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Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 06/23/13 8:36 AM

Travel: Chimi Lakhang in Bhutan

Blessed by the phallus


Bhutan’s mystifying phallicgraphy is a tradition dating back to the 15th century.

The Chimi Lhakhang was not on my list of Bhutan must-sees. In fact, I did not even know about it.

And then, en route to the hill station of Punakha, where the current king wed his pretty wife, I stopped for lunch at what seemed to be a regular wayside eatery in a place called Lobesa.

A plethora of phalluses

To my mystification, I saw my driver Ram Singh was embarrassed by my choice of halt. The moment I walked into the glassed interiors of the restaurant, I understood the reason for his discomfiture. The bric-a-brac decorating the eatery was variations on one object: the penis.

Small penis key rings were on sale and postcards of painted penises hung on the wall. I struggled to control my giggle when I spied (actually, it was so large you cannot miss it) a four-foot wooden penis leaning languidly against one wall.

My driver was Indian, not Bhutanese. Hence the discomfiture. The locals were anything but embarrassed by artistic representations of penises. Phallicgraphy in Bhutan is a tradition which dates back to the 15th century; it is ascribed to the eccentricity of the Tibetan lama Drukpa Kunley.


It was Kunley, the divine madman, who established the Chimi Lhakhang.He is also credited with spreading Buddhism in the land, through unusual and bizarre methods. His appendage was as famous as the man himself,  and legends abound of the lama slaying many a demon with his ‘Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom.

To quell the evil eye

In Bhutan, the erect penis stands for the symbol that quells the evil eye. No more, no less.

As I ate my ema datsi, which had more chillis than usual, I looked out of the window and saw an isolated monastery on a hilltop in the distance.

A tree branched out over the golden roof of the temple, in a striking fashion. I asked and discovered the temple was the Chimi Lhakhang. I decided to trek up that hill without further ado.

A quick word to my startled driver and I was on my way, tentatively stepping on a grassy, impossibly narrow path winding sinuously to the base of the hill.

The trek to the Lhakhang was not arduous, but longer than it seemed from the restaurant. I passed a couple of souvenir shops with large, hairy penises painted on their outer walls.

A group of Indian tourists emerged from a shop named Phallus Handicrafts, the women giggling like schoolgirls, the men stony-faced. All of them avoided looking at me.

I passed a small hamlet called Yowakha and three of the four dwellings had penises painted on their walls, lintels and on the front door. I could not spare more than a cursory glance at them because I was busy negotiating a safe passage on what was an exceedingly slippery course.

Fertility deity

Then I was out in the paddy fields and a group of women stopped working and stared at me.

After which, we indulged in an intensive interchange that was all gestures and no talk. Am I headed for the Lhakhang? Yes, I am. They grinned widely.

Further gestures followed, but I was at a loss to comprehend. They pointed to kids playing nearby and indicated the monastery. Then, I think, they asked, where were my children? After that, they pointed to the hill ahead and touched their breasts. Baffled, I smiled weakly and walked on.

Within an hour, I was at the giant prayer wheel on the summit of the hill.

There was a faint breeze blowing and the air was sonorous with chanting. I walked around and came upon a class of young lamas.

Their instructor smiled and gestured towards the main door of the Lhakhang. I dutifully went inside, stared intently at the main statue, which seemed to be that of Drukpa Kinley, with his dog Sachi.

I recognised him because I had seen many statues and frescoes of the lama at the Nest monastery, a few days ago. A row of butter lamps flickered in the gloom.

Peaceful place

A priest entered through an inside door and approached me. He made a gesture of blessing on my head with a small wooden baton, I bowed my head and after a few seconds, exited the temple.

I was loath to exit the grounds, though; there was something very peaceful about the place.

Prayer flags fluttered noisily from poles in one corner of the compound, the giant tree shed yellow leaves noiselessly.

I came across a mud chorten sealed with a pile of stones of different sizes. I was intrigued but there was not a soul I could ask.

It was just the thought of Ram Singh waiting patiently for me that turned me towards
the steps leading down the hill.

All too soon, I was back at the restaurant, seated next to the large phallus and sipping a soft drink. The woman serving me also served a dazzling smile. “You will be blessed with a child very soon,” she told me.

No more kids!

I nearly fell off the chair. Her smile wavered. “You didn’t go to pray for a child?”
she asked me. “No,” I spluttered, “I have a child. She’s all grown up. I don’t want
more children.”

“But the Chimi Lhakhang is where people go to pray for children,” she said.
“And their prayers are always answered. Drukpa Kunley is a powerful deity.All my children are Lama Kunley’s blessings.”

Ignoring my stunned silence, she continued to flood me with information. The monastery was built in 1499 and the eccentric lama Drukpa Kunley had blessed it, and remarked that the mound on which the monastery rests resembled a woman’s breast. (The image of the women in the fields groping themselves came to my mind.)
Blessed with a wooden penis
That mud chorten that had so fascinated me? It was where Lama Kunley had subdued and trapped a demoness from Dochula.

As I stood up to leave, the woman asked me, almost plaintively, “Didn’t the lama at the Lhakhang bless you with the wooden penis Kunley Lama brought all the way from Tibet?”Ah. So that was what it was. Speechless, I left the place.

This ran in THE WEEK of 19 June 2013.

All photos by Sheila Kumar and subject to copyright.

Related Links:

Travel: Samtse, Bhutan

Travel: Bhutan

Travel: Looking for that clear day

BhutanBuddhist monasteryChimi Lakhangfertility shrineLama Kunleymonasteryphallicgraphy

Sheila Kumar • June 23, 2013

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