Climbing into the Tiger’s Nest

Taktsang monastery, near Paro, is situated at an elevation of 3120 meters. The first view of it is spectacular (see the featured photo). But when I reached the base of the climb and saw the monastery hanging on a cliff a kilometre above me, my heart sank. My shoes were bad, and I was physically out of condition. I told The Family I would not be able to climb.

She wanted to do it, and The Sullen Celt assured her that it was an easy walk. The start of the climb, Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan I was not convinced, since The Sullen Celt is a trekker and is unable to compensate for other people’s lack of fitness. Someone else said that the group of buildings that we could see part of the way up included a cafeteria with a great view of the monastery. I allowed myself to be persuaded by The Family that I could sit and have a coffee there while the rest of the gang climbed. The first twenty paces were a little bit of steep rock, but then the path became a dirt track, as you can see in this photo. This would become of great consequence on our way down.

Passing time on the route up to the Takhtsang Monastery, BhutanThe initial climb was less hard than I’d expected. Previous travellers had dawdled during the climb through the rhododendron forest. We saw several small stacks of carefully balanced stone. It is reassuring when you see that someone sat down at a point where the climb was beginning to get steep and caught her breath doing something slow. I recently read a diatribe against them, and found myself agreeing. However, Bhutan teaches you the art of balance: the whole landscape of the country is a lesson in how to live in nature without overwhelming it.

View of Takhtsang Monastery, Bhutan

We left behind the forest bright with red rhododendron flowers and climbed higher. This was the realm of blue pines (Pinus wallichiana). As the road steepened, I had a lovely view of the monastery through the pines. It did not seem to be any closer.

Takstang monastery was built by the fourth king of Bhutan, Tenzin Rabgye, in a site that was already holy. The legend of this place, called Taktsang Phelug (Tiger’s nest), is that the Guru Padmasambhava converted a Tibetan princess to Buddhism. Forest on the trail to Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan She took the form of a tigress and flew with the Guru to this place. There he meditated, and emerged in eight different forms to subdue demons. The tsechu here has been used many times to consolidate national feelings. The first king, Ngawang Namgyal (also known as Shabdrung Rinpoche), performed the tsechu here in 1644 at the beginning of the war against Tibet, and invoked the story of the Guru as a metaphor for the war. His wish to build a temple here was finally fulfilled when Tenzin Rabgye declared the start of the works in the tsechu of 1692.

Clouds were massing over the mountain, and flowing slowly down its sides as we climbed. The light was now worse, but it made the pine forest into a magical kingdom. Many of the trees were covered thick with orchids. Turnoff to the canteen near Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan We came to the point where the road to the cafeteria branched off. By now our group of climbers had stretched into a long thin line. If I went off to have coffee I would leave The Family to do the climb alone. Better prepared walkers would have no problem with this, but both of us were terribly out of shape that day, almost exactly a decade ago. So we decided to stick together. At this time I thought that the hard work was done, and it would not be much longer before we reached the monastery. So we went on.

Hand painted shed on the route to Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

There was a little temple, a Lhakhang, nearby. I paused to take photos of the four sacred animals painted by a local artist. From left to right you can see a tiger, a snow lion, a Yamantaka, and a dragon. This may have been the first time I saw these guardians all together, but I was to come across this combination many times over the next decade. The most beautiful representation I came to see was in the Dubdi Gompa in Sikkim. At this time I didn’t know that the Yamantaka was a representation of the Manjushri Buddha, and the snake he eats is death.

View of Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

I was completely wrong about the major part of the climb being over. The steepest part came after this. I have no record of this long climb because I had to put my camera into my backpack for a bit when I had to use my hands to steady myself. After that I was too tired to take it out again. I did not notice the soft sounds of wind through the pines and water dropping on rocks, things that The Family still remembers at times. I was completely out of breath when I reached the highest part of the route, all I noticed as I sat down on a rock parapet was that we were surrounded by prayer flags. The Family went over to the other side and realized that we were at a special place, where we could actually look down at the monastery. This was a pleasant view indeed.

We stopped here for a long while. The road dips down steeply beyond this, and a waterfall cascades between this mountain and the next one. Dog near Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan We would cross between the two over a bridge and then walk up the next one into the monastery. It is not a long walk, but I had to prepare myself. This stage has two packs of territorial mountain dogs. They stand on the two mountains and bark at each other. I haven’t seen dogs with such a curly tail before. I paused to look at the flags when I noticed a moth sitting on one. As I took the photo you see here, The Family pointed out that the flags were full of moths of many different kinds. Moth near Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan I was just beginning to learn to identify butterflies, but moths remained out of reach: then, as well as now. There are just too many kinds.

We went on down. The sound of the waterfall soon drowned out the barking of the dogs. There were Redstarts flying about near the water, flitting from stone to stone. We saw these birds for the first time in Bhutan, but were to see them many times later. The climb after this took all my breath away. I reached the monastery panting from the climb and sat down on the steps. Climbing those last few steps seemed too hard.

View of Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

The last photo I have is the one above, taken just a little before the end of the last climb. I walked into the monastery, and must have seen some of it, but nothing remains in my memory. There was a major fire which destroyed Takstang monastery in 1998, ten years before our climb. The fire killed a monk and destroyed many old paintings and statues. What we saw was largely rebuilt with material brought up on the backs of men. What tremendous labour that is! Just a climb with a camera and water had tired me out so much.

It started to rain as we were up in the monastery. Someone suggested that we wait it out, but The Sullen Celt said it was not going to let up soon, and we should start off right now. She was right about the rain, but not about the walk. We made our way slowly back down to the waterfall and up again over rocks made slippery by the rain. Then, as we headed down through the forest the skies opened up and a really heavy rain started. The dirt track through the forest became a river of mud as we made our way down. We slid down parts of it and by the time we reached the bottom the rain had stopped and the sun was out. The warm sun baked hard the mud that we were now crusted in. It was a long time before we could get it off. We would do the climb again if we went there now.

The Exquisite Punakha Dzong

If there is only one Dzong that you have time to visit when in Bhutan, there is no question that it should be Punakha. The wonderful location at the confluence of the Po Chhu (Papa river) and Mo Chhu (Mama river), the beautiful Jacaranda and Magnolia trees surrounding it, the exquisite woodwork and paintings (featured photo), and its renowned history, make this undisputedly the most beautiful Dzong in Bhutan. Don’t take my word for it. The present King was married in this Dzong, and all the kings have been crowned here.

Mural in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

The Punakha Dzong was constructed in 1637 at a site where an older and smaller Dzong stood since 1326. Construction was completed in 1638, and the gold dome was added in 1676. In the second courtyard (dochey) I saw several buildings with beautiful paintings. The one above shows a monk with his left hand, holding a lotus, extended in a gesture that wards off evil (karana mudra). I liked the painting because of the detailed study of black-necked cranes at the monk’s feet. I’, not able to identify who this could be. I guess he is a monk and not a celestial being by the fact that he has a halo, but it is brown in colour.

To reach this place we had to climb a steep set of stairs. It seems that this is protection against invaders as well as flood waters. Entrance to the main buildings in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan The ladder that you see in this photo is apparently pulled up at night and the door behind it is locked. The ladder is so steep that I had to hold the handrail to climb up. The height is a protection against floods. Since Po Chhu is snow-fed, melt-water often floods in early spring. Even so, the Dzong has flooded several times in its history. The waters eventually cross the border into India and feed the Brahmaputra river. We spent a long time in the halls around the second dochey, admiring paintings and statues.

Mural in Punkha Dzong, Bhutan The two images here were taken because the light was good. They depict celestial beings of great power. This is clear from the green halos that surround their heads. Apart from that I’m clueless about who they can be. They are neither the Sakyamuni (since they do not hold a begging bowl) nor are they depictions of the Maitreya Buddha (since their feet do not rest on lotus flowers).

They are not Avalokiteshwara (since they are looking forward), nor are they Tara (since they are male). They do not hold a sword, so they are not Manjushri. They are not surrounded by flames, so they cannot be Mahakala or Vajrapani. Mural in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan Both are bearded, so they could be Padmasambhava. But I have no idea whether the Guru is depicted holding a musical instrument, as the one on the left does, or a prayer wheel, like the one on the right. The identified images of the Guru that I have seen show him with the Sakyamuni seated on the crown. That is not the case here. These could be someone else, but I like to think of them as the 8th century sage who brought Buddhism to the Himalayas.

View of Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

This was the second time we visited the Punakha Dzong. Both times we arrived in May, and found the Jacaranda in bloom. The beautiful purple colour looks wonderful against the white walls of the Dzong. It would be nice to come back here in another season to see what it looks like.

The Burning Lake and other Stories

The day we visited the enigmatic village in Ura, we collected a few local stories. One of them was of Mebar Tsho, a name which translates as Burning Lake.View of Mebar Tsho, Bhutan From the name I imagined something quite different from what it is: a widening in the river Tang, as you can see in the photo here.

Dinesh knew that there were caves around here, and took us off the highway at the correct place. The last bit is a little climb. One thing I like about Himalayan Buddhism is that you have to walk to these holy places, so they retain their air of calm and peace. We were the only people at the “lake”.

The road led up, and we followed. It was an easy climb, but soon we had a lovely view down into the gorge which the Tang Chhu had cut for itself. View of Tang Chhu ner Mebar Tsho, Bhutan We reached a little clearing at the end of the road, where there was a cave. This was full of offerings left by visitors, which you can see in the featured photo.

The story of this place is famous in Bhutan. In the 15th century the holy man Pema Lingpa dreamt of hidden treasures in the lake, as Padmasambhava had prophesied before. The Tang king did not believe this. So Pema Lingpa took a burning lamp in his hand and dived into the dark water. He searched the waters with his lamp, and emerged holding a scroll and a chest of treasure, with the lamp still burning. Pema Lingpa is known as a terton, loosely translated as a treasure finder.Prayer flags at Mebar Tsho, Bhutan He is believed to be a reincarnation of Padmasambhava.

The “lake” was festooned with colourful prayer flags. I’ve talked about this before. They are made of flimsy cloth and have prayers and other holy writing on them. There is a magical belief that as the flags fray and disappear in the rain and wind, the prayers and good wishes are released into the flowing water and wind and are carried into the land. The belief is enough to keep Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness high.

View of Ura valley, Bhutan

The other story from this region was something we heard from the women who gave us lunch in Ura. The Ura temple dance, Yakchoe, carries a little relic around the valley. It is not owned by the Dzong, but by a family there. Once an old woman was at home when a beggar came asking for water. She asked him to sit and went into her house to fetch water. When she came back, the man was gone, and there was a little sack left in his place. She opened the sack and found a little figurine of a yak. This holy relic is the centerpiece of the temple dance.

The glorious Pemyangtse monastery

Detail of ducks from a painting in the Pemyangtse monastery

The Pemyangtse gompa lived up to its reputation. Some workers were busy repaving the front courtyard as we got off the steep entry ramp. They waited for us to walk past them to the stairs leading up to the monastery. A monk was sitting nearby with a book in which we had to enter our names. Behind him was a gigantic prayer wheel. We walked around it, and found it was pretty well balanced, and required little effort to turn. We walked round the main building to the inner courtyard. We’d missed the morning prayers. Many young monks were at their lessons in a side building. We took off our shoes and climbed the stairs to the gorgeous entrance porch.

Painting of a guardian deity in Pemyangtse monastery Painting of another guardian deity at the Pemyangtse monastery
Painting of the parable of the 4 friends in Pemyangtse monastery Painting of the benign monk in Pemyangtse monastery

This monastery was almost the last thing we planned to see in this trip, and the wait had been worth it. The paintings were gorgeous and overwhelming. On the pillars next to the steps leading up to the porch were paintings of two guardian deitys (top row in the table above). The fearsome guardians wear tiger-skins, a crown of skulls, and a garland of heads. Some of the heads seem to have pretty modern hair styles. One of the guardians rides and elephant, the other a white yak. They are surrounded by lighting and fire. The guardians carry maces while their left hand is folded into the karana mudra.

The two pillars on either sides of the door had gentler murals. The one on the left had a beautiful painting of the four harmonious friends. The rendering of the tree with fruits and birds seems specially beautiful. The other pillar has a blue and gold painting of a serene monk surrounded by deer and herons; his disciples throng around him, and one of them offers him tea.

Detail of Yama devouring the Bhavachakra in the Pemyantse monastery

The rest of the porch is full of large and beautiful paintings. One shows Yama, the god of death, devouring the Bhavachakra. A teenaged monk was passing by. I asked him in Hindi whether he could explain the meaning of the wheel. He gestured to a friend who came and explained to us that he could talk to us because he speaks better Hindi. He called the wheel by its Tibetan name Srd paikhor lo, and gave a quick explanation of the six realms of samsara. Then he pleaded that he had to go for his classes, and left.

Detail of a phoenix in a painting in Pemyangtse monastery

Glorious as the paintings are, they need restoration. Large parts of the painting o the powerful bird above, either Garuda or the phoenix, are fading. The people below him in the picture are just outline figures. In some parts of the murals the layer of paint above the plaster has fallen off, other parts are flaking. Clearly the murals are painted on to a dry plaster. It is time for the local monks to start restoring the paintings.

We walked into the monastery. Unlike the Tibetan monasteries, one is not allowed to take photos inside. At first sight, the empty cavernous space of the prayer hall looked very much like the Gelugpa monastery in Tawang. Then we noticed the differences. Amongs them are the statues along the wall. The large main statue is a many armed and many headed aspect of the Guru, Padmasambhava. It is interesting that in addition to the central statue, the Guru, in his many incarnations, gets more statues than the Buddha himself.

There are two floors above this. We walked upstairs under the gaze of cameras. The first floor has more statues and paintings worth spending time on. The theme of the Guru’s many incarnations carries on here. The top floor has many old books in Tibetan and Pali, and a wonderful painting of the heavenly palace of the Guru.

The Pemyangtse monastery was founded in 1705 by Lhatsun Chempo. Although built later than Dubdi and Tashiding, it now exerts administrative control over all the other Nyingma monasteries in Sikkim. That was consistent with the number of monks we saw here. The next time we visit, we will have to come here first to get permission to enter the Dubdi monastery. The temple festival occurs around the same time as the Bhumchu festival in Tashiding, namely around the Maghi Purnima. In most years that would be around the end of February. We’d missed it by about a week.

As high as I’ve gone

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When you climb high enough, there’s too little oxygen in the air for plants to survive. The straggling remnants of grass die out at a height of about 5350 meters (17600 feet) above sea level. The lack of oxygen affects people too. I was in a vehicle with eight other people, including the driver, and all chatter died down as we climbed. I could feel a little headache coming on. The landscape around me was odd: bare rock and dust.

We’d reached the high desert in a part of Sikkim which is geographically a continuation of the Tibetan plateau. This involved a climb of nearly 1400 meters (4500 feet) in about 5 hours. It’s guaranteed to give you a bad headache unless you are really well acclimatized to the height. But we had no choice. The only hotels we could find after much searching were in the Lachen, well below Gurudongmar Lake, which was our destination. We could not do a slow drive either, because high winds often start up there in the afternoon, and tourists are stopped a little below the lake.

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We reached the lake before noon: we were 5425 meters (17800 feet) above sea level. A couple of my travelling companions were fit enough to start walking around the lake. The lack of oxygen was slowing me down; I was content enough to stand in one place and look at the wind-rippled surface of the water. The northern end of the lake looked strangely bright. My oxygen starved brain lumbered into gear and eventually told me that that end of the lake was still frozen. It was the last day of April. Clouds were massing up to the north, but there were still patches of clear sky above the lake. The only colours I could see were the brown of the rocks, the white of snow and ice, and the blue of the sky.

The lake is sacred to Buddhists because it is associated with Padmasambhava, the Buddhist monk who took the religion to Tibet. There is a local legend that a part of the lake never freezes because he stopped it from freezing by putting his hands into the water. The water looked clear and beautiful. If I’d been better prepared for the height then I would have liked to walk down to the edge of the water and tried to drink some.

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We’d taken the road up from the south where the plateau sloped up very gently. This lake is within 5 kilometers of the Chinese border. When I looked west I could see the high Himalayan peaks, probably part of the Kanchenjunga range. Closer by, to the north, I seemed to see a glacier descending from a high peak (photo above). My headache was getting worse, and I was able to make simple inferences and look for landmarks only with much concentration. Eventually I stopped thinking and began clicking away with my camera. These are missing moments in my life; I have no memory of this time. I would later sort through the pictures, match them to maps and try to reconstruct what I must have seen. Very soon even taking photos was too much of an effort. I retreated to the vehicle and lay down for a nap.

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Our driver was from Gangtok. He was in the car and trying to sleep. Later I found that he also had a bad headache at that height. When we drove back, a descent of about 30 meters (100 feet) was enough for my headache to recede. I could even run out of the car and take a photo of the vehicle stopped in the desolate landscape (not quite, because the road parallels a narrow stream). Everyone seemed to have a oxygen threshold. Some of us never hit it. Others recovered quite suddenly at various points as we descended.