Like India, Bhutan is a treasure trove of myths, legends, and folklore. There are venerable seers with magical powers and multiple manifestations, protective deities, and spirits inhabiting lakes, mountains, trees, and rocks. Of course, there is a fair share of the darker powers-the demons and ogres.
Each place has its own set of tales ripe for retelling and each day I heard incredible stories. Or are they really stories? Facts and fiction blend harmoniously and I had to leave my scepticism and rationalism aside and take in everything with an open mind. Bhutan does that to you.
Let me start with a holy trail to one of the most sacred monasteries -Taktsang Palphug Lhakhang or Tiger’s Nest as it is popularly known. This is a cultural icon of Bhutan and its most photographed and written about site. The location, the trail, and the monastery interiors make for a unique experience.
Legend says that Guru Rinpoche who is credited with bringing Buddhism to Bhutan arrived here in the 8th century flying on a tigress who was his consort. He came as Dorje Drolo, one of his eight manifestations and subdued the local ogress. He meditated in a cave for three years and introduced the Bhutanese to Buddhism. A temple was built around the cave in 1692. There was a fire in 1958 and it was rebuilt. In 1998 there was another fire which destroyed most of the temple. Renovations went on till 2005. It is said that the statue of Guru Rinpoche did not suffer any damage.
Most prefer to have this trek on the last day to get acclimatised as this is on a mountain cliff about 10,240 ft above sea level. My energy and enthusiasm levels tend to diminish towards the last days of a trip so I decided to go on the second day. One of my better decisions! Singey was happy to come along.
The 4.8 km trail is well- marked and you will never get lost. It is fairly easy for avid trekkers. Being a reluctant trekker and occasional wheezer I knew that I would find it difficult. There are horses which take you up half the way. I decided to walk all the way. It did look challenging and impossible, but I was determined to reach the top. One can read about it or see the pictures but the whole trek is an experience you will cherish.
The morning was pleasant and since we started early there were not many people. The first part passes through a dense blue pine forest. I am walking at my own pace. Who would want to hurry when you have such beauty all around?
Soon came upon these water driven prayer wheels and a lovely bridge.
From here the trail is steep and I was taking frequent breaks to get my breath and drink water. The crisp mountain air kept me going and I did not have to use my Ventolin inhaler even once.
After about an hour and a half, I reached the halfway point and took a longer break to enjoy the view and recharge. This ridge is marked by a series of prayer wheels and prayer flags and is also the first viewpoint. I must say it offers breathtaking views.
The Taktsang Cafeteria is nearby. Those who don’t wish to continue further make this their final point. I did not want to lose the pace, so I kept going.
From certain turns, you can see the Tiger’s Nest enveloped in the clouds and sometimes hidden among the trees and it still looked very far and I wondered if I would ever reach up there. But seeing this marvel at regular intervals was a strong motivation to move ahead.
People of all age groups including monks were seen going up and down the path. The local people are seen in their traditional dress as this is a holy place.
After what seemed like an eternal climb I was relieved to see this flat path and a forest of prayer flags.
And these Spanish moss- draped trees.
All along the trail you would see these mini stupas which are called Tsa tsa and are made from the ashes of the departed and clay. They are left in holy places and are considered sacred. You are not supposed to touch it.
At last, I can see the second lookout point and decided to stand and savor the vista. The final destination seems close enough to touch. That is wishful thinking as it is on the other side of the gorge and you may still need 1 hour or more.
The hardest part of the trek starts now. You have to go down 500 cliff-hanging steps. There is no going back now and I trudge forward.
The steep stairs go down to a small bridge across a waterfall that plunges 200 feet into a sacred pool. I stopped to taste the ice- cold water and it was very refreshing.
Here you can see a small meditation retreat known as Singey Phu Lhakhang or The Snow Lion Cave which is built into a crevice on the rock face. I am sure this is an ideal location for meditation and seek salvation.
Now comes the most grinding part. You have to go up 200 very steep steps. Aching, puffing, panting and stopping at every other step I am inching my way up.
Finally, you are in and you are overwhelmed by the entire journey and the atmosphere.
We have to keep our bags and cameras in the lockers. No photography is permitted inside and in a way I am happy about it.
Singey went on to pray, and he left me with a friend who is a registered guide accompanying a couple from Slovakia, and he took us around. The monastery complex has four temples and eight caves. They are interconnected through stairways and steps. Each one is beautifully decorated and has statues of Lord Buddha and various manifestations of Guru Rinpoche. The stunning frescoes, murals, altar with its various offerings and the monks in red robes made me forget the exhaustion and appreciate the serenity and calming silence. It was a deeply moving experience.
Going back is more difficult but I did not feel it. It could be the endorphin surge. I made my way back slowly beaming at everyone coming my way and encouraging them to reach before the monastery closes. I had a delightful companion. I think he is a permanent resident.
I had to stop at the halfway point and spin the prayer wheel three times thanking for the blessings and praying for a return visit. Singey told me that those who come once will have to come twice again and I fervently hope that I can.
We decided to go to the cafeteria for tea and enjoyed the clear views of this incredible structure which defies logic and gravity.
I could not help thinking what if someone had a medical emergency? It would be good to have a mobile clinic and ambulance at the base. The trek is not hazardous but the altitude and switchbacks can be stressful for the medically and fitness challenged.
The trek took almost 6 hours and gave me memories for life. Facts or fiction, Bhutan from any viewing is magical where there is no place for the mundane or soporific, and I am looking forward to more.