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Bhutan: Here, phallus symbols protect against accidents and gossip

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Bhutan offers more than temples and beautiful mountains.
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Bhutan: Here, phallus symbols protect against accidents and gossip is written by Tania Karpatschoff.

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Kingdom of Bhutan

Buddhism is usually associated with serenity, peace and beauty, and nowhere is this experienced more clearly than in the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan. 

But in the remote kingdom of the Himalayas, it is not only the amazing nature that surprises. Take Tania Karpatschof to Bhutan, which is surrounded by neighboring countries India , Nepal and Tibet in China.

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Penises with eyes, wings and hands

One of Bhutan's most popular attractions, for both foreign tourists and the Bhutanese themselves, is Chimi Lhakhang temple. A small temple on the way to Punakha Dzong, about 100 kilometers from Paro and 65 kilometers from Thimphu.  

We have spent the night in Punakha and make a short stop to visit the temple before traveling on to Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. The temple is a kilometer from the main road, so to get there we walk along a narrow path that leads idyllically along green fields where a group of women are busy planting rice. 

In the distance I sense the silhouettes of the dark green hills that surround the valley. Occasionally, yellow mustard fields can be glimpsed, where 100 white prayer flags gently sway in the wind. Bhutanese believe that when the wind passes through these flags, it carries the prayers with it and blesses all the people and objects it comes in contact with on its way.

I have only just entered the village when I spot huge phallic figures painted on the outer walls of houses, placed on roofs of doors, windows, signs, murals and totems and fixed in front of doors to ward off bad luck. I hear a woman giggle loudly as she shouts: "Oh my God they are everywhere!".

No matter where I look, my gaze meets giant ejaculating penises, most painted in strong shades of pink. Some have ribbons tied around them; some are swallowed by a dragon. The vast majority of ejaculators, some with hairy testicles, quite a few are shaved.

IM having fun. Penises with eyes, wings and hands. The closer we get to the temple, the more souvenir shops we come across, all with an impressive selection of penises both outside the shops and in all the display windows.  

Phallus in all kinds of forms

The only limit is the imagination, because here are penis key rings, beer openers, fridge magnets, door stoppers and handles, paperweights, cups, flower pots and toy airplanes, all shaped like penises. They are made of wood, iron or clay and are painted in every imaginable color with fairy-tale patterns and images. I end up choosing a medium-sized penis in blue-green colors with a motif from The little Prince.  

Phallus worship in Bhutan can be traced back to the 15th century, when the Buddhist teacher Drukpa Kunley introduced the Bhutanese to the ability of the phallus to ward off evil spirits and transform them into protective deities. He is said to have given wisdom to Bhutanese women and vanquished demons with his penis – called the “Thunder Wedge of Flaming Wisdom”.

Drukpa Kunley (pronounced "Drook-Pa Coon-Lee") is today one of the Bhutanese's favorite saints and a fine example of the Tibetan tradition of "mad wisdom". He was a monk, yogi and poet and quickly became known as "The Divine Mad-man".

Originally born in Tibet, he traveled through Bhutan as a monk, but unlike other Buddhist "missionaries" he was highly critical of the monasteries and the rigidity of the monks and the strict social conventions that he believed helped keep people from taking the Buddha's learn to yourself.

The promiscuous monk

He quickly became known for his crazy methods of preaching Buddhism, and in the work of enlightening his countrymen, who were mostly women. It earned him the title "The Saint of 5000 Women". His intention was to show that it is possible to be enlightened, give enlightenment and still lead a satisfying (sex) life. 

He refused to take on the ascetic life of the monk and showed that living in celibacy was not necessary for enlightenment. Instead, he used songs, humor and outrageous behavior to share the Buddha's teachings and was legendary for drinking wine, being promiscuous and using his penis, which he referred to as the "Flaming Thunderbolt of Wisdom".

His outrageous, often indecent sexual excesses earned him the name "The Divine Mad-man". By the standards of the 15th century, he was by all accounts a radical anti-institutional skeptic, challenging any form of authority without fear or hesitation and forcing the people of the country to question their entire knowledge of Buddhism, the monasteries, enlightenment, the monks, religion, nature and government. 

Bhutan: Beautiful women and a bottle of wine

The stories of his escapades are almost endless. Thus the Tango Monastery is said to be the proud owner of a thangka (painted or embroidered religious image) on which he urinates! He is also credited with drunkenly creating Bhutan's national animal, the Takin, by holding the head of a goat over the body of a cow at a drinking party. 

His sexual conquests are legendary and often included friends and the wives of his staunch supporters. On one occasion he had a red blessing thread hang around his neck, but instead rather unconventionally chose to tie it around his penis, hoping it would bring him luck with the ladies.

He is one of the very few Buddhist lamas almost always shown topless in Bhutanese paintings. And it is known that Drukpa Kunley refused to bless anyone who came to seek his guidance and help unless they brought a beautiful woman and a bottle of wine.

Temple of Fertility

After a short walk past prayer flags and playing children, we reach the top of the hill, where the temple rises behind a few windswept trees. The temple's golden roof and whitewashed walls adorned with prayer wheels and gold medallions and exquisitely carved hand-painted windows are in classical Bhutanese medieval style.

Almost 100 prayer flags flutter outside the temple. On the large lawn in front of the temple, a couple of monks sit completely engrossed in their mobile phones.

Chimi Lhakhang is especially visited by childless couples hoping to conceive. The blessing in the temple is as unique and interesting as the man who built it. Women seeking blessings to conceive will first be hit on the head with a 25 cm long phallus figure made of wood and ivory. Subsequently, they are "hit" by a bow and arrow, which was allegedly used by the divine Drukpa Kuenley himself several hundred years ago.

It may seem rather surprising to some that the powers of the temple have been proven by countless women who claim that the temple and the blessing have cured them of their involuntary childlessness. There are women who, after visiting the temple, send pictures of the children, and the monks keep them in an album as testimony to the temple's powers.

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A legendary visit to Bhutan

Our timing is perfect. On my way into the temple, I am about to bump into a fair-haired younger woman who is walking around the temple barefoot and with a huge penis in her arms. Inside the temple, a couple of monks are lighting a couple of "oil lamps" while a newly married girl bows reverently near the sacred bow and arrow.

She bows her head in devotion as a monk gently taps the top of her head with the sacred weapon, a 25 cm long ivory phallic totem. I count 11 strokes – a potential boon for an entire cricket team! I hurry to leave, fearing its strength might change a future not designed for more motherhood.

But whether you dream of children, have had children or never will have children, a visit to the temple is an unforgettable and wonderful introduction to one of Bhutan's greatest and most beloved legends and therefore a must for any visitor to the country.

About the author

Tania Karpatschoff

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