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Bhutanese phallusy: tales from the Land of the Thunder Dragon

It’s not just the mountains which are larger-than-life in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan…

Bhutan, the world’s sole remaining Buddhist Himalayan kingdom, is famed principally for the sheer weight of trivia questions it is the answer to: Which is the only country in the world to ban the sale of all tobacco products? (Despite this the majority of Thimphu bars are full of smoke: foreigners can smoke semi-legally and Bhutanese can get cigarettes by prescription.) Which country banned TV until 1999? (Now Bhutan broadcasts WWE, NFL and lots of other three-letter American-acronyms 24/7.) Which country bases its politics on Gross National Happiness? (Although the happiest country epithet is more often bestowed on Vanuatu.) Which country reluctantly accepted democracy in 2008? (On the orders of their absolute monarch) and Which is the only country whose official symbol is the dragon? (Wales doesn’t count.)

Despite the Druk, or thunder dragon, on Bhutan’s national flag, there is one symbol far more obvious as you travel around the country, not long ago so isolated and racially homogeneous it made North Korea look like Canada – the penis. Although there has been some moves among younger urbanites to remove them from obvious spots in Bhutan’s bigger towns, travel into the rural central provinces of Wangdue Podrang and Bumthang reveals whole villages in which every single house boasts one or more giant representations of a phallus, most in varying states of excitement or climax.

The penis has long played a key (well more than the obvious) role in Bhutanese society, dating back to Bön – the shamanistic religion prevalent in the region pre-Buddhism. Its re-emergence into Bhutanese culture is largely attributed to one man – Drukpa Kunley, the self-styled “Divine Madman”. Kunley was a Lama from Tibet who crossed into Bhutan in the late 15th Century proselytizing the locals with his bastardised version of the teachings of Pema Lingpa. Central to Kunley’s preaching was the message that clerical and religious orthodoxy was stifling the people’s attempts to understand the true meaning of the teachings of the Buddha. Kunley’s method to circumvent this was to wander across the nation practising obscenity-ridden ribald poetry and sexual gratification with just about every female he came into contact with.

Of course, you don’t become a national saint through promiscuity alone, and Kunley won his immortality in Bhutanese lore through repeated battling, beating, and conversion of assorted demons and evil spirits. Most of them female. And pretty. And only defeatable by being hit over the head with, and then gagged by the penis of a Divine Madman. And in all his benevolence, Kunley would subdue and transform these beings into “spirits of the Good” through “divine sexual play.” He must have been some talker.

Kunley’s legacy is everywhere, but grows more and more apparent as you walk through the paddy fields of red rice toward the monastery erected in his honour by his cousin at Chimi Lhakhang, with each passing village seeing the size of the phalluses painted in great detail around the thresholds growing in size from ‘exaggerated’ to three metres tall. The penises, often painted by professional penis artists, not only serve as tributes to Kunley, but ward off evil spirits, protect the family, and hanging representations of them from the roof is said to prevent arguments among the home’s residents.

The site of the monastery itself sits on a small hill which Kunley thought resembled a woman’s breast and is highly important in Kunley’s oeuvre of acts as the location of one of his greatest acts. Chased up into a tree by the demoness of Dochu La (manifested as a raging tiger), Kunley and his dog faced certain death until he saved himself by shooting bursts of lightening and fire from his member, which hit the demoness and incarcerated her in stone. Sometimes symbolism can be amazingly subtle – either that, or the passage of Nepalese charas was not as tightly controlled in the past as the Bhutanese authorities would have you believe.

It was this episode which led to Kunley christening his weapon of choice the “Magic Thunderbolt of Wisdom”, an effigy of which is kept within the small temple at the site. Childless women travel from throughout the country to be hit on the head with the 10-inch thunderbolt in a fertility blessing known as a wang (yes, really), while for a small donation men can be blessed over the shoulders from a choice of wooden or bone representations of comparable size to boost fertility.

The real Bhutanese equivalent of Viagra, however, is the national staple – the chilli. Bhutanese will eat the national dish of ema datse, an incendiary stew of cheese and chillies, for all three meals a day, but when wanting to impress a female, men will snack on chilli chops, flash deep-fried chillies where the spicier the chilli, the greater the phallic strength of the person consuming them. Small cafés at the nearby village of Sopsohka specialise in naga chops made from one of the world’s hottest varietals, and locals knock them back with arra (rice wine) to woo their women.

The trip to the temple at Chimi Lhakhang is particularly popular with tourists, partly because of the penises, but also because it is one of the few religious sites in the entire country which can be easily visited without both a permit and an itinerary pre-arranged a month in advance – tourism in Bhutan is arguably more tightly controlled than even in Turkmenistan or the DPRK. However, it is the perceived cost, rather than the lack of free movement, which puts many off visiting – more than four times as many people visit Antarctica each year than Bhutan. It is a shame, because the cost isn’t that high when you consider that for $75 a day you get three meals, drinks, hotel, transport, guide, yaks and personal cook if trekking, visa, and an insight into one of the world’s most unique cultures.

One of the unique things you might see if you do make it is a takin, the national animal of Bhutan. Again, Kunley is the man responsible, when for a bet he placed the head of a goat onto the skeleton of a yak to create a new animal which sprung to life and began populating the slopes of the lower Himalayan peaks. And if you believe that, the thunderbolt/penis story is nothing…

Leon Addie