Among the first things that many visitors to Bhutan notice are the colorful paintings of phalluses that adorn many buildings. Many tourists do a double take when they see the more anatomically correct specimens: is that what I think it is? (Yes. Yes it is.) Visitors to Bhutan can buy postcards depicting the more vivid paintings, or wooden keychains carved in a likeness.
The phallus motif is believed to ward off evil spirits and to prevent spiteful gossip. It is generally believed that the popularity of this symbol can be traced to the infamous Buddhist saint, Drukpa Kuenley.
Lama Drukpa Kuenley is a notorious figure throughout Bhutan. Called the “Divine Madman,” Drukpa Kuenley was an enlightened eccentric, an adept in the “crazy wisdom” tradition of Buddhism. Drukpa Kuenley was unlike other saintly figures who are often associated with celibacy and asceticism. For him, song, dance, humor, drink and sex — in other words, indulgence, intoxication, liberation — were important aspects of his spiritual teaching and practice.
Drukpa Kuenley, born in Tibet in 1455, was a precocious youth, thoroughly mastering at a young age the doctrine and practice of his monastic training. The “Divine Madman” is almost always depicted as carrying a bow and arrow, wearing large rings in his ears, and accompanied by his hunting dog.
Drukpa Kuenley was a wandering teacher. He traveled Bhutan, subduing demons with his Flaming Thunderbolt of Wisdom (yes, this is the part of Drukpa Kuenley’s anatomy that you think it is!), scorning convention and established authority, drinking and eating to excess, and, shall we say, enjoying the company of women. Accounts of Drukpa Kuenley’s powers include the ability to magically transport himself from place to place within the merest instant.
The outrageous life and exploits of the “Divine Madman” have inspired legends, temples, artwork, scholarly research, and poetry. Many of these legends are earthy and bawdy. Some are lewd and scatological. A few others cannot be repeated in mixed company without blushing.
In one story, Drukpa Kuenley visits a monastery and finds the monks therein engaged in a metaphysical discussion. To demonstrate his own philosophical understanding, Drukpa Kuenley grabbed a fistful of his own fart and thrust it under the noses of the monks. Which came first, he asked, the air or the smell?
Another tale recounts Drukpa Kuenley’s arrival in Bhutan from Tibet. He was directed there through a dream and was told to shoot an arrow towards the south (in the direction of Bhutan) as a hallmark of his arrival. He followed the arrow to its resting place, in the roof of the home of a man and his beautiful wife. Drukpa Kuenley retrieved his arrow, seduced the beautiful wife, and fended off the man’s jealous assault by tying the man’s sword into a knot. Realizing Drukpa Kuenley’s power, the man handed over his wife and became one of the Divine Madman’s followers.
Drukpa Kuenley’s love of and success with women is the subject of many of the most popular (and ribald) legends. In one such tale, he meets and seduces a Buddhist nun who then gives birth to his child. The nun was not punished for her transgression since the father was the Divine Madman. Her fellow nuns, envious of her tryst, took note and, a year later, the monastery was filled with babies, all allegedly fathered by the (apparently very busy) Drukpa Kuenley.
Another tale tells that Drukpa Kuenley created the takin (“drong gemtse”), the national animal of Bhutan. The legend is that, in his enormous appetite for, well, everything, Drukpa Kuenley one day ate for lunch an entire cow and an entire goat. After wiping his mouth and unleashing a belch demonstrating his great satisfaction, he took up the bones of both devoured animals. He took the head of the goat and attached it to the skeleton of the cow and, using his powerful magic, brought the assembled creature to life. The takin does indeed look as though it was repurposed from leftover parts of other animals. (Today, visitors can travel to the Takin Preserve in Thimphu for a glimpse of this truly curious-looking creature. Hint: for the best viewing opportunity, go around noontime, when the takin are served their lunch.)
Signs of Drukpa Kuenley’s influence can be found all over Bhutan. In addition to the ubiquitous phallus paintings, many sacred sites are associated with the Divine Madman. One, Chimi Lakhang, is a popular destination for tourists and Bhutanese alike. This small temple (“lakhang” means “temple” in Dzongkha) in the southern Punakha valley is dedicated to the Divine Madman and is considered a temple of fertility. Women hoping to conceive travel to the temple, often staying overnight, to receive blessings that they hope will, and often do, result in children. Others visit to pray for the safety and protection of the children they already have. “Chimi” is a common name in Bhutan amongst the children of those who are grateful for the blessings of the lakhang.
The temple can be reached by a short walk through paddy fields. These fields are considered particularly lush and thriving — this agricultural success is usually attributed to Drukpa Kuenley. The path to Chimi Lakhang is particularly muddy during the summer monsoon.
Visitors to Bhutan may not be able to (or want to) trace the meandering path that Drukpa Kuenley took across the country. But the tales of his exploits and the traces of his legend offer a fascinating look into Bhutan’s culture and history. And helps explain all the phalluses.