It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, it’s a penis. Wherever I turn in Punakha valley, I see phallic symbols painted on doors, windows, walls and shopfronts—some with eyes and wings, some smiling.
This is in honour of Lama Drukpa Kunley, a 15th century Tibetan mystic who went around spreading not only knowledge among men, but also joy among women, with the help of his “flaming thunderbolt of wisdom”. He used bawdy humour, droll poetry and free love to pass on his teachings to locals, trying to shock them out of their orthodox thinking. Locals adored him despite, or because of, it. He professed, “Wine and women are my meditation”, and he was known as the Divine Madman.
Legend has it that a demoness named Loro Duem lived at Dochula Pass, the high point between the Thimphu and Punakha valleys. Dochula Pass, located at over 3,000m, is now an essential stop on the traveller’s circuit for its array of 108 chortens, the squat, white stupas erected by the queen just over a decade ago. But in those days, there was none of the tranquillity that cloaks this spot, or even the wider region, thanks to this demoness.
When the good lama set about the task of destroying her, she turned herself into a dog. But Drukpa Kunley killed her with his mighty penis and buried her under a hill, and cried out “Chi med!”, meaning “No dog!” This spot is where the Chimi Lhakhang (or the “no dog” temple) now stands. And that is the story of how this penis (used as a weapon of mass seduction) became a divine and protective symbol. Wooden phalluses are hung on roof corners of new houses after a ritual blessing ceremony.
To get to Chimi Lhakhang, we trudge across lush paddy fields from the village of Yowakha for half an hour. Like everywhere else in Bhutan, small chortens line the route, white structures with brightly painted roofs. Dozens of prayer flags, looped around tall bamboo poles, are fluttering in the breeze, carrying with them the prayers of good people, blessing everything it touches.
It is late in the evening and the sun’s rays paint the green fields a molten gold. Locals who are finishing their work for the day pose for photographs, some even demanding that I take their portraits from different angles. Many rooftops have red chillies spread out to dry, to preserve them for the coming year.
At the temple, everything is still; the evening prayers have just ended and a solitary monk is turning the prayer wheel, punctuated by raucous shouts of child monks playing football in the open ground attached to the temple.
A young monk sits, munching pensively on a fruit, while another stares into the distance at the goalpost, merrily letting the ball pass. But none of the young sportsmen appear to be unduly bothered. The point here seems to be less about winning a trophy than about letting off steam after a hard day.
Leaving behind all manner of phallic images, I make my way to Punakha Dzong another evening. In a country dotted with pretty vistas, this is one of its most idyllic locations. The dzong (you could call it a fortresses) is perched at the confluence of Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu (the Father and Mother rivers), as if rising out of the very waters. It was built in 1638 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, a senior monk from Tibet who is credited with creating the unified state of Bhutan.
Dzongs are administrative nerve centres for a district, housing both government and religious offices. The Punakha Dzong was a seat of power for more than three centuries, till attention shifted to Thimphu a few decades ago. Today, it is also revered for one of the country’s most prized religious relics—the Ranjung Kharsapani, an image of the Avalokiteswara (locally called Chenrezig) purportedly brought here from Tibet by the Zhabdrung himself.
As befits its importance, the dzong, one of the oldest and largest in Bhutan, is an imposing, solemn structure. I walk across a narrow wooden bridge and enter the dzong through steep wooden steps which can be pulled up, effectively shutting out invaders. As with other dzongs across the country, the exteriors are plain white but studded with cheerful, painted window frames and balconies. Inside the main temples, there are rich wall murals, seemingly fierce images, most depicting the life of the Buddha.
A couple of monks are feeding pigeons inside the main courtyard, and their yellow and red monastic robes add colour to the stark surroundings. They especially stand out against the sober browns of the gho, the traditional garments worn by Bhutanese men, including Budha Ching. More monks walk by, laughing, while others sit huddled around someone’s phone camera. As I watch, I get a sense of why this place is locally called Pungthang Dechen Phodrang, or the palace of great happiness.
Later, I stand with my camera and tripod outside the dzong, waiting for that golden hour when the setting sun paints the skies in vivid hues of pink and orange. It is absolutely quiet but for the steady clicks of a few cameras around me. There is a balmy breeze caressing my face—Punakha is a low valley and does not get as cold as Thimphu or Paro. A flock of birds suddenly takes flight noisily, heading towards the surrounding hills, creating stunning silhouettes just above the dzong.
The next morning, on my way back to Thimphu, I cross Dochula again, stopping for photographs of the chortens. That sound in the air I imagine—I cannot make out if it is the laugh of the demoness or the charge of the mad monk.