Entering the Divine Madman’s Land

45 comments
Asia, Bhutan, South

The Dochula Pass, connecting Thimphu and Punakha

Once upon a time in Middle Earth, nine fellows traveled to the east to deliver a powerful ring back to its source. At one point they had to traverse the arduous pass of Caradhras, through snow-capped mountains with harsh weather and enchanted air. It was so dangerous the group was forced to take a detour right through the underbelly of the mighty mountains. Known as the mines of Moria, the underground tunnels and chambers were the dwellings of the dwarves, as well as something more sinister and unforgiving. An ancient evil creature called Balrog resided deep underneath towering peaks, and thanks to the sacrifice made by Gandalf the wizard, the rest of the group could go through the mines safely. Gandalf himself ended up fighting the demon and emerged victorious.

A world away in a land situated in a region dubbed the roof of the Earth, a Tibetan Buddhist monk by the name of Drukpa Kunley traveled from his homeland in Tibet across the mighty Himalayas and arrived in fertile valleys in what is now known as Bhutan. He introduced Buddhism, particularly the teachings of the Red Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism, to the new land. However, unlike other holy men who spread the words of God (or sacred scriptures, or teachings to make humans live a better life) that usually revolve around compassion, kindness, and virtuousness, the Tibetan monk chose a rather unconventional path.

It is said that the Bhutanese people once lived under the constant threat and harassment of demons, including the much-feared demoness of Dochula. Then came Drukpa Kunley who, unlike Gandalf who used his sword and magical staff to fight Balrog, subjugated her with his “flaming thunderbolt”, also called the “magic thunderbolt of wisdom”, which was none other than his phallus, although the term thunderbolt might also refer to Vajrayana (Thunderbolt Vehicle), a school of Buddhism mainly practiced in Tibet and Bhutan. The demoness was then buried in a mound upon which a monastery called Chimi Lhakhang was built in the late 15th century.

Drukpa Kunley’s unorthodox approach in spreading Buddhism by flaunting his own genitals, preaching that in order to reach enlightenment one doesn’t need to shun sex, earned him the name “the Divine Madman”. It was also he who started the tradition of painting phalluses on the façade of one’s house to ward off evil spirits. This centuries-old practice is still evident chiefly in the village of Sobsokha near the mound upon which Chimi Lhakhang stands. Both are situated in Punakha Valley which itself sits below the Dochula Pass that separates it from Thimphu Valley to the west. Fertility seemed to be a recurring theme in Punakha Valley during my trip there, not only because of the plethora of phallus paintings everywhere I looked, but also the fact that the valley produces some fruits and vegetables which cannot grow in Thimphu Valley due to the latter’s higher altitude and colder temperatures.

Some of the 108 chortens at the Dochula Pass

The village of Sobsokha in Punakha Valley

At Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakhang, a nunnery perched on top of a ridge

The view of Punakha Valley from Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakhang

A Nepalese-style stupa within the nunnery compound

Kinga making a phone call outside the nunnery’s main temple

Exquisite Bhutanese traditional carvings

Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakhang on a sunny day

After tucking into momo (a type of dumpling found in Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal and some regions in north and northeastern India) and shapale (Himalayan-style empanada) at a small restaurant in Khuruthang – Punakha’s new town – Kinga and Phuntsho took James and I to Sobsokha to see firsthand the paintings this part of Bhutan is famous for. From the parking area we didn’t have to walk long to spot the first house sporting whimsical phalluses – some were even depicted with eyes and fangs. From there more and more houses with phallic paintings emerged until vast rice terraces replaced images of men’s fertility with that of the land. The rice in some parts of the terraces was already harvested, but the rest was still firmly planted in the fields; its golden color was a sign that in a few days’ time it would too be stacked up high for further culling to separate the rice grains from the husks.

Reminded by Kinga’s story that Thimphu used to have a lot of rice terraces, I asked him whether the capital once looked like Punakha Valley. “Yes. Thimphu used to look like this until the 1990s,” he told me.

We walked with a leisurely pace to Chimi Lhakhang, visible from afar thanks to its prominent hilltop location. At this point Kinga was already carrying a bottle of ara, a distilled spirit made either from rice, maize, millet or wheat which was given by a pilgrim who forgot to offer it at the temple. The Divine Madman was also known for his penchant for wine, hence the offering of this alcoholic beverage. Kinga told us that many childless women come to this temple from all over Bhutan and around the world to seek blessings for their fertility.

After we reached the temple’s grounds, we sat underneath a big leafy tree which seemed to be quite old. “Do you know what tree this is?” Kinga quizzed us. “A bodhi tree?” I instinctively answered, knowing that Siddharta Gautama attained enlightenment when he was meditating under the same kind of tree in Bodh Gaya, India. Kinga, a fountain of knowledge on Bhutanese Buddhism who at times felt more like a history teacher than a guide, nodded in satisfaction.

Kinga then began explaining the story of the Divine Madman, about Guru Rinpoche (a prominent figure in Tibetan Buddhism), and about the history of Chimi Lhakhang while a strong wind was blowing toward us. The tree’s branches were rattling, making it sometimes difficult to hear what Kinga was saying. He expertly elaborated on aspects of Buddhism in the country, so complicated I occasionally got lost especially when he mentioned unfamiliar names or when the wind was blowing fervently. The gusts of Punakha Valley, it turned out, not only took away some of Kinga’s words, but also the sanity of my camera for the next morning, it suddenly started acting up. There couldn’t be a worse place for my camera to break down.

Our first momo in Bhutan

The streets of Khuruthang

Khuruthang Lhakhang, the new town’s temple, with a beautiful backdrop

Entering the land of phalluses

A fertility-themed shop

A typical house in Sobsokha

Prayer poles on the hike to Chimi Lhakhang

Hilltop Chimi Lhakhang (at the center) with the views of harvested rice paddies

The late 15th-century Chimi Lhakhang

The view of the Puna Tsang Chhu (the Puna Tsang River) from our hotel

Goen hogay, Bhutanese cucumber salad

Khatem (bitter gourd) cooked in a Bhutanese style

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

45 thoughts on “Entering the Divine Madman’s Land”

    • Thanks Marilyn. I didn’t go inside any of the shops, but from the outside they seemed to sell similar things — mostly phalluses in different sizes.

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    • Thanks for introducing me to an interesting blog, John and Susan. Chris seems to have traveled quite extensively, including to countries many people avoid. I have a feeling I’ll be inspired to travel to some of the places he’s been to.

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    • To many of us it may feel like that, and I’m not here to judge. However, I can imagine the uproar and controversy if another madman existed today.

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  1. I can imagine myself getting out of a house in Sobsokha, on a misty autumnal Wednesday, work-bound and “extremely happy” about it (euphemism). The sight of willies and woolly testicles painted on every wall, including my home’s, wouldn’t really make me much happier…

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  2. This post is such a feast to my eyes, and the stories are so enchanting. Punakha Valley looks stunning, as are the traditional carvings. What’s your favorite part of this trip, and how many days would you recommend for a trip to Punakha Valley?

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    • Thank you, Dixie! Punakha Valley was among the highlights of my week-long trip to Bhutan, and in my next post I will explain why. I’d say you need at least two nights to explore the valley, but probably four nights would be better so you can visit those beautiful places in this part of the country more than once as well as explore other places in its vicinity.

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  3. This was a fascinating read Bama. I think “madman” is the operative word. Chuckle. Great photos, especially the opening two. Oh and I love the detail of the beautiful buildings.
    Alison

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    • If you love the detail of those buildings, wait until you see Punakha Dzong. It’s one of the most astonishing structures I’ve ever visited. I will write more about it and the rest of the valley in my next post. As for the madman, he must have been a very eccentric and polarizing character.

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  4. Dilip Bhandari says:

    Yes bama my country is very peaceful pollution free. People with respect and love…beauty of Bhutan is within people….it’s all because of our Fathers of country and faith in God.that protect us from obstacle’s we know many true and interesting story about our country which we don’t really share…science leaded the world but in Bhutan you will know and experience the terrific situation also….my country the best….

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    • I’m lucky to have been able to step foot in your country. There are certainly a lot of things the world can learn from Bhutan, which is the reason why I’m sharing my travel stories with others.

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  5. I think I would either laugh or cringe if I had to enter a house decorated by phalluses every day. 😫Beyond that, the scenery is certainly lovely, and I’m salivating thinking about the many delicious momo meals we had in that part of the world!

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    • Imagine working at one of those shops. 😀 The view of Punakha Valley was even lovelier when we did a hike to a temple perched on a hill surrounded by rice terraces (more on that on my next post). The momo in Bhutan is actually different from the one in Nepal. While in the latter people use masala, in Bhutan they love their cheese so much. Personally I liked the vegetarian momo better.

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  6. Once Upon a Time again…yours is the third blog post today I’ve read with that theme, then there’s mine, too. Fairy tales are in the air, it seems. 🙂 Bhutan. I’ve chilled way out on the travel, but That is a place that gets my imagination going. I love the idea of a Divine Madman. Such a fine line between divine and mad. May as well just combine the two. 🙂

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    • Ha! I guess there’s a timeless appeal of it. I just googled the stock phrase and found out that it’s been used since the 14th century and has opened many oral narratives since 1600. It just never gets old! You might want to consider a visit to Bhutan one day, Julie. It’s a country unlike any other — from the ornately-decorated fortresses and beautiful landscape to cheese-and-chili galore and phallic images.

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  7. Oh, this is so bizarre, but I guess that’s what you’d expect from a madman. I’ve been meaning to ask you on other posts how you remember all the stories/legends and share them with such incredible detail. You must take scrupulous notes immediately after (or perhaps during the time they are relayed to you). It’s very impressive!

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    • Thanks Caroline! When I travel, every night I usually write down all the information I get and my impressions of the places I visit that day. If there’s something I’m not sure about I will ask about it again to my guide/driver/whoever I meet the following day. I also check the internet in case I remember things wrong. Whenever available, I also take a photo of the information board explaining about the history of a place.

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      • Writing down everything immediately is definitely the way to go (sadly, I often wait too long). You have great discipline. I too have been making a habit of taking photos of the info boards.

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      • There were occasions when I forgot to write down the things I learned when I traveled, and I always ended up regretting it. That’s why now I try to be more disciplined.

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  8. It’s amazing that Punakha lies just over the Dochula Pass from Thimphu, and yet it feels completely different. Not just in terms of the vibe but also the scenery: the much larger rivers, hillsides cloaked with a different kind of pine, the gleaming patchwork of rice paddies and the abundance of fruits and vegetables. The legend of the Divine Madman was really the cherry on top. I remember having to stifle laughter at seeing all the lewd depictions of male genitalia – guess it’s a good thing the Bhutanese haven’t caught wind of the phallic waffles found in Bangkok!

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    • And the temperature in Punakha was a lot warmer too — at one point I even thought to myself that it felt just like in Indonesia. Ohh the waffles! That was hilarious, although I agree with you that it’s a good thing that it hasn’t reached Bhutan. I can’t imagine tourists walking around eating those snacks.

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    • Sobsokha is indeed not an ordinary village in a not ordinary country. 🙂 But the good thing of visiting this part of Bhutan is that it challenges our perception of what’s considered normal. Thanks for reading.

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    • And this is just one of many things that make Bhutan a very interesting country to explore. Thanks for dropping by!

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    • Hope my posts on Bhutan will encourage you even more to visit this Himalayan kingdom. Thanks for reading, Kak Richo!

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  9. What a fascinating legend of the madman, Bama. I enjoyed reading how the painting of the phalluses came to be in that region on your blog as I had seen photos of them before but didn’t know the story behind it. Your guide sounds great to be knowing all these stories and history of the places he was showing you. I love all the colors in the Bhutanese monasteries and houses! It’s really cool that even houses maintain traditional Bhutanese architecture there as the modern world, it’s increasingly less common..
    Momo with cheese filling? I wouldn’t enjoy it as much as masala momo with meat filling hehe. Also that sauce looks HOT! I can’t help but gasp at how similar the landscapes of Bhutan look to that of Nepal except that it looks much tidier out there. Really enjoying your Bhutan series, Bama.

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    • It was nice to have a very knowledgeable guide like Kinga so my friend and I could learn a lot in our limited time in Bhutan. Speaking of traditional architecture, wouldn’t it be nice if places throughout Asia still retained their centuries-old architectures as opposed to ‘modern’ buildings which are often more functional than beautiful?

      The momo sauce was actually not hot at all, but then that’s because here in Indonesia I’m used to having really hot chili sauce. 🙂 Bhutan is indeed much calmer and tidier than Nepal, but still both countries are among my favorite places that I’ve been to. Thanks for reading, Pooja.

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  10. Pingback: Paro: Bhutan’s Sleepy Gateway | What an Amazing World!

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