On the walls of the main shrine inside the Hemis monastery are paintings in the usual Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist iconography. The first was a painting of the three powerful deities who helped Guru Padmasambhava to pacify the demons who were troubling the mountain kingdom. The most powerful of them was the central figure of the Yamantaka. I’m not an expert in this iconography, but I could tell him by the water buffalo which he rides (the buffalo seems to be somewhat weighed down by him). All these pictures are meant to educate, so they designed to be easy to interpret.
The Yamantaka is often shown as devouring a snake, which denotes time. This is a symbol which emphasizes that he conquers time, and illustrates the meaning of his name, the conqueror of death (Yamantaka = Yama + antaka in Sanskrit). Here he holds a snake in two hands. Interestingly, he is the aggressive aspect of Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of learning and wisdom. That’s a bit esoteric, but it is meant to show people how to conquer death.
I should have taken photos of all three of these deities, but I only have this other photo of the painting which shows the wrathful aspect of Palden Lhamo (whose name in Sanskrit is Shridevi). She has many aspects as a guardian diety, and again, one of her attributes is wisdom and learning. Hemis monastery belongs to the Red Hat school, so she is given a secondary role. In the Yellow Hat (Gelug) school she might have had the central role.
There was a short break in the rain when we reached Kalabhairava temple. Bhairava are the destructive aspects of Shiva, and Kalabhairava is one which is supposed to bring about the end of time. This has crossed over to the Tantric Buddhist tradition in various forms, including the Yamantaka, who is supposed to bring about the end of death, through the ending of time. There was already a temple to Kalabhairava at this site when, in the late 18th century CE, the Maratha chieftain Mahadaji Shinde came to pray for success in battle. After winning the battle, now known as the third battle of Panipat, he replaced the old temple by a new one in 1775 CE.
The entrance gate is a typical late Maratha structure. I’d hoped to walk around the temple looking for the remnants of the older Paramara era frescos and the remnants of the old statues of that time. Unfortunately, there were too many restrictions on what was possible, and we gave up on that utopian idea.
The Family noticed something which had escaped me. “Do you see that there are no women here?” she asked. Indeed, now that she had pointed it out, I did. The probable reason is that the standard offering to the Kalabhairava of Ujjain is alcohol. Across the parking area in front of the gate was a line of shops selling things needed in the rituals of the temple. If you examine the photo above, you can see baskets with a ready made kit of all that you need. Nestled among the flowers is a bottle of alcohol. Near the foot of the attendant is the empty cardboard carton in which these bottles had been packed. I couldn’t trace the origins of this custom: could it be due to the Marathas, or is it older?
Bhutan’s traditional religious paintings appear in many places. Trucks bear the image of the lotus (padma or pema). The tiger, the snow lion, the dragon and the Yamantaka are seen in murals in temples as well as people’s homes. Dzongs, monasteries and temples contain magnificent murals. A sampling of these is in the gallery below (click to see a slideshow).
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. I had really old and bad shoes, 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. 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.
The 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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.