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  • Cheryl

Phalluses and Fertility in The Land of the Thunder Dragon

Updated: Aug 12

My husband has been scrolling through websites for what seems like hours, searching for the right tour company to make our dream a reality—a journey through the Kingdom of Bhutan.


Ever since reading Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan almost twenty years ago, visions of soaring mist shrouded peaks, lush forests, and maroon cloaked Buddhists chanting in ancient monasteries have beckoned me to this small kingdom, tucked between the superpowers of China and India.


But going to Bhutan requires us to move far outside our comfort zone and do something that—in 47 years of travel—we've never done. We are booking a tour.


Not because we're abandoning our independent travel style, but because Bhutan only allows visitors into the country if they book a tour with one of the country's accredited providers. To preserve the environment and maintain sustainable economic development, two pillars of the country's Gross National Happiness index, mass tourism is discouraged through a government dictated daily fee paid via a bank transfer, which includes a guide, driver, accommodation, food, and entry fees.


Known as the the Land of Druk, or Thunder Dragon, an allusion to the wild thunderstorms striking the valleys from the heights of the Himalayas, this mainly Buddhist nation of 750,000 is the only nation on earth to measure the Gross National Happiness of its citizens, considering it more important than the Gross National Product.


We make our decision, choosing a company called Bhutan Journeys. Since we'll be travelling around India for three months first, we'll enter eastern Bhutan, the least travelled part of the country by land via Gawahati.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

This lonely check post on the Indian Bhutan border is a small rundown office with one employee and his cell phone. An extra copy of our Indian visa was the information we were required to furnish.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

Bhutanese prayer flags greet us on our entry to Bhutan. Prayer flags have been part of the culture for centuries. Long lines hang between poles or trees or on bridges, fluttering in the wind that carries the prayers or mantras into the world. The white flag brings good fortune by purifying negative karma, blue is for health and longevity, yellow is for victory over obstacles, red is for fulfillment of wishes, and green is for compassion.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

Our informative and helpful guide Mr. Gempo is on the left, and on the right is Mr. Sanjay, our driver who navigated the often treacherous roads through the Himalayas.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

The national flag of Bhutan features Druk, the Thunder Dragon of Bhutanese Mythology. It's said that the jewels in the dragon's mouth represent wealth, and the snarling jaw represents the strength of the people protecting the country. Yellow symbolizes the monarchy, while orange symbolizes the Buddhist religion.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

Just outside the capital of Thimpu atop a hill sits a massive golden solid bronze statue of Buddha Dordenma casting a calm and meditative look over Bhutan. Buddhism permeates every aspect of life here. Vajrayana Buddhism, the state religion, is practiced by seventy-five percent of the population. The statue was built to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the fourth king, fulfilling an ancient prophesy that a giant Buddha statue would be built to bless the world with peace and happiness. Unknown to many people, the monument contains 125,000 miniature Buddhas ranging from 20 to 30 centimetres.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

Guru Rinpoche, a Buddhist master from India, also known as Padmasambhava is venerated as a second Buddha. He is credited with bringing Vajrayana Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century CE.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

This beautiful wall hanging that now graces our home was given to us as a gift at the end of our tour. The Four Harmonious Friends, an elephant, a monkey, a hare, and a bird embody the Buddhist ideals of working together in harmony and cooperation, despite differences, to achieve common goals. These visual representations of Bhutanese values are everywhere—in paintings, carvings, sculptures, and fabric. The bird plants the seed, the rabbit waters it, the monkey fertilizers it and the elephant protects it. Later, working together they are able to pick and enjoy the delicious fruit.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

This hillside billboard encourages the citizens of Bhutan to take pride in their nation. The king and queen are adored and revered here and in 2006, when the elder king abdicated the throne to his son in order to bring democracy to this small kingdom, the population was perplexed, feeling that their king was all they needed. Good governance, a key pillar of Gross National Happiness, promotes conditions that enable the successful pursuit of happiness.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

Every district in Bhutan is dominated by dzong or fortress monastery, some dating back to the 17th century.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

A monk reads holy scripture while walking the courtyard of a dzong.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

Each dzong is an administrative and religious centre. Towering walls surround courtyards, temples, monks' accommodation and administrative offices.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

A clear view of the surrounding area was formerly essential for security. Although attempts were made, Bhutan was never colonized.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

Strategic hilltop locations reflect the past of dzongs as fortresses guarding against invaders.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

A young monk, books in hand, walks to class in the dzong where he resides.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

Interestingly, no nails are used to construct dzongs, nor do the dzong architects use any plans or drawings, relying solely on a mental concept of what is to be built.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

Monks, heads shaved and wrapped in maroon or gold, engage in the ancient rituals of daily life. This is in no way a tourist spectacle and visitors are advised to respect monks who are praying or meditating, and never to point at people, deities, statues, religious artifacts, or paintings. The crown of the head, including children's is considered sacred and should never be touched. Visitors are also advised not to take photos within the temple, and that a small donation is customary. Conservative dress is respectful, as it is throughout Bhutan.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

It's break time. A group of monks are served tea and snacks in the courtyard of a dzong.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

Monks stoke a fire in a small kiln.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

Wanting a better life for their sons than they can afford, many parents from poor rural backgrounds offer them to monkhood at the young age of five or six in the hopes they will receive an education and a better future. We're told that girls join the monkhood as well, but we never see any.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

Generally speaking, a monk's life revolves around chores, Buddhist teachings, and meditation, as well as studying subjects such as math and English. There is free time though and we often see many young monks playing soccer or other games or just relaxing. Some even want to practice English with us.



Photo: Mr. Gempo

A gigantic prayer wheel. Prayer wheels are a fundamental part of Buddhist practice in Bhutan.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

This monk, seen here holding a small prayer wheel, is responsible for spinning the large prayer wheel at the entrance to a temple.


Photo: Noel Van Raes

Spinning a prayer wheel purifies negative karma and helps inspire insightful observations on the way to the mental freedom of suffering. All prayer wheels contain mantras, which are recited to lessen suffering in the world and to help bring happiness, serenity, and harmony with nature. With each spin of the prayer wheel, the blessings are dispersed the world over to help all people.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

Small prayer wheels surround the outside of temples.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

Chortens, known as stupas in India, can be seen almost everywhere in Bhutan, from mountain tops and valleys, to roads, cities, and villages. Originally built to keep relics of the Buddha and other Buddhist saints, they are now for worship or offering.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

This 18th century Nepali-style chorten was built to subdue demons and evil spirits. Inside is the skull of Tenzin Lekpai Dhundrup, a reincarnated guardian of Tibetan Buddhist teachings.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

Building a chorten is considered devout, and those who pay to construct one are believed to earn merit for it.



Photo: Cheryl Van Rae

The National Memorial Chorten in Thimpu, built in 1974 as a memorial to the third king of Bhutan is the focus of worship for many Bhutanese.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

The 108 Druk Wangyal Khang Zhang memorial chortens were built to honour the Bhutanese soldiers who were killed in the 2003 battle against Assamese insurgents from India.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

Phallus art in traditional Bhutan? Not something we expected to see in this Buddhist nation. Embellished penises are everywhere in this area, in all colours from bright pink to blues, decorating doorways, painted on walls, and used as signage: some have eyes, are hairy, or ejaculating.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

It began in the 15th century with Lam Drukpa Kunley, an enlightened Buddhist master, also known as the Divine Madman for his embrace of Crazy Wisdom, believed to be a profound wisdom that transcends religion.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

The Divine Madman thumbed his nose at convention and the entrenched monastic order by wandering the countryside and spreading the teachings of Buddha by indulging in song, dance, alcohol and women, deliberately shocking people into questioning the establishment and overthrowing traditions. Because of his ability to enlighten others, his penis is nicknamed the Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

The erect penis has remained a symbol of fertility and locals still paint the phallus outside their homes to invoke the fertility gods and to drive away evil spirits. They are often painted as being decorated with ribbons.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

An interesting phallus sporting a set of teeth.


Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

This ornately decorated penis invites shoppers into a store.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

The Divine Madman, chancing upon a young girl who believed in his cause, is said to have "blessed her" with his offspring. Couples from all over the world who are unable to conceive come to Chimi Lakhang, The Fertility Temple of the Divine Madman. Inside the temple is a photo album filled with pictures of smiling young couples with their babies, having conceived after visiting the temple.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

Some days, on our journeys through the isolated Himalayan countryside, there are no restaurants so we are treated to picnic lunches.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

Getting gas in a rural area takes self-serve to a whole new level.

Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

Bhutan's unique geographical location, from the snow capped Himalayas to the deep valleys and rivers, combined with its pristine environment, is a rich and diverse ecosystem. Environmental conservation is one of the four pillars of Bhutan's Gross National Happiness and the constitution mandates that 60% of its land be under forest cover.


Photo: Noel Van Raes

The snow capped Himalayan mountains soar to towering heights. According to Bhutanese traditions mountains are home to gods and spirits and are considered very sacred. Climbing a mountain higher than 6,000 metres is prohibited in Bhutan.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

Suspension bridges provide access in the high mountains and deep gorges. Definitely not for the faint of heart.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

Prayer flags line a path high in the Himalayas.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

Yak farming is a primary source of income for residents of the high altitude areas of Bhutan.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

Bhutanese musicians playing the Gyaling, literally meaning “Indian trumpet” mark the beginning of the Tshechu or Mask Dance Festival.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

As music fills the air, a colourful collection of characters begin to appear—demons, deities, heroes and animals. Both monks and laymen present moral vignettes and offer dances and music to the deities.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

Tshechus, dating back to the Middle Ages are important religious festivals held in each district dzong to honour Guru Rinpoche. People come from remote and spread out villages to celebrate, socialize, receive blessings, and pray for health and happiness.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

Cham dance is a mask dance where dancers wear wooden masks that represent deities, animals, or various incarnations of Guru Rinpoche. It is believed that the dancers generate spiritual powers that alleviate misfortunes, purify, and bless the spectators.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

Everyone dresses in their finest for the Tshechu. It is believed that one gains merits by attending the festival.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

As this young monk gazes enthralled at the performances he holds tightly to his coke, a rare treat.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

Astaras are jesters who entertain the crowds, but they are more than mere clowns. The name Astara is from Sanskrit meaning “holy teacher” reflecting the belief that Astaras descend from enlightened beings. Colourfully dressed, unconventional in behaviour, at times vulgar, Astaras cultivate detachment from mortal feelings like embarrassment and reservation, using their wit to eliminate evil from the minds of people. The wooden phallus symbolizes the accomplishment of wisdom.

In recent years Astaras have begun to perform skits to spread health and social awareness information.



Photo: Mr. Gempo

A visit by an Astara is always an honour.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

Dinner is prepared on the woodstove in this traditional Bhutanese farmhouse. Two widowed sisters run the farm with the help of their sons.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

A visit from a neighbour woman brings out Arag, an alcohol made from high altitude tolerant barley, rice, maize, or wheat. We're offered some, and I try a sip. It burns all the way down.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

Soon spicy aromas fill the room and we are served chicken, dumplings, red rice, and of course ema datshi. Traditional Bhutanese meals are eaten with the hands while sitting cross legged on the floor. A concession is made for us, and we're given utensils.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

Areca nuts, better known as betel nuts are available for sale at all of the markets, as well as small stores.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

Our guide demonstrates the preparation for chewing areca nut. The nut is placed in a betel leaf, usually with a bit of lime, wrapped up, and voila, it's ready to be chewed. It reportedly causes stimulant effects similar to coffee. We pass on his offer to try it.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

Much of Bhutan's agriculture remains subsistence farming with growing and harvesting methods unchanged for centuries. Agriculture is the main source of income for 70% of the population.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

There is not much mechanization in farming and grain is typically harvested using a sickle,



Photo: Noel Van Raes

Cloths are hung up to prevent the grains from straying too far during threshing.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

This farm woman keep smiling despite carrying her heavy load uphill.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

A picturesque method of drying hay for livestock during the winter months.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

Freshly harvested corn is roasted, and stirred constantly to avoid burning.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

After roasting the corn is then ground.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

Corn flakes, Bhutanese style. They're very hard to chew and not at all like the processed cereal we are accustomed to.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

Marijuana grows wild everywhere in Bhutan, but it is not part of the culture, and possession is strictly illegal.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

It's harvest time in Bhutan and the local markets abound with fresh produce.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

Hot chili peppers have been harvested and are drying in the sun on roofs, window sills, tarps, anywhere there is sunlight. They will be used to make the fiery dish, ema datshi. Ema means chile, and datshi means cheese in the Dzongkha language of Bhutan.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

All restaurants are reluctant to serve ema datshi to us and our guide has to specifically request it for us. Apparently most tourists when asked about menu requirements ask that no spicy food be served. It's definitely our favourite dish.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

Sawang Phombra, our friendly and talented chef, during our stay in Jakar.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

Sawang Phombra delighted us with this fun whimsical dessert made with apples and pears.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

The preservation of culture and heritage, and equitable and sustainable development, two of the cornerstones of Gross National Happiness are ensured at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum. The institute offers 4 to 6 year courses in Bhutan's traditional arts such as statue making and provides employment opportunities.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

These students are specializing in the painting of thangkas—painting of religious pictures.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

The young women in this class are engaged in learning the art of sewing. Some of their beautiful handiwork is displayed around the class room.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

A weaving centre started by the Women's Association of Bhutan has revived this ancient art.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

In keeping with the preservation of culture and heritage, it is compulsory for all Bhutanese to wear the national dress in schools, government offices, and on formal occasions.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

Females wear the Kira, a long ankle length skirt with a a light outer jacket known as a Tego.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

Males wear the Gho, a robe tied at the waist by a Kera or traditional belt. A pouch which forms at the front was originally used to carry food bowls or a dagger, but now more likely to carry a wallet or cell phone.


Photo: Noel Van Raes

An archery team in the capital of Thimpu prepares to practice.



Photo: Cheryl Van Raes

Archery is the national sport in Bhutan and the country maintains an Olympic archery team. At 145 metres, (476 ft.) away I could barely see the target, but these men had no trouble hitting it.



Photo: Noel Van Raes

Although things are changing in this previously isolated Himalayan kingdom--television and internet, first allowed in 1999 introduced citizens to a previously unknown world, many traditions are still held sacred. When the government replaced the traffic control officer in the capital of Thimphu with the country's only stoplight, the people thought it was too modern, so it was taken down.

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