.


An erect phallus hangs on a string from one corner of the roof, spinning gently in the wind. We have seen many on our journey, the most colorful painted on shops beside the entrance. These come with sportive ribbons round their waists and sometimes ferocious eyes. Dr. Jagar Dorji tells us they ward off evil spirits and promote fertility and are associated with Drukpa Kuenlay, "The Divine Madman," a fifteenth century lama who taught that sex is a route to enlightenment.

In an upstairs room lit by a glaring four–inch fluorescent tube, Dr. Jagar sits cross–legged on a bench and sips butter tea. His sister has installed us in two armchairs at his side, the only two in the room. Everyone else—and there are about fifty, old and young—either squats on the wood floor staring at us or drifts through to a room behind me. On the wall is a poster of a reclining Indian actress with a ring in her bellybutton and a beckoning gaze; beside it, a picture map of the monasteries of Tibet.

There is clearly much excitement. The conversation, which cuts across the room in all directions, is in Dzongkha. My wife and I haven't learnt much beyond "kuzu zangpo–la," one of the longest ways of saying hi I have encountered, "kadrinche," thanks, and "Chapsa gati mo? " Where's the toilet? We've only been in Bhutan two weeks and are on our way from Thimphu, the capital, in the west to Sherubtse College, where we'll work, in the east. Dr. Jagar is the college principal, and, for the three–day journey across the Himalayan kingdom, our chauffeur and guide. Tonight we'll stay at his sister's place in a little village near Trongsa.

Something important is happening or about to happen, judging from the excited chatter around us. Dr. Jagar is too busy fielding questions to give an explanation. Nadya and I sip our teas and try to make sense of what is going on. What, for starters, is happening next door? Every now and again, the conversation is drowned out by the sound of horns. Long, throaty, dying elephant blasts that make rice grains on the wooden floor dance. We can also hear the steady tok–tokking of a drum and the chant of several voices. The door is ajar, but I can't see much: a row of guttering candles, something wrapped in fabric hanging from the ceiling. A room to be respected, judging by the fierce orange tiger painted on the door and the three snarling wooden heads over it.

Ugyen Wangmo comes out of the room with three bowls piled high with food and sets them down on a table in front of us. Dr. Jagar's sister is lean, about forty–two, has wide–set, pinched eyes, and a beaming, betel–stained smile. Her daughter, a robust girl with ruddy cheeks, flies this way and that with a wailing, snotty baby strapped to her back. Perhaps it doesn't care for the horns.

Bhutan shrine room

In Thimphu we ate mainly Chinese and Indian food, only two or three Bhutanese dishes of rice, pork with radish, beef with spinach, and emadatse (chili peppers and cheese, the national dish). The meal before me now is new. I see half a pomegranate, a mandarin with one side caved in, several dried, flattened chilli peppers, a plug of meat with a generous rind of fat drooping off it, a raw spring onion with a cake of soil in its roots, some vanilla cream cookies, bubble gum in plastic wrappers, and, topping the heap, a curl of butter the size of my ear. These items rest on a bed of rice crackers. I have a keen appetite after the day's drive but wait for the doctor to begin.

An old man walks barefoot across the room with a pot the size of a large paint tin. He is clearly a farmer, judging by his sinewy sunburnt legs, walnut toes, and soil–crusty gho (a gown for men resembling a thick bath robe but with turned–up sleeves). He ladles dhal into handle–less cups for everyone sitting on the floor, jokes with some young men huddled round a flask of home–made grain wine like Japanese sake. A woman rocking an infant to sleep in her lap holds up her cup while yelling at two boys ragging on the floor; a girl of about seventeen scooping rice into her brother's mouth pauses and pinches the old man's leg. Now I hear cymbals and a bell. Dr. Jagar sees me darting glances over my shoulder. The door with the tiger has just opened further. I catch a glimpse of a Buddha with gold skin, blue hair with a topknot, and long, pierced earlobes like earthworms.

"TONY!" Dr. Jagar bellows through another blast of horns. "Do you wanna go in?"

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