Tag Archives: Padmasambhava

Tiger’s Nest: Bhutan’s prized monastic perch


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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

Enter the Dragon: The Drukpa Trail in Ladakh


ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY follow Drukpa’s Dragon Trail from Hemis to Shey and uncover Ladakh’s tryst with movies at Rancho’s School & Pangong Tso

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Every precious spot of shade and vantage point at Hemis gompa (monastery) was taken while the not so lucky sat patiently in the sun. Whenever a masked performer came too close, old women touched their foreheads in reverence while wide-eyed kids cowered in terror. A large thangka of the Drukpa sect’s founder Tsangpa Gyare unfurled on a wall loomed over the proceedings. We were at the annual Hemis Festival in Ladakh on invitation by the Drukpas for the birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Padmasambhava who introduced Buddhism to the Tibetan region. Crowds milled about for a glimpse of his large statue in an antechamber.

For 350 years, the courtyard of the largest monastery in Ladakh has resonated with the clang and drone of gongs, horns, pipes and drums. We watched an endless procession of 400 monks twirl and dance wearing centuries-old costumes. The masked chham dances were based on the eight manifestations of Padmasambhava – wrathful, benign, feminine, royal, saintly, leonine – that he assumed at different times for the benefit of mankind. His Eminence Drukpa Thuksey Rinpoche, spiritual son of present monastic head HH Gyalwang Drukpa, along with learned scholar Khanchan Tsewang Rigzin traced the origins of their sect.

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The Drukpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism was founded in western Tibet by Tsangpa Gyare (1161–1211). On a pilgrimage, he and his disciples witnessed nine dragons roar out of the earth into the skies as flowers rained from the heavens. They named their sect Drukpa (druk in Tibetan means dragon) after this divine incident. To be honest, the only time we had heard of Druk was while devouring Druk jam as kids and Druk Air, both originating in Bhutan, where the sect prospered and Mahayana Buddhism continues to be the state religion.

Lynne Chain, a donor-volunteer from Malaysia known by her adopted name Deepam, outlined Drukpa’s big plans for next year. Every 12 years a four-storeyed thangka of Padmasambhava is unfurled at Hemis. Next year, the event coincides with the millennial anniversary of Buddhist maha-siddha Naropa. A disciple of Tilopa, Naropa was the gatekeeper of Nalanda University and posed questions on theology and philosophy to people who came for admission and decided whether they were fit to enter or not. Later, he came to Ladakh and meditated in caves near Lamayuru and Zanskar.

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Naropa 2016, a month-long event slated for 1-31 July will take place on a 300-acre tented zone near Hemis. Besides the Hemis Festival, the relics of Naropa (six bone ornaments) will be displayed for a few days, with teachings by masters, Himalayan cultural performances, free eye camps and tree planting. With half a million visitors expected to attend, it is billed as the ‘Maha Kumbh of the Himalayas’. Drukpa’s charity organization Live to Love will attempt to break its own Guinness record of a million trees planted simultaneously. HH Gyalwang Drukpa will address the audience seated at the centre of a giant mandala shaped like the 9th century Borobodur temple complex in Java. After the event a statue of Naropa would be installed and consecrated as a monument.

Kargyud Homestay, a new family-run hotel in the quieter part of Leh overlooking the Tsemo Gompa, Leh Palace and the Stok range, served as the perfect base. The owner Phuntsog Wangchuk Goba also ran the famous restaurant Tibetan Kitchen, so food was delicious. Our next stop was the old summer capital Shey on the Leh-Thikse road lined with poplar and Ladakhi willow trees. Located in the lofty palace complex next to the Namgyal Victory Stupa was a chamber with a 39 ft high copper statue of Shakyamuni Buddha gilded in 5 kg gold. The seated statue towered above us, spanning three storeys. From the citadel, a stupendous view fanned out of the Indus valley dotted by Stok, Stakna and Leh in the distance. A 4km trekking path connects Shey to Thikse Monastery, past the largest chorten fields in Ladakh with hundreds of whitewashed stupas strewn across a lunar landscape.

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Signboards along the way announced ‘Rancho’s School’ or the Druk Padma Karpo (White Lotus) School, propelled to fame by Aamir Khan’s 3 Idiots. Before the movie released in 2009, the school had no visitors; today it averages 200 a day! They had to set up Rancho’s Cafeteria and gift shop to cater to the rush. The dynamic principal Stanzin Kunzang and His Eminence Drukpa Thuksey Rinpoche, the school’s guiding light, took us around the campus.

It wasn’t just the dramatic backdrop and its philanthropic mission that made the school special; the institution itself was unique. Designed by London-based Arup Associates, its award-winning eco-friendly architecture used passive solar heating, ventilated pit toilets that didn’t require water and interlocking timber frames to withstand earthquakes! The dorms, named after Ladakh’s high passes, housed local and underprivileged kids who learnt Bothi (the Ladakhi script), art, music, martial training besides regular subjects. Nearly half of the 726 students came from remote areas like Dah Hanu and Zanskar and were sponsored.

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In August 2010, after Ladakh was struck by cloudbursts and mudslides, the school suffered serious damage. Aamir visited Ladakh for disaster relief and the following month, gracefully accepted the appointment as ‘Live to Love’ Global Ambassador at a convention in London along with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Michelle Yeoh. After her recent relief work during the devastating Nepal earthquake, Michelle visited Ladakh for the first time this July and spent an evening at the school. “This is the most beautiful place on earth and the most beautiful school. We pledge our commitment that we will make your school bigger, better and stronger,” she exclaimed, floored by the entertainment program and enthusiasm of the students.

Speaking on her association, she mentioned that she first met HH Gyalwang Drukpa in New York and learnt about his Himalayan trek with 700 Live to Love volunteers for ecological awareness. Roped in as Executive Producer for Pad Yatra: A Green Odyssey, Michelle chronicled the epic journey with producer-director Wendy Lee. The Himalayas, a fragile glacial region being devastated by global warming, was described as the planet’s ‘3rd Pole’. Michelle elaborated, “One of the things I love about the pad yatra is that you connect with Mother Nature… Your feet always have to be on the ground. The environment issue is very close to my heart. It is about being responsible – making people living in this region believe that they are custodians of the natural resources and how we have to be good tourists when we visit.”

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She had joined the Peace Pad Yatra in Sri Lanka at the tail end and hoped to do a complete journey. Being an outdoors person who liked to trek and camp, she wished to join the upcoming Eco Pad Yatra to Myanmar in December… In Ladakh, she looked forward to visiting Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake. Seeing the ‘Rancho’ name plastered everywhere she reiterated the impact of movies. “Well, if it helps tourism, why not?”

It was local tour operator George Odpal who put Ladakh on the Bollywood map. Far from the chaos of Leh, we met him at his beautiful resort in Saboo 7km away, a lovely showcase of Ladakhi architecture and cuisine. George recalls, “It all started with LOC Kargil in 2001. JP Dutta was planning to shoot in Ladakh and all enterprising locals were aflutter about how to get in touch with him. I had just started my company Himalayan Safaris. I had no idea about Bollywood so I just Googled him and caught the next train to Mumbai! I bumped into a friend on his production team and my knowledge of the region and tour expertise got me the project. LOC was shot around Leh besides the army area at Karu. At that point, it was the toughest thing we ever pulled off.”

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As queries trickled in, George expanded from location hunts to logistics, transportation, stay, permissions, recce and even equipment for film shoots. He has co-ordinated the filming of over 20 movies in Ladakh, including Shyam Benegal’s Bose: The Forgotten Hero and critically acclaimed Hollywood docu-film Samsara, featuring monks of Thikse Monastery making mandalas. Shot in 25 countries, it was the only location chosen from India. However, it was 3 Idiots that spurred the tourism boom in Ladakh. Interestingly, the original location for the movie’s climax was not Pangong Lake but Tso Mo Riri, but wildlife permissions and snowfall made the production team look for an alternative in Europe, until they finally returned to Ladakh for Pangong. The rest is screen history. Today, tented camps dot the lake at Spangmik with carloads of tourists and biker groups stopping at the ‘3 Idiots’ restaurant and shooting point.

After featuring Nubra Valley in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, filmmaker Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra recently returned to Ladakh to shoot his next film Mirziya, based on Mirza-Sahiban, a classic love story from Punjab. Shot in Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake, the movie will feature Ladakh on a dramatic scale. Few days later, as we cooled our heels in the blue waters of Pangong, we spied ‘three idiots’ mimicking the famous ‘bum scratch’ on the banks. We wondered what Bollywood poses would make it to people’s selfies in a few years. Sigh… Cut!

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Fact File

Getting there
It’s a linear route down Leh-Manali highway to Mahabodhi Society at Choglamsar 9km away, Shey Palace 6km further and another 4km to Thikse Gompa. The road continues to Karu check-post, 35km from Leh, where it forks – a diversion on the right crosses the bridge over the Indus River and goes to Hemis 7km away while the left turn goes via Chang La to Spangmik (125 km) on Pangong Tso.

When to go
Ladakh is accessible all year round with direct flights from Delhi though road access from Manali or Srinagar is generally between May-October. The 2-day Hemis Festival takes place in June-July. Next year, it kicks off the mega-event Naropa 2016, held between 1-31 July. www.naropa2016.com

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Where to Stay
Kargyud Homestay, Chubi, Leh
Ph +91 9419178630

The Grand Dragon Hotel, Leh
Ph +91-1982-255266 www.thegranddragonladakh.com

Saboo Resort, Saboo
Ph +91 94191 79742, 94192 31374 www.sabooresorts.com

Camp Redstart, Spangmik, Pangong Tso
Ph +91 94191 77245 www.campredstart.com

Hemis Monastery www.drukpa.org
Drukpa White Lotus School, Shey www.dwls.org
Live to Love International www.livetolove.org
For more info, visit www.padyatra.org or www.padyatrathefilm.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 23 August 2015 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.