8 mins

The true meaning of Bhutan's phallic obsession

The Divine Madman's "thunderbolt" may adorn the walls across Bhutan, but Wander Woman, Marie Javins, discovers that it's the women who wear the trousers

Penis Temple (Marie Javins)

"You are lucky today," said Tsering Penjor, my Bhutanese guide, as we gazed out over the white-topped Himalayan range in the distance, from atop a ten-thousand-foot mountain pass. This view is frequently shrouded in clouds and fog.

I wasn't just lucky today – I was lucky during most of my trip in Bhutan. I'd gone in at the tail end of the rainy season, though I'd pushed it back as far as I could, hanging around Darjeeling to let the days pass. But I still had half a world to get through for MariesWorldTour.com before I was due to show up for my first day of teaching comic book colouring to seniors at School of Visual Arts in New York next semester.

The mountain pass we'd driven to from nearby Thimphu was called Dochu La Pass. We walked up some steps to a temple just across the road from a series of chortens. I admired the colourful detailed paintings and carvings that adorned the temple, and when we stepped back outside, the clouds had returned.

The Himalayas had disappeared. The chortens – built to commemorate the loss of Indian separatist's lives when the Bhutan military flushed them out near the border in 2003 – were shrouded in fog, and a slight drizzle had begun.

We got in the Hyundai and started off down the other side of the mountain, winding through pine forests. When we reached the valley below, we pulled up to a small resthouse.

Tobgay, our driver, pulled some professional trekking sticks out of the hatchback and handed them to my guide.

"What are those for?" I asked.

"To help you steady yourself when we walk up to the monastery."

"That monastery?" I pointed to a building on a distant hill. But not too distant. A 20-minute walk over some rice fields and then up a gentle slope.

He nodded.

"I won't use them." I am unfit but not that unfit, even at altitude.

He handed the sticks back to Tobgay and we hiked away from the parking area near a small restaurant, then passed a little building with a large penis painted on its side. The penis had a blue ribbon tied around its base, right above some... uh... how can I put this... hairy bollocks.

I took a photo, but this wasn't the first hairy-balled penis dressed in a blue ribbon that I'd seen since we'd driven up from the Indian border a few days ago. I'd seen plenty – not in urban(ish) Thimphu but in rural areas.

And yet, I hadn't seen any visuals of scantily clad women.

The penis – or rather, phallus as it's called by those with better manners than me – is intended as a tribute and celebration of the Divine Madman, Bhutan's favourite saint, who could teach entire villages lessons on impermanence with his farts, who could humiliate false lamas by flashing them with a scarf tied around his penis while others were offering scarves in a more traditional manner, and whose sexual exploits were celebrated rather than hidden away. His penis was referred to as his "thunderbolt".

And that was the Divine Madman's temple up there on the gentle slope ahead of us.

We walked across the fields and started up the hill. After a bit, I stopped worrying getting burned by the bright sun and started chatting.

I learned about how women inherit property in Bhutan but men do not. So men may end up renting or saving money to buy their own property, because the family property was inherited by their sisters. Some sisters share with their brothers, but are not obligated to do so.

Men who marry will move into the family compound of their wives, and their in-laws and wives have the final say in all decisions. Men who divorce will then move out of the property owned by their wives or in-laws and will either return home to their sisters or parents, or will go rent, or save up to buy property of their own.

Tibetans or Nepalese who live in Bhutan (along with the occasional expat from somewhere else) but have no family there make up some of the renting population, as well as people who move to the city for work.

It's not unusual for extended families and several generations to live together on a farm, and family ties are important, but not in a way in which there is excessive corruption. Preferential treatment to family members in the workplace is frowned upon. I also finally learned why Tsering and Tobgay had looked so shocked back at the border when they'd first met me.

They thought there had been a mistake in my age. They were expecting someone who looked a lot older.

I was flattered, but one reason I look to be of a nebulous age is I try my best to keep out of the sun. So I was hurrying along, cowering under my scarf and trying to get to the shade of the prayer wheel enclosure just outside the temple.

When we arrived at the temple, we left our shoes outside as usual and toured the inside. Every temple we'd been to had been a walled compound with at least one central shrine. Inside that one room would be a central statue or sculpture, sometimes surrounded by smaller sculptures, maybe some butter lamps, and assorted offerings. Photos were not allowed inside the chapels.

Which is too bad, because I'd love to have a photo of what happened next.

Tsering spoke to a monk and next thing you know, the monk said a chant and then blessed me on the head with a huge wooden fertility phallus.

We headed back down to meet Tobgay, then drove on through the countryside to the town of Punakha, where we toured Punakha dzong after I was nearly reduced to wearing socks and sandals. This imposing dzong sits at the meeting point of two rivers and is the second-oldest and second-largest of the Bhutanese forts, and as such, demands a bit of respect.

"Do you have socks?"

"What? Socks?" I was puzzled.

"There is a man who works at the door here who insists on socks."

I was used to covering my knees and shoulders, but this was a first.

Tobgay opened the hatchback and I dug around in my backpack for my socks, which were black and had a hole in the heel. I threw them in my handbag, but lucky for me, the sock-insisting guard wasn't at the door today. We were allowed in to tour the fortress with me in sandals.

Tobgay met us with the car on the far side of the river, across a pedestrian bridge. He took us to a monastery in Punakha, then dropped us off nearby, and waited for us on the other side of town.

We took a walk through the village, where stray dogs slept safely on sidewalks in the afternoon sun, saving their energy for their active night of story-telling (barking).

We stayed in a busy hotel that night, and I ate my dinner alone in the corner of the dining room, while a group of Thai tourists filled the rest of the restaurant. The guys avoided this scene, and sat in a staff room chewing on chillies.

But they needed to hide better if they didn't want me to see them. I ran into the two of them, looking guilty and concerned, because they'd thought I'd already gone to my room, and they were relaxing in T-shirts and jeans rather than traditional Bhutanese dress.

I grinned at them – caught ya – and told them I'd see them in the morning.

But what I wanted to know is this.

What were Tsering and Tobgay like when they weren’t working? If I weren't an esteemed guest in their country, what would a day with them be like? Would we shoot pool, do archery, hang out in a cafe, do some farm work, or hang out with Tobgay's kids? Would they chew betelnut and eat chillies while I watched politely?

I'd never know. At $200 plus $40 single fee a day to visit Bhutan, I couldn't afford to hang out and honestly get to know Bhutan or my charming Bhutanese pals.

Which, given Bhutan's quirkiness and the good humour of my guide and driver, was a damn shame.

Related Articles