After a rather uncomfortable afternoon and evening, I was feeling much better by the next morning and ready to join in more exploration of the scenic Punakha Valley. We planned to travel south along the Mo Chhu to the fertile Lobesa farmlands and make a stop at the village of Sosokha. This village makes the most of the tourism and souveneir trade associated with the ‘Divine Madman’, Lama Drukpa Kunley. The phallic symbolism, so prevalent in rural Bhutan, grew up around the legends associated with this rather wayward monk’s life in the 1500s. The Chimi Lakhang Temple, built in his honour in the 1500s, is a 25 minute walk through rice fields from the village.
On the drive south, we passed by the beautiful Punakha Dzong and were promised a visit there on the way back. I just hoped the weather would hold. The forecast threatened rain and this was one place in Bhutan that we did not want to miss out on or, indeed, have our visit spoiled by rain. But the itinerary, as planned, had to be adhered to, no matter what… that’s the nature of group tours, is it not?
However, we did demand that the bus at least stop at the entrance to the Dzong when we noticed a group of women singing. Sometimes you just have to take the moment when it presents itself! And this is where we heard the Talo singers performing those special songs from Talo which, by centuries old tradition, could, until recently, only be heard at the Talo Festival in March. The songs were, in my view, quite durgy, but they are obviously of great import to the locals.
Hanging over a fence watching the ladies sing, were a group of locals. Now I don’t know, and I shouldn’t make assumptions, but it appears from their faces that they are perhaps not too pleased, or at least surprised, that these songs are being performed outside of Talo and outside of Festival time. Or maybe they were just listening intently to the words which, of course, I didn’t understand. Whatever …, there’s not a lot of smiling.
This was just one of those small moments of happen-stance that can occur when travelling if we are willing and able to stop and take in what is actually happening around us and not just follow the scripted itinerary.
Our next stop was Sosokha. And before we go on with the photos, let me warn you that it can be somewhat embarrassing, for those of us who live outside of Bhutan, to walk into a village such as this where every house, restaurant, cafe and shop is painted with a large and quite explicit phallic symbol. They are just a fact of life here. Bhutanese tradition has it that these symbols will drive away the evil eye and malicious gossip.
Various paintings and window decorations, including a phallic symbol, are common on village houses such as this one in rural Sosokha. However, this symbol is now not often seen on modern houses in the capital city of Bhutan, Thimphu. That’s perhaps just another aspect of this country becoming more in tune with the outside world. And this symbolism is not generally part of the decorations on most monasteries and dzongs which are revered as places of worship. But, just about everywhere else in Bhutan… yes, it’s a big and very obvious feature. Some are ‘gift-wrapped’ with bows and the like, others a little less ornate but most seem to arise to the occasion!
A local cafe, suitably embellished. No malicious gossip here, please. Although, what we can gossip about are the myths and legends that underpin how this symbol became such an important part of Bhutanese custom.
Oral history in Bhutan infers that the phallus was an integral part of an unorthodox form of animistic and shamanistic religion called Bon which existed in Bhutan before Buddhism became the state religion.
And although there are many legends, myths and stories surrounding the use of this symbol, most of them refer to Lama Drukpa Kunley, a monk who lived in the late 1400s and early 15oos. Referred to as the “Mad Saint” or “Divine Madman”, he was known for his bizarre lifestyle and total lack of inhibition and for his ‘shock-treatment’ ways of teaching. He’s said to have used poetry, song, dance, humour, drink, and, not least, sex to teach his contemporaries the great lessons of life. He was a great seducer of women and apparently sired many children across the countryside, although he was never married. I’m not sure how he would be viewed today in a time when monks have adopted a celibate lifestyle!
According to some, the mere mention of Drukpa Kunley will, ‘invariably, draw a mischievous smile on the face of most Bhutanese men and a red tinge in the face of many Bhutanese maidens’. He is possibly partly responsible for the very strongly male dominated Bhutanese society, something which may change with the modernisation of the country. (By the way, the current changes in Bhutan are termed modernisation NOT westernisation… there is a difference!)
Above is a photo of the cover of a book about the life of Drukpa Kunley. He was, it seems, a relentless critic of the common man, be that man a monk or a farmer. He mocked both secular and religious establishments, was not bound by commonly held views of morality and conventionalism, and spoke out against what he saw as the narrow-mindedness of people who do little more in life than ‘stake out and defend their own insular existence’. He now has legendary status.
Our walk from this village of Sosokha would take us through farmlands to Chimi Lakhang Temple, the so called ‘Temple of Fertility’, which is dedicated to Drukpa Kunley.
On that walk, I was reminded very strongly of the paintings of Monet!
But a slight turn in direction and I was firmly back in Bhutan!
Mountains, rice fields, a chorten and prayer flags – all so very Bhutanese.
Along the way, we came upon this test field of the various varieties of rice already released in Bhutan. Research into rice growing and improved farming techniques is one of the key on-going programs in Bhutan today.
According to a report on the economic impact assessment of the rice research program in Bhutan, D. PEMA CHOEPHYEL, Director of the Council for Research and Extension in Bhutan, states that rice is “indispensable in the Bhutanese diet and culture; without rice, hunger remains insatiable and divine offerings stay unfulfilled. In the good old times, there was enough rice for every-one, even a little extra for trading with neighbouring Tibet. Now, Bhutan needs to import (some) milled rice annually. The situation would have been worse if not for the national rice research and development program.
The remarkable journey of rice research in Bhutan began in 1984… and has… come a long way, starting from scratch to now building a redoubtable national research system that has started paying rich dividends. This report attempts to document the impact in the country. As uncovered in the study, we are proud to note that rice production has been increasing steadily over the years, improved rice technologies have led to an increase in national rice output, farmers have been adopting improved technologies with high net returns, and household food security has improved markedly.”
A view back to the village across the rice farms.
Closer to the temple, we came across a handicraft shop, selling, amongst other souvenirs, various representations of the famous phallic symbol. Many Bhutanese tourists as well as international visitors, come to this temple. It is one of the most visited temples in all of Bhutan so the people of the village do a good trade. I wonder what the mad monk would think of this use of his name and his lifestyle for commercial gain.
As usual when travelling, I looked for something suitable to hang on our Christmas tree.
I decided on one of these small dolls.
Although archery is the main traditional sport of Bhutan, Khuru is another popular game played with the aim of striking a small target. Unlike archery, Khuru requires only a relatively simple kit of darts and target and can be enjoyed in any village field. We stopped for awhile to watch a group of young men show off their skill at this sport.
The dart has to be thrown over a long distance at a very small target.
As we neared the Temple, a group of monks approached us.
They wore the typical red robes of Bhutanese monks.
The Chimi Lakhang (or ‘No Dog’) Temple was built late in the 1500s, in honour of the mad monk. Legend has it that Lama Drukpa Kunley earned this honour by subduing a demoness at Dochu La. She, it is said, had been demonising the locals and he probably subdued her in his usual seductive way, using his ‘flaming thunderbolt of infinite wisdom”… now there’s a fancy euphemism for you if ever I heard one! He then killed the demoness, who by then, legend affirms, had taken the form of a dog. After saying “No Dog”, he then buried the remains of the dog under a mound on, presumably, this hill. And then he’s said to have built the black chorten seen on the right in the photo.
This temple is also referred to as the ‘Temple of Fertility’ and infertile couples come from all over Bhutan to receive a blessing to help them conceive a child. Since the mad monk was known for his uncontrolled lust and womanising, one of his greatest gifts to countless beneficiaries of his lust was: children; the gift was life itself.
And there you have it, a couple of legends associated with this temple.
Nowadays, the monastery associated with the temple, is a place of education for young boys since monasteries are one of the best ways for poor people to have their boys educated in Bhutan. The boys don’t have to stay as monks once educated but they can choose to stay on if they so wish. I wonder what the future holds for these two?
And just before we leave this famous temple with its various legends,
here’s your flower for today…
… a beautiful waterlily in a pond by the temple.
Now you didn’t expect that, did you?
All photography © copyright David Young
Thanks to Jennie for the research for this story
More of our travels stories and photos can be found on
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