Punakha valley, a three-and-a-half hour drive (77km) from Bhutan’s capital Thimphu, is a quaint, sleepy village full of lush green hillocks and paddy fields; the jewel-blue streams of two rivers — Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu — converge on its edge. Amid the scenic landscape, traditional low-roof houses and the pleasantly warm climate, vivid murals of the human phallus dot the village. For the 18,000 residents of the valley, the elaborate paintings of the phallus, replete with eyes and expressions, that adorns the walls of their homes and shops is a way of life, much like their national dish ema datshi (chilli cheese) and love for archery, the national sport. Move away from the homes, and shops dedicated to the phallus will stop you in your tracks; from there, a labyrinth filled with phallic designs that confuse you and yet, draw you in.
Why is a small village in Bhutan flooded with these phallus signs? Why are these people so unmoved by the giant members marking the entrance to their homes and shops? All the answers and more find a way to us soon.
Punakha, like most parts of Bhutan, has countless mythological tales attached to its past, a majority of them about the “Divine Madman” — Drukpa Kunley. A saint, he was an eccentric man who changed the way Buddhism was practised in the dragon kingdom — with a little help from his “magic thunderbolt of flaming wisdom”, his penis. But it is his defeat of the demoness of Dochu La Loro Duem that is the most-repeated legend.
The story of his confrontation with the demoness culminates at Chimi Lhakhang (monastery) that stands on a round hillock near Lobesa in Punakha. It is believed that while fleeing from Drukpa Kunley, the demoness reached the plains of Lobesa and transformed herself into a dog to avoid getting captured. But the maverick saint tracked down the animal, killed it and buried it under the mound of the round hillock, which in his own words, “resembled the breast of a woman”. He built a black chorten (memorial stupa) on top of the mound. The choice of colour, a notable divergence from the pristine beige and gold stupas across the country, symbolised the “evil intent” of the demoness. The monastery Chimi Lhakhang was built at the site in 1499 by the 14th Drukpa, Ngawang Choegyel.
An hour-long trek from the Lobesa village, Chimi Lhakhang is modest in size, topped with a golden spire. Outside, a string of fluttering prayer flags on raised bamboo poles welcome both devotees and tourists, mostly women, who come here seeking blessings for a child. The monastery is the repository of the 10-inch ivory, wood and bone phallus as well as the bow and arrow said to be used by Drukpa Kunley himself, hundreds of years ago. Apart from the prayer wheels (manis), the monastery is full of frescoes depicting the colourful life of the “saint of 5,000 women”, a title given to Kunley, for his claim of enlightening women across Bhutan with his unorthodox methods, notably sexual intercourse.
Inside the monastery, a statue of the maverick saint dressed in a monk’s robe lies in a reclining position, and accompanying him is the ceramic statue of his dog Sachi. Every morning, the monks begin their day by lighting butter lamps and offering packets of food, aerated drinks and the local alcohol, ara, to Kunley, before proceeding to meditation rituals and chanting.
For those who make the journey to Chimi Lakhang to seek blessings for a child, the procedure is simple: the presiding lama gently strikes the head of the devotees who want children with the silver handle phallus, and then with the bow and arrow. Tshering, our guide, informs us that not just the Bhutanese people, couples from all across Europe and the US come here for these fertility blessings.
But it doesn’t end there. If a couple conceives a child after visiting the monastery, they must make another pilgrimage to the site to name the newborn. They can do this by picking bamboo slips placed at the altar, inscribed with names of boys and girls. Most parents also prefix their child’s name with a “Chime” (for the monastery) or “Kinley” (in honour of the Divine Madman). Not surprisingly then, most homes in Punakha have a Kinley or Chime in the family, evident from the blue-white nameplates placed on their walls.
Inside the prayer hall at the monastery just about everything — the tantric paraphernalia, thangkas, bells, drums, horns — speaks of the flamboyant ways of Drukpa Kunley and his “outrageous” methods of enlightenment. Singing, dancing, poetry and, of course, copulation were an integral part of his teachings. “He wanted to prove to the top Buddhist clergy that celibacy wasn’t necessary for enlightenment,” says Tshering. So, he mingled freely with women, charmed them with his poetry and aggressively sought to crush the taboo around sex by introducing the phallus paintings and statues.
It’s Kunley’s version of Buddhism, that many in Bhutan, and especially in Punakha, still hold in high regard. Small hamlets near the Chimi Lakhang are full of phallus paintings, statues, souvenirs, key chains, fridge magnets; and the more imaginative ones have phallus door knobs, locks, toilet signs and even salt bottles. Amusing to the outside eye at first, as one walks through the muddy pathways of the small villages in Punakha, the elaborate signs, painted from end to end on wall after wall, can throw you off a little.
On closer look, they seem to represent a cult, an aggressive art form with intent to destabilise, to evoke a stir. So, as conservative as the Bhutanese society may be, these symbols, painted by hired professional artists on their walls, seems to be a way to channelise the energy of the maverick saint Kunley and break free from societal norms.
PUNAKHA FACT FILE
Getting there: Three-and-a-half hour drive from Thimphu (77km)
Stay: Green Resort RKPO, Punakha
Best time to visit: December to February, March to May and September to November
Places to see: Punakha Dzong, Chimi L’hakhang Temple, Punakha Suspension Bridge, Namgyal Chorten, Royal Botanical Park