Monday, April 25, 2011

Enter the Tiger's Lair

Paro Taktsang: The Stuff of Legend

This is an image of the famous Bhutanese temple known as "Taktsang", which means 'Tiger's Lair/Nest' in Dzongkha, the Bhutanese language. According to the treasured Bhutanese story, in 747 AD Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava, the Second Buddha) mounted his tigress and flew into the cave on which the temple was later built. He then meditated in this cave, and the temple was built thereafter due to the very sacred nature of the cave, as Guru Rinpoche's coming to Bhutan is said to have brought Buddhism here in the first place. The Buddhist Prayer flags extend uninterrupted for about 100m across the valley between where I stood and the temple. Used some post processing to bring out some of the salient colors in the temple and prayer flags.

Chencho and I took around a 2 hour, normally 3-4 hour (most tourists who come here are wealthy and far older than me), walk uphill from Paro to this famous temple. This is easily Bhutan's most well-known landmark, and for good reason.
I could never do justice to this wondrous place, no matter how I describe it or what photo I take. You had to have been there, but since that's probably not going to happen too soon for most people, I'm happy I'm able to give you some image of what it was like. After a hike up through a forest, we reached a point from which we could see Taktsang, separated by a sort of gorge that we then crossed by taking a staircase (down, then up). Since I've been experimenting with different framing techniques in my photography, and these beautiful prayer flags extended from this side of the gorge to the other side (which is amazing considering that there is nothing holding them up in the middle parts, except I guess the tension on both ends), a wonderful opportunity was presented. The curvature helped create a sort of half-frame, which I immediately fell in love with. Chencho told me that no one quite understands how this was all built, considering that there are no trees close enough to the temple to make it easy to cut and transport (the temple is, after all, built into a cliff that comes out the mountain). This mystery combined with the story of Guru Rinpoche melded well (in my mind at least) with my inclusion of the prayer flags, since they make me feel like the flags, which represent good luck among other Buddhist spiritual values, are holding the temple in the rock, protecting it from a precipitous fall. To me, these flags to me represent a connection between the spiritual, other worldly and the physical, Earth, realms.

So we didn't just sit and stare at this breathtaking sight, though I could have. We had to give up our backpacks and camera (photography not allowed inside), then we walked in on the left side, and entered this small opening, that led into the rock of the mountain itself. though the path was blocked off, it would have led us to the opposite side of the cliff, behind the temple. Also there was a passage that actually led to the cave where Guru Rinpoche is said to have meditated. We entered this room, presented an offering (butter), and got blessed by a monk using the sacred water. Before leaving the temple, we also got a drink from this water source, said to bring the drinker longevity. I felt an intensely spiritual energy growing inside of me at this point. It was the grandness of it all- this enormous sanctified structure, inexplicably built into a cliff of a mountain; below, the breathtaking view of the valley, with lush green forest surrounding it; and above, small little houses, seemingly carved out of the mountain itself, restricted to the monks visiting Taktsang and seeking a meditation retreat.

If you can't tell, this spiritual and majestic country is moving me profoundly. I'm feeling extremely lucid here, and opportunities like this hike to Taktsang have been jumping out at me quite frequently. It's also a testament to the wonders of this country; how everything and everyone are so genuine, so full of life, spirituality, and culture. There's an authenticity here I have never before experienced, anywhere. No one's trying to pull a fast one by you; most people are more excited for you than you might be, since they know what you are about to experience.  I've become supremely entranced by the mysteries, events, and stories these people believe in and live by. Even if it is not [yet] my own spiritual and cultural belief system, I'm willing, even honored, to give it all a chance and try to perceive see from those perspectives. Not that doing so is a prerequisite for appreciating these moments and this way of life, but it does further enhance my respect for the people of this land. It helps put me into their shoes and underscores the power of these sights/experiences.

Speaking of putting myself in the shoes of the Bhutanese, I was able to  do this in a very relaxing way after our excursion to Taktsang. We visited Chencho's granny's longtime friend, who lives only about one hour outside of town, near Drugyel Dzong, an old fortress (that in the 17th century was used to fight off the Tibetans) that had been burned down at the turn of the century, but left untouched ever since. This family friend, like most Bhutanese families living in the rural parts of the country (most of the country), takes hot stone baths regularly. Stones are collected, and burned over a flame in a very specific, skilled, manner. These scorching hot stones are then dipped in some water to remove any crud or ash, and then slowly submerged on one side of a 2-3 foot x 5-6 foot wooden bath tub, built into the ground (sometimes within a wooden shed). The stones remain hot for a very long time, and actually will release more heat with increased circulation of the water (so that you can adjust the heat by just moving your hands within the bath water. This is the only way to take a bath here, though in the summer months the water need not be hot.

Because I was the guest, I was given first preference (this was true everywhere I went and in every single situation). Now keep in mind that I have a pretty high threshold for heat, which I realized this summer, when I hung out in a 95 Degree Centigrade Sauna (Budapest Bath) for like 15 minutes at a time, like 4x. So at first the water was kind of lukewarm, but then I started wadding my arms around, plus another stone was added in, and within 2 minutes, I thought I saw the skin on my knees bubbling. It seemed pretty unbearable, but the old man's son came by and whispered to me, "Don't move, just close your eyes and breathe, in and out." I followed this for a good minute, before I told him that he must not realize just how hot it is, and that I actually think my skin is melting into this water. He tried dipping his hand in, and then kind of gave me a nervous look of agreement, after which he took a hose to pour some cool water in. Finally the bath reach a temp. that was still hot, but actually manageable for me. I practiced closing my eyes, breathing in the cool, crisp, himalayan air. I emptied my mind. In that thirty minutes, it was just me, my body, that water, those stones, and the thin crisp air. Nothing else existed, as far as I was concerned. No worries about the hectic, nerve-wrecking, times to come. No anxiety about all the places I need to go see before it's too late, before I'm consumed in responsibility and back on "track". There weren't even any nagging qualms about the need to make a lasting impact in, well, pretty much anything that matters to me. Later I was happy that I got to be constructively selfish in this way, since it surely helped raise my self-awareness. But more than that, these moments of pure unadulterated mental freedom have helped inspire my photography. It's that only these types of experiences help me develop a connection to the land and the people that is so important for poignant and unique photography. Don't know if I actually succeeded, but I did have an improved sense of which moments would be more meaningful than others to snap that shutter button. 

Zen while enjoying a hot stone bath
Later back to my meditative bath, I was reminded of the Beatles song, Within You Without You, written by George Harrison. I miss you, George.


  1. Amazing experience!!! You are so lucky to be there!

  2. Yeah, it really was. I'd go back there in a hummingbird's heartbeat.