There is one picture that is immediately identifiable with Bhutan. A Buddhist temple perched on the edge of a sheer cliff. This is the Taktsang Monastary, more commonly known as the “Tiger’s Nest.” It is the holiest site in Bhutan and a place of pilgrimage for many Mahayana Buddhists, as well as a must on any tourist itinerary here. But sitting some 550 meters (1,500 feet) above its trailhead, this is not a hike for the weak hearted.
In the days leading up to the hike, my parents had some concerns. Would they be able to make it? The total hike takes roughly 2.5 hours, with the last half hour being a large series of stairs. You can take a pony, either half way up to the “Cafeteria,” or up to the beginning of the staircase. My sister-in-law and I were the only ones who opted to walk the whole way, as my father and brother joined us at the “Cafeteria,” while my mother rode the pony all the way up.
There are many cases of buildings destroyed by fire here and the Tiger’s Nest is no exception, having been destroyed as recently as 1998. An identical version was reconstructed on its footprint with the use of a Swiss cable car to bring supplies up (as opposed to the manual labor used when the original was built in the 17th Century). Sither, our guide, noted that the government opted to dismantle the cable car after the construction was completed in 2007 because getting there is supposed to be difficult…it aids in “washing away” your impurities.
It was a strenuous hike, at one point topping 10,000 feet. The trail was largely comprised of steep switchbacks which were filled with people. Tourists on their way down gave encouragement while locals made their way up on pilgrimage. We even met a monk lugging armloads of supplies who was on his way up to meditate for 2-3 months.
Before preceding, I should note that no photos were permitted on the grounds of the monastery, so apologies for the lack of imagery!
There is an important figure in Bhutanese Buddhism named Guru Rinpoche or the Padmasambhava, an Indian fellow who lived in the 17th Century and defeated many demons throughout the country. Supposedly one of his many manifestations turned an assistant into a tigress and flew to the site where the monastery now sits and meditated in a cave (which is now sealed) for 8 days.
The entire monastery is devoted to the Guru and directly above the room adjacent to the cave, sits a temple bearing a large statue of his representation. Apparently the statue was to be placed elsewhere in the country and while workers were loading it into a truck in 2006, the statue spoke, telling them to take it to Taktsang. All rituals are now performed in this most sacred of spaces and much to our fortune, a ritual was actually taking place right then devoted to the Guru.
The Chief Abbott led the ceremony (which lasts all day) surrounded by several young monks bearing musical instruments. Together they chanted repeatedly and as if on cue began playing their respective instruments to create a rather pleasant harmony. Four monks played two different types of traditional horns; one that created a very low sound and another that was a bit like an oboe (the same horn that was used to greet the King). Another monk played a traditional drum while the last handled miniature cymbals.
It was an amazingly special experience to be here in this truly astonishing place witnessing a truly astonishing ritual. To make things even better, Sither had explained to the Chief Abbott why we had come to the country, who in turn offered to include the name of my grandmother in the chanting. It was the perfect send off for her and for us, who return to Bangkok tomorrow.
After an hour at the monastery it was time for the long descent (including a lunch stop back at the “Cafeteria”). As beautiful waterfalls powered water-driven prayer wheels, we marveled at just how fantastic an experience our short time in Bhutan had been. And by the time we hit the parking lot, we looked back at the Tiger’s Nest way up the mountain, just as we had that morning. But this time we had a huge sense of accomplishment. We actually did it!
I liken the Tiger’s Nest to Machu Picchu (which I visited when I was very young). Both are in locations where the methods in which they were constructed seem absolutely unfathomable. The trip up is quite a ritual in itself and I can’t think of a better way we could have possibly ended our time in the “Land of the Thunder Dragon,” Bhutan.