Warning! This post contains graphic drawings of the male phallus/penis (not mine!). Do not read on if you are uncomfortable with such images.
The next city on our Bhutan itinerary – Punakha is about 77 km (three hours and 15 minutes’ drive) northeast of Thimphu. The road from Thimphu to Punakha crosses the 3,115-m Dochula pass where tour groups would typically stop for lunch at the picturesque Dochula Pass restaurant.
Punakha had served as the capital of Bhutan until 1955 and, even today, it is the winter home of the central monk body. The Punakha Dzong houses many sacred artifacts and temples. The city is also home to famous Chimi Lhakhang, also known as Chime Lhakhang (Lhakhang means monastery or temple in the Bhutanese language so you will hear and see a lot of lhakhangs here in Bhutan). Chimi Lhakhang is a small Buddhist monastery with a very interesting story of how it was formed.
Located near Lobesa, Chimi Lhakhang stands on a round hillock and was built in 1499 by the 14th Drukpa, Ngawang Choegyel, after the site was blessed by the “Divine Madman” the maverick saint Drukpa Kuenley who built a chorten (which is a mound-like structure containing Buddhist relics) on the site. Thousands of people visit Chimi Lhakhang either to pray for children by those who are childless or to seek protection for children that they already have. There are also anecdotes of tourists from the US and Europe who made the pilgrimage to Chimi Lhakhang and promptly got pregnant within a year after the visit. While Chimi Lhakhang is renowned for its fertility blessings, it also fulfils the other religious and spiritual needs of the Bhutanese.
Women who come to the monastery seeking blessings of children will get hit on the head by the presiding Lama with a 10-inch ivory, wood and bone phallus as well as the bow and arrow supposedly used by the Divine Madman – Drukpa Kuenley himself hundreds of years ago. To also get the name of the child to be born, women will pick random bamboo slips placed in the altar inscribed with names of boys and girls.
How did the name “Chimi Lhakhang” came about and What’s with all the Phallus/Penis Drawing all around the Village?
In founding the site it is said that Drukpa Kunley subdued a demon of Dochu La with his “magic thunderbolt of wisdom” i.e. his penis! and trapped it in a rock at the location close to where the chorten now stands. Around the time when Drukpa Kuenley first visited Bhutan, a demoness called Loro Duem resided on a high pass presently called Dochu La. She terrorised all who tried to cross the pass and the people in the valley lived in fear. Two more demonesses lived on two smaller passes and the three of them caused people misery and suffering. When Drukpa Kuenley heard of this, he hunted down the demoness at Dochu La and the three demonesses recognising Drukpa Kuenley’s power ran down the valley and the other two demonesses dissolved into the body of Loro Duem.
When she reached the plains of Lobesa, she transformed herself into a dog to avoid detection. But Lam Drukpa Kuenley recognised the demoness dog, killed it and buried it under the mound of a hill which he said resembled the breast of a woman. He then said “Chi-med” (no dog), and built a black chorten on top of this mound. Before killing and burying the demoness, he made the demoness pledge service to the Buddha and become a protector of the dharma. She is now the local deity called Chhoekim who is the guardian deity of Chhime Lhakhang.
Drukpa Kuenley’s cousin Lam Ngawang Choegyal later built a Lhakhang in honour of his illustrious relative and named it Chhime Lhakhang.
Drukpa Kuenley was known as the “Mad Saint” or “Divine Madman” for his unorthodox ways of teaching Buddhism by singing, humour and outrageous behaviour, which amounted to being bizarre, shocking and with sexual overtones. He felt that the stiffness of the clergy and social convention were keeping people from learning the true teachings of Buddha. His outrageous, often obscene, actions and sexual antics were a deliberate method of provoking people to discard their preconceptions.
He is also the saint who advocated the use of phallus symbols as paintings on walls and as flying carved wooden phalluses on house tops at four corners of the eves. The monastery is the repository of the original wooden symbol of phallus that Kunley brought from Tibet. Traditionally symbols of an erect penis in Bhutan have been intended to drive away the evil eye and malicious gossip.
As Drukpa Kuenley is one of the most revered and followed saint in Bhutan, his symbol – the phallus can be found in various forms within Bhutanese houses and restaurants. Phalluses of different sizes can also be found in souvenir shops around Bhutan. There are also some creative ways of using the phallus e.g. in the picture below, it is used as a simple door-lock mechanism!
The phallus painting is also termed as an institutionalised graffiti. It is seen painted in different designs, and an unusual design seen is one with a dragon riding the phallus. One common feature noticed is that the phallus is always seen ejaculating.
Several anecdotes are told of the zany ways of Drukpa Kunley. It is said that on a particular occasion he was gifted a sacred thread to put around his neck. However, he shocked the people by saying that he would tie the thread around his penis with the fond hope that it would bring him “luck with the ladies”. This is perhaps the reason why you see string-like thing wrapped around the phallus/penis painting.
Chimi Lhakhang is a 20-minute walk across fields through the village of Sopsokha from the roadside to the small temple located on a hillock in the centre of the valley below Metshina. The path to Chimi Lhakhang can be quite slippery after rain; the best time to visit is Spring/Autumn. Do bring an umbrella along for support during the hike as parts of the path can get quite steep. If it has just rained or is raining during your hike, try to avoid muddy patches as you could get stuck – walk on grass patches along the route where possible. You will also be walking through rice padi fields with very narrow pathways so watch where you are stepping or you could fall into the waterlogged fields.
The hike to Chimi Lhakhang usually starts at around 3-4pm after a drive from Dochula pass. You will be invited for some tea at the Chimi Lhakhang Teahouse prior to the hike. This teahouse also serves lunch so most itineraries would also include a lunch here on the journey from Punakha back to Thimphu and Paro. Having lunch here provides you with a great view of Chimi Lhakhang from a distance. If you are back here for lunch (after an exhausting hike the previous day to Chimi Lhakhang), you can take stock of your successful pilgrimage to Chimi Lhakhang (like we did!)
Regardless of whether you believe in the power of the Divine Madman’s blessing or not, Chimi Lhakhang is definitely a serene and beautiful place to visit.
Getting to Bhutan