Travel

To the top, with suja, thukpa and stories for company

A walk to remember: The Taktasang Monastery

A walk to remember: The Taktasang Monastery  

Raul Dias treks an arduous path through Bhutan’s Paro Valley to find his silver lining at the legendary Tiger’s Nest monastery

It wasn’t for the first time in my five-day trip to Bhutan that I saw how bizarrely different this tiny, land-locked Himalayan country is from the rest of the world. Not only are searing, red-hot chillies the raison d’être of its cuisine, there also isn’t a single traffic light in all of the land. And to top it all, the country’s GNH (Gross National Happiness) is calibrated higher than its GNP (Gross National Product).

But that morning, at the base of one of Bhutan’s most venerated tourist sites, hiding in the shadow of Mount Chomolhari, things took an eerie turn as I stood all set to begin my three-hour trek up to the legendary Tiger’s Nest. Also known as Taktsang, this iconic monastery is precariously perched on the rocky lip of a mountain, 3,000 ft above the upper Paro Valley in Western Bhutan. But here no one hustles you. No trinket seller tugs at your sleeve. No one tries to peddle ‘Made in China’ touristy tat. And, as I was beginning to realise, no one goes out of their way to offer you their guiding services. Not that I was looking for one.

Armed with my trusted guidebook and a friendly black dog that magically materialised next to me, I set off along the path marked with fluttering prayer flags and higgledy-piggledy sign boards on pine-tree trunks indicating the direction up towards the monastery. And as the gentle, moss-carpeted trails soon gave way to challenging inclines, my exercise-deprived quadriceps began to protest. I stopped every now and then for rest among the primulas, poppies and assorted flora, and made a mental note to invest more time taking in their stunning beauty on my way down.

Passing alongside other trekkers, while attempting to navigate my way around donkey dung, I somehow made it to the mid-way point that is marked by a tiny teahouse from where the views of the monastery whet your appetite for the grand finale. Speaking of appetite, here is where one can tuck into Bhutanese staples like cheese and chilly-stuffed dumplings along with steaming bowls of thukpa, the main ingredient of which is the dried meat seen hanging from the teahouse’s windows.

The next hour-and-a-half was a brutal test of willpower. The silver lining? The thundering 200-feet cascade of glittering water that drops into a sacred pool, forded over by a bridge that one must cross to reach the other side of the mountain where the monastery finally comes in full sight at the end of a long flight of stairs.                

Nourished by a warming cup of salted suja butter tea and biscuits handed out to me by student volunteers, and armed with ‘donation’ boxes for trekkers to fill, I trudged along the last few steps towards the ornately decorated entrance — my very own gates of paradise after the vertiginous ascent. The guards at the entrance gate made it very clear to me that although I was welcome to enter the holy precincts, my camera, mobile phone, backpack, shoes and yes… dog were not. Divesting myself of ‘earthly accoutrements’ and chuckling at the irony of the situation, I let the cool, incense-impregnated air waft over me as I headed inside, past the vivid thangka-style mural depicting the Buddha’s life, painted on the wall outside.

The multi-levelled monastery , as it is today, was built in 1692 in honour of Guru Rinpoche, the father of the Bhutanese sect of Mahayana Buddhism. It is believed that the Guru who is also known as Padmasambhava flew to this location from Tibet on the back of a tigress from Khenpajong in the 8th Century. The tigress was said to be the Guru’s disciple Yeshe Tsogyal, the wife of a Tibetan emperor. It was here in a cave called the ‘Tiger’s Lair’ or Taktsang that the Guru meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours. And although off limits to visitors after a major fire in 1998 — caused by a toppled butter lamp — the said cave, also known as Pel Phuk, is still as it is and opened only on special occasions like Tsechu, the festival marking the tenth day of a month of the lunar Tibetan calendar.

Comprising four main buildings with living quarters for the monks at the back, each building of the monastery is connected to the other by wooden stairways and narrow passages carved out of the rock face. The temple at the topmost level is the sanctum sanctorum, where the monastery’s prayer hall is located. A vast Spartan space, save for a grand altar decorated with lamps and offertory sculptures (or ‘cakes’ as the locals refer to them) of flowers and trees fashioned out of moulded butter, the prayer hall is tranquillity at its serene best.

Sitting cross-legged on the worn out, gleaming wooden floor, listening to the reverberating chants of the Abbot’s throat singing, I felt the world melt away just like the butter in the pewter lamps. A sense of calm took over my being and quasi-nirvana made its presence felt as though I had seen it all, done it all…     

But then I did have a lot to look forward to on the way down, after all. That second bowl of thukpa. The heady fragrance of poppies. And not least of all, some canine company.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

We have been keeping you up-to-date with information on the developments in India and the world that have a bearing on our health and wellbeing, our lives and livelihoods, during these difficult times. To enable wide dissemination of news that is in public interest, we have increased the number of articles that can be read free, and extended free trial periods. However, we have a request for those who can afford to subscribe: please do. As we fight disinformation and misinformation, and keep apace with the happenings, we need to commit greater resources to news gathering operations. We promise to deliver quality journalism that stays away from vested interest and political propaganda.

Support Quality Journalism
Related Topics
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | May 25, 2020 9:23:12 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/travel/raul-dias-treks-an-arduous-path-through-bhutans-paro-valley-to-find-his-silver-lining-at-the-legendary-tigers-nest-monastery/article6405052.ece

Next Story