Winged, garlanded, hairy, dangling, dripping, flaming: the variety is infinite, but the size – large – is consistent. What are they? Asks Hilary Bradt
Penises! Or to be more specific, phalluses, since they are always erect, and painted in attentive detail on the walls of houses in Bhutan.
Our Bhutanese guide, Kinley, dutifully pointed them out. He knew, as any tour guide knows, the tourists’ fascination with cultural representations of masculine glory. When I worked as a trek leader in Peru I always ensured a cheery start to the trip by taking the group to the Rafael Larco Herrera museum in Lima, famous for its Mochican ‘erotic pots’. The ceramicists in this pre-Inca society had all sorts of creative ideas on what could be used as a spout.
But in Bhutan I was a follower not a leader, and like all of our group, doing my best not to subside into giggles. The Bhutanese abhor a plain house wall and even the humblest dwelling is adorned with paintings: dragons, animals, floral designs – and phalluses. They are the legacy of the Divine Madman, Drukpa Kunley, who lived some 500 years ago, and preached an unconventional lifestyle that must have seemed hugely attractive to his followers.
Drukpa Kunley arrived in Bhutan from Tibet in the 15th century. This lama’s commitment to Buddhism was never in question, but rather than lead his disciples through the usual, disciplined path to enlightenment, he practised a free lifestyle of wine, women and song. He was a dab hand at miracles, creating the national animal, the takin, from the left-over bits of a goat and a cow – but sex was his main enthusiasm. He had a penchant for deflowering virgins, but no woman was safe from his attentions, even his own mother.
And no wall painting was safe from us tourists. “Nice penis!” someone would shout, the bus would stop, and out would come the cameras. Kinley was very patient and did his best to put some gravity into our appreciation, explaining that Drukpa Kunley used his unorthodox methods to sweep aside the materialism and corruption that were creeping into monastic life.
But hey, we were from the West, and we just didn’t get it; the oldest member of our group referred to him as “that medieval sex offender”. But to many Bhutanese he – or rather his rod – is an essential component of everyday life, and you’re unlikely to meet a more devout and moral people – in the purest sense – so it obviously works.
Now we can only admire his prowess with his versatile weapon. One story tells of how he subdued an ogress who was terrorising a mountain pass by turning his penis into a thunderbolt. Temple paintings show him reaching into his flies, ready to deal with a tricky situation.
So we joked, and smirked, and photographed. And I reflected on our topsy-turvy values: in our capitalist world, our obsession with sex makes it the most effective marketing tool, whilst in Bhutan, where Gross National Happiness rather than Gross National Product is the aim, a painting of a phallus is no more remarkable than one of a cow or a dragon.