Spirit of Bhutan

Spirit of Bhutan

Tiger's Nest

Spirit of Bhutan

We were at Taktsang Café — a teahouse that marks the halfway point to Bhutan’s most famous monastery, Paro Taktsang Palphug, popularly called Tiger’s Nest. Garrulous black-faced laughing thrushes and fearless gold-billed magpies hopped around, taking turns feasting on a bird feed tray. Sipping black tea, we gazed at the monastery that floated tantalisingly overhead like a cloud in the distant sky.

Not surprisingly, its elusive charm had drawn even the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and Kate Middleton, who spent 6 hours on the trek during their recent 2-day visit to Bhutan. They completed what Prince Charles left halfway on his visit in 1998. Owing to an injury and vertigo, he only managed to reach Taktsang Café. For Kate, it was “a great way to burn off the curry”. For us, the challenging ascent ahead, which took about an hour, burnt not just our calories, but our egos as well.

Only an hour earlier, we had driven from picturesque Paro to the base of this hill, and stood at the parking lot, daunted and enticed by Bhutan’s iconic symbol wedged on what appeared to be a mere toehold on an implausible precipice. Everything about the monastic complex seemed forbidding. Could anyone possibly get there? More importantly, how did they even conceive such a building back in the 17th century? It was clear why travellers to Bhutan are advised to save the best for the last. A rigorous 2-4 hour switchback trek 3,000 ft up to the lofty cliff, the monastery was indeed Bhutan’s pièce de résistance.

Trek of a lifetime

“Let’s move fast or the temple will close,” our guide Tshering Dorji goaded. We had met his father, Wangdo on the road 2 km short of the foothills. He said he’d meet us at the teahouse ‘soon’! A short man with a kind face, he had been in the tourism industry for over 34 years. Tshering said he was only 2 months old when his father started out. “I have never heard him complain that he’s sick or tired. He’s always fit, always,” he smiled in secret admiration. We huffed up breathlessly, lingering to savour the sights en route — 3 beautiful stone stupas accessed by a short bridge, a Buddhist painting on a rock, the scent of pine, the gentle tinkle and murmur of a water-run prayer wheel, lovely valley views and colourful prayer flags crisscrossing our tree-lined path.

Soon enough, old man Wangdo overtook us, as we panted uphill while he scrambled up a steep shortcut to the café like a mountain goat. Tshering shook his head indicating it was beyond our hiking skills. Wangdo was at the café half an hour before us, waiting patiently with a tray of refreshing black tea. His agility humbled us and made us ashamed of our own fitness levels despite being half his age. His wise eyes held stories of many decades.

Tourism began in Bhutan in 1974, at the time of the coronation of the 4th king. The government invited several dignitaries from across the world for the big event. What triggered a trickle of foreign visitors initially has grown to into a full-fledged industry that caters to the steady flow of travellers to Bhutan. Taktsang itself sees about 80-90 visitors per day in winter. “In peak season, we get 200-300 tourists per day! Many have to turn back from the cafeteria, as it gets packed and impossible to feed everyone. Sadly, they have to go back to town for lunch as there is no other option in these parts. They often end up footing twice the distance in vain,” Tshering reveals.

The Taktsang Monastery literally translates to “tiger’s nest” as tak means tiger and tsang refers to nest in Dzongkha, the national language. The monastery is believed to have been built in 1692 by Tenzin Rabgye around the cave, where the great Tantric master Guru Padmasambhava — the one who emerged from a lotus flower — came from India and meditated around the 8th century. Stories recount how he transformed his consort Yeshe Tsogyal into a flying tigress using his supernatural powers and came to this mountain. Some say he spent 3 months meditating inside a cave here; local lore pegs it at 3 years, 3 months, 3 days and 3 hours.

The trail from the café was a breeze, but left us slightly winded at the vantage point — a rock from where we were eye-to-eye with the monastery, separated by a deep gorge with steep steps that swooped down and rose towards it. A vision and moment that no visitor can ever forget — this is where the picture postcard images of Tiger’s Nest come to life — wearing an ethereal glow. The trickiest stretch was the descent along 450 steps to the fabulous waterfall plummeting 200 ft down into the half-frozen sacred pool.

Thereafter, a short bridge across a yawning chasm led to another set of 400 high steps to the main monastery. Depositing our possessions at the security, we clambered up to the main shrine. Despite our sweaty trek, it was biting cold here because of the altitude. On the left was a wish-fulfilling rock — we were instructed to make a wish, walk a few feet and touch a dent in the rock with eyes closed, to see if it would come true.

The monastery is a complex of caves and shrines connected by rock-hewn steps and rickety bridges. Tholu Phuk was the cave where Guru Padmasambhava first entered. A lower temple housed the meditation cave Pel Phuk, where Guru Padmasambhava assumed his wrathful form Guru Dorje Drolo to subdue a local demon with his dagger. After transforming the demon into Taktsang Singye Samdrup, the temple’s presiding deity, he embarked on his mission to spread Buddhism across this Himalayan kingdom. The main cave glowed with flickering butter lamps lighting up images of Bodhisattvas and Avalokitesvara.

Spiritual spaces

The meditation cave is accessible to the public only once a year from 6 am to 6 pm on a chosen date based on the lunar calendar. Around 30 monks from the central monastic body in Thimphu, led by the head monk, hold prayer ceremonies for a month in this temple. On the final day, rituals are conducted in the Guru Singye chamber and the meditation chamber is opened for worshippers. Thousands from all parts of Bhutan trek up the mountain and rush into the cave to seek blessings at the sacred chamber.

The Guru Singye chamber, the middle temple on the first floor, is dedicated to the Guru who speaks. The line between fact and fiction blurred as we heard the fantastical story of how the golden statue, an incarnation of Guru Padmasambhava, actually uttered a few words as it was being transported up to Taktsang. The monastery was a treasure trove of fine paintings, wall murals and fierce-looking statues depicting the 8 manifestations of the Guru and his 2 spiritual wives. There were 8 to 10 shrines and caves dedicated to great masters, who helped in the spread of Buddhism across the country, but we were happy to visit the main ones.

On the return trek — not as tiring as the climb — we plopped down at Taktsang Café for a hearty lunch of red rice, spicy ema datshi (chilli cheese) and noodles. We were told that a fire broke out on April 19 in 1998 inside the main temple due to a short circuit, which destroyed several valuable paintings, thangkas and artefacts. A massive restoration programme completed in 2005 by the Government of Bhutan and the former king, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuk, ensured that the monastery regained its former glory.

We waved to Wangdo and turned for our final hike to the car park. Tshering smiled as we’d pause ever so often for another click and look over our shoulder at this magnificent monastery. In the valley, Bhutanese families were picnicking as children playfully chased each other, and stray horses grazed calmly — it was Losar, the Bhutanese New Year. Thrilled that we had accomplished the steep trek in just 2 hours on such an auspicious day, with only streams of fluttering prayer flags affirming our tired footsteps, we realised why the pain was worth it. 

FACT FILE

Getting there:

The base for the 4-km
hike to Tiger’s Nest is 10 km from Paro. DrukAir (www.drukair.com.bt) and Bhutan Airlines (www.bhutanairlines.bt) fly from New Delhi and Kolkata to Paro. Cabs ply from Paro to the capital, Thimphu.

 Entry: Indian citizens don’t need a visa to enter Bhutan, but must carry ID proof like voter’s ID/passport. Indian currency is
accepted.

Timings: 8 am-6 pm summer (April to September), Closes for lunch from 1 pm to 2 pm, and an hour early in winter (October to March).

Tips: Carry a walking stick, water, snacks, and wear good shoes, a hat and sun-block. Rain gear and jackets help as the weather can change and it gets cold uphill. It’s a tough trail, so people with heart or breathing problems should reconsider the trek. Mule rides (starting from Rs 800) are available till the café.
For more info: www.tourism.gov.bt

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