PRIYA GANAPATHY treks to Bhutan’s most famous monastery, Paro Taktsang Palphug, perched at 3,000 ft. An integral part of the Bhutanese culture, the 17th-century monastery is a must-visit
We were at Taktsang Cafeteria – a teahouse that marks the halfway point to Bhutan’s most famous monastery, Paro Taktsang Palphug, popularly called Tiger’s Nest. Garrulous Black-faced Laughing Thrushes and fearless Gold-billed Magpies hopped around, taking turns feasting on a bird feed tray. Sipping black tea, we gazed at the monastery that floated tantalisingly overhead like a cloud in the distant sky…
Not surprisingly, its elusive charm had drawn even the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and Kate Middleton, who spent six hours on the trek during their recent two day visit to Bhutan. They completed what Prince Charles left halfway on his visit in 1998. Owing to an injury and vertigo, he only managed to reach Taktsang café and had to content himself by painting a watercolour of Tiger’s Nest at this spot! For Kate, it was “a great way to burn off the curry.” For us, the challenging ascent ahead, which took about an hour, burnt not just our calories but our ego too!
Only an hour earlier, we had driven from our lovely hotel Le Meriden Paro Riverfront to the base of this hill. We stood at the parking lot, daunted and enticed by Bhutan’s iconic symbol wedged on what appeared to be a mere toehold on an implausible precipice. Everything about the monastic complex – its distance, height and location – seemed forbidding. Could anyone possibly get there? More importantly, how did they even conceive such a building back in the 17th century? It was clear why travellers to Bhutan are advised to save the best for the last. A rigorous 2-4 hour switchback trek 3000ft up to the lofty cliff, the monastery was indeed Bhutan’s pièce de résistance.
“Let’s move fast or the temple will close,” our guide Tshering Dorji goaded, wiping out the doubts clouding our mind. We had met his father Wangdo on the road 2km short of the foothills. He said he’d meet us at the teahouse ‘soon’! A short man with a kind face, he had been in the tourism industry for over 34 years. Tshering said he was only 2 months old when his father started out. “I have never heard him complain that he’s sick or tired. He’s always fit, always”, he smiled in secret admiration. We huffed up breathlessly, lingering to savour the sights en route – three beautiful stone stupas accessed by a short bridge, a Buddhist painting on a rock, the scent of pine, the gentle tinkle and murmur of a water-run prayer wheel, lovely valley views and colourful prayer flags crisscrossing our tree-lined path with stray Bhutia dogs walking alongside.
Soon enough, old man Wangdo overtook us as we panted uphill while he scrambled up a steep short-cut to the café like a mountain goat. Tshering shook his head indicating it was beyond our hiking skills. Wangdo was at the café half an hour before us, waiting patiently with a tray of refreshing black tea. His agility humbled us and made us ashamed of our own fitness levels despite being half his age! His wise eyes held stories of many decades.
Tourism began in Bhutan in 1974, at the time of the coronation of the fourth king. The Government invited several dignitaries from across the world for the big event.
What triggered a trickle of foreign visitors initially has grown to into a full-fledged industry that caters to the steady flow of travellers to Bhutan. Taktsang itself sees about 80-90 visitors per day in winter. “In peak season, we get 200-300 tourists per day! Many have to turn back from the cafeteria as it gets packed and impossible to feed everyone. Sadly, they have to go back to town for lunch as there is no other option in these parts. They end up often footing twice the distance in vain!” Tshering reveals.
The Taktsang Monastery is literally “Tiger’s lair” as tak means ‘tiger’ and tsang refers to ‘nest’ in Dzongkha, the national language. The monastery is believed to have been built in 1692 by Tenzin Rabgye around the cave where the great Tantric master Guru Padmasambhava – the one who emerged from a lotus flower – came from India and meditated around the 8th century. Stories recount how he transformed his consort Yeshe Tsogyal into a flying tigress using his supernatural powers and came to this mountain. Some say he spent three months meditating inside a cave here; local lore pegs it at three years, three months, three days and three hours!
The trail from the café was a breeze but left us slightly winded at the vantage point – a rock from where we were eye-to-eye with the monastery, separated by a deep gorge with steep steps that swooped down and rose towards it. A vision and moment that no visitor can ever forget – this is where the picture postcard images of Tiger’s Nest come to life – wearing an ethereal glow. The trickiest stretch was the descent down 450 steps to the fabulous waterfall plummeting 200ft down into the half-frozen sacred pool.
Thereafter, a short bridge across a yawning chasm led to another set of 400 high steps to the main monastery. Depositing our possessions at the security (bags, phones, cameras – no photography is allowed inside), we clambered up to the main shrine. Despite our sweaty trek, it was biting cold here because of the altitude. On the left was a wish-fulfilling rock – we were instructed to make a wish, walk a few feet and touch a dent in the rock with eyes closed, to see if it would come true.
The monastery is a complex of caves and shrines connected by rock-hewn steps and rickety bridges. Tholu phuk was the cave where Guru Padmasambhava first entered. A lower temple housed the meditation cave Pel phuk, where Guru Padmasambhava assumed his wrathful form Guru Dorje Drolo to subdue a local demon with his dagger. After transforming the demon into Taktsang Singye Samdrup, the temple’s presiding deity, he embarked on his mission to spread Buddhism across this Himalayan kingdom. The main cave glowed with flickering butter lamps lighting up images of Bodhisattvas and Avalokitesvara.
The meditation cave is accessible to the public only once a year from 6am-6pm on a chosen date based on the lunar calendar. Around 30 monks from the central monastic body in Thimphu, led by the head monk, hold prayer ceremonies for a month in this temple. On the final day, rituals are conducted in the Guru Singye chamber and the meditation chamber is opened for worshippers. Thousands from all parts of Bhutan trek up the mountain and rush into the cave to seek blessings at the sacred chamber.
The Guru Singye Chamber, the middle temple on the first floor, is dedicated to the Guru who speaks. The line between fact and fiction blurred as we heard the fantastical story of how the golden statue, an incarnation of Guru Padmasambhava, actually uttered a few words as it was being transported up to Taktsang! The monastery was a treasure trove of fine paintings, wall murals and fierce-looking statues depicting the eight manifestations of the Guru and his two spiritual wives. There were 8-10 shrines and caves dedicated to great masters who helped in the spread of Buddhism across the country, but we were happy to visit the main ones.
On the return trek – not as tiring as the climb – we plopped down at Taktsang Café for a hearty lunch of red rice, spicy ema datsi (chilli cheese) and noodles. We were told that a fire broke out on April 19th in 1998 inside the main temple due to a short circuit, which destroyed several valuable paintings, thangkas and artefacts. A massive restoration programme completed in 2005 by the Government of Bhutan and the former king, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuk ensured that the monastery regained its former glory.
We waved to Wangdo and turned for our final hike to the car park. Tshering smiled as we’d pause ever so often for another click and look over our shoulder at this magnificent monastery. In the valley, Bhutanese families were picnicking as children playfully chased each other and stray horses grazed calmly – it was Losar, the Bhutanese New Year. Thrilled that we had accomplished the steep trek in just 2 hours on such an auspicious day, with only streams of fluttering prayer flags affirming our tired footsteps, we realized why the pain was worth it.
Getting there: The base for the 4km hike to Tiger’s Nest (2-4 hrs depending on one’s fitness level) is 10km from Paro. DrukAir (www.drukair.com.bt) and Bhutan Airlines (www.bhutanairlines.bt) fly from New Delhi (2hr 20min) and Kolkata to Paro. There are no trains or buses in Bhutan. Cabs ply from Paro to the capital Thimphu (65km/1 hr).
Entry: Indian citizens do not have to pay the US$200 daily fee applicable for foreign tourists or need a Visa to enter Bhutan, but must carry ID proof like Voter’s ID/Passport. Indian currency is accepted.
Timings: 8am-6pm summer (Apr-Sep), Closes for lunch 1-2pm and an hour early in winter (Oct-Mar)
Where to stay:
Le Meridien Paro Riverfront Just 3.5km from the airport, the brand new hotel seamlessly combines luxury and relaxation in a prime location overlooking scenic mountains and a river. Tel +975 8 270300 http://www.starwoodhotels.com
Tips: Carry a walking stick, water, snacks and wear good shoes, a hat and sun-block. Raingear and jackets help as the weather can change and it gets cold uphill. It’s a tough trail, so people with heart or breathing problems may reconsider the trek. Mule rides (from Rs.800) are available till the café.
For more info: www.tourism.gov.bt
Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 8 May, 2016 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.