Being blessed by a supersized, wooden phallus-wielding boy monk could rattle the feminist in you — or leave you with an inferiority complex, if you’re a man who also happens to be size-ist. In Bhutan, though, phallus worship is de rigueur, and is believed to bestow the gift of fertility on eager couples and ward off evil spirits. Drukpa Kunley, a 15th-century Tantric Buddhism master, also known as The Divine Madman for his radical views on sex and religion, is most responsible for the country’s preoccupation with male genitalia. The mighty Drukpa would also have agreed with me that it’s this sexual emancipation that may be driving Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index.
If you are too much of a prude for the brazen sexual references in art and mythology, the Bhutanese have found ways to allude to conscious coupling (to misquote actor Gwyneth Paltrow) even in the stunning landscape that surrounds you. In the Punakha valley in western Bhutan, you’re quietly captivated as you take in wide-jawed rivers and clouds hunched atop mountains. Our delicately pretty guide, Sonam Pelden, tells me that Punakha is where the male river named Pho Chhu conjoins the female, Mo Chhu. “The female river is known to be gentle and the male always has a strong current,” says Pelden, and adds with a shy laugh, “But, I don’t think all women are like this — gentle.” Nor all men strong, I think to myself, but this a debate too complex for this serene setting. The Punakha Dzhong, a striking fort built in the 17th century on the bank of these mating rivers, was then a fitting wedding venue for the royal couple — King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and his wife Jetsun Pema — whose omnipresence is evident by the number of hoardings dedicated to them, starting with the airport strip in Paro.
Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava, who is also known to have introduced Tantric Buddhism in Tibet, is part of another legend that has made Paro famous. The story goes that the guru flew from Tibet to Bhutan on the back of a tigress, an avatar of his female consort Yeshe Tsogyal, to slay a demon named Singye Samdrup. He then meditated for three months in a cave, which is now the site of the Takstang monastery, better known as the Tiger’s Nest. First built in 1692, the monastery was ravaged by two fires (one in 1951 and, more recently, in 1998) and was rebuilt in 2000. The trek up to the monastery, some 9000 feet above sea level, will leave you gasping both at the view and for breath; it is a true test of will, physical strength and character.
It was Sonam who was guiding us up in a heavy downpour, with no “strong”, fit man in sight. I saw some able-bodied tourists, both young and old, riding ponies and mules instead of climbing. The only thrill in that is looking down the drop as the poor animals walk along the very edge of the slippery, rain-drenched path, either by habit or because they have been trained to make room for other trekkers. Even though the trek is the thing to do in Bhutan, there is little to suggest that this is a tourist magnet, but for the flea market at the foothills. Most of Bhutan, including the capital city of Thimphu, a one-hour drive from Paro, is in a state of Zen.
In Thimphu, my gross happiness index shot up at the Folk Heritage Museum Restaurant, known for its incredible local cuisine. Kesang Choeden, the first woman in Bhutan to have signed up to be a police officer, now retired, is the captain of this ship. Choeden’s kitchen is led by fresh, seasonal produce and she painstakingly sources every ingredient, including the mistletoe used in the invigorating, woody-scented black tea we are served later. “I send a couple of people out to pick mistletoe from the forest, because what’s available in the market is adulterated,” she tells me with a smug smile.
Apple trees packed with fruit form a cosy alcove right outside the restaurant, while pumpkin creepers with yellow flowers spread cheer. In the restaurant, every dish on the table mirrors the splendour outside. Bright red chillies, which only look deceptively hot, are mildly spiced, sautéed in oil with a pinch of salt and make for an excellent chorus. The harmony, of course, is sung by steaming red rice, the Bhutanese staple that is accompanied by nyakhachudatshi (asparagus with cheese) or bjashamarro (minced chicken with garlic).
For rice haters, there’s khuley or soft, buckwheat pancakes. The local rice wine, ara, like the fist of Muhammad Ali, goes straight for the gut, but is the preferred drink of choice for a traditional meal. I found that the Druk beer, one of the smoothest lagers I’ve ever tasted, made for a better lunchtime buzz.
Besides dried pork (sikampaa), also a staple, and dried beef (norshahuentsey), Bhutanese cuisine has much to offer vegetarians by way of a cheese banquet — emadatshi, the star of a traditional kitchen, cooked with chilli and yak cheese; shamudatshi, mushroom and cheese; and kewadatshi, potatoes and cheese. What else does an honest man need when they have cheese? And, then, there are sweet, juicy plums from the garden to finish off this spread.
All that food calls for a long walk in Thimphu’s main market area. While some nondescript buildings in Thimphu stand out like caricatures, because their name plates read ‘Shopping Mall’, the very place some of us might be running away from, the lure of an entire row of identically structured bamboo huts with hand-painted signboards is irresistible. I head out to the Crafts Bazaar to return with wine flasks, scrolls and phallus key chains. There’s no escaping the phallus.