Last Updated on January 16, 2022 by asoulwindow
I HEARD FEMALE GIGGLES as I was concentrating on taking pictures and videos of huge phallic signs on the walls of Bhutanese homes. “There are so many of them, in a variety of colors and designs. It’s weird.” The white woman quipped. Many people from (supposedly liberal) western countries were as aghast on seeing phallic symbols as the (supposedly conservative) Asians. Chimi Lhakhang is the place associated with such symbols. Though you can see phallic symbols across Bhutan, you find more of such symbols near Chimi Lhakhang.
The penis images painted on walls are outrageous. Some have ribbon tied around them; some are shown engulfed by a dragon. Some are even shown ejaculating. I was amused to see penises with eyes, wings and hands as well. Each one of them is erect and comes with hairy testicles (Some ‘shaved’ too). You can’t afford to miss them thanks to their explicit nature and size (From tiny ones to as large as an adult human).
As I walked on the lush green hilly terrains to reach Chimi Lhakhang, I was amused by graphic pictures of phallus on the walls of homes and shops. Some of it was aimed at tourists, some authentic. Kids played nonchalantly in the shadow of the wall art while men and women went about their work, not embarrassed of passing such symbols every now and then. In conservative Asian cultures, this is an aberration, even a mild shock!
Prayer flags fluttered wildly in the unending rice fields as cows grazed nonchalantly in the undulating fields. A dog followed us throughout as we negotiated narrow dirt tracks and open drains to reach the Chimi Lhakhang. Women roasting ‘bhooja’ (Dry Snacks also popular in India) in an incongruous hut filled the air with a comforting fragrance and warmth.
The cool breeze slapped our cheeks and we would take pauses to soak in the tranquility of the place and admire its raw beauty. Tens of red robed kids were chanting under a tree in their al fresco school.
As I entered the temple, a child monk approached me and blessed me by softly banging a 10 inches wooden penis on my head. It got me curious and I asked my guide Sonam the reason behind the mystery.
Sonam transports me to 15th century. Lama Drukpa Kunley (1455- 1529) popularly known as the divine madman of Dragon lineage established the monastery in 1499. Folklore has it that he subdued a cannibal demon goddess with his ‘magic thunderbolt of wisdom’. Following this event, the monastery was established on a hillock in Punakha by his cousin.
A famous poet, monk and Buddhist scholar, he introduced an alternative school of Buddhism in Bhutan. A connoisseur of wine, women and finer things in life, he broke the tradition and introduced a school of thought which was unashamed of sexuality and encouraged his followers (mostly women) to shun greed and embrace a honest and spiritual life. His sexual adventures are the stuff legends are made up of. It is said that he even employed intercourse as a blessing to his female followers. Through his unorthodox teachings, he enlightened those who listened to him. His influence is still palpable in Bhutan. The lama Kunley saw the hillock (where the monastery is situated) as the ‘breast of a woman’.
Even today, childless couples head to Chimi Lhakhang to seek cure for their infertility. Also known as the ‘infertility temple’, locals come here to seek blessings. The wooden penis, which the divine madman brought from Tibet is used to bless the women who seek to cure the couple’s infertility. Couples also come here for the naming ceremony of their children.
The penis figures are also known to ward off the evil spirits and gossips which explain its presence on the walls of the households. However, I was told that in urban areas of Bhutan, the numbers of such figures on walls are dwindling thanks to the growing prudishness and self censorship. Also known as the ‘mad saint’, his unprecedented teaching style was laced with humor, songs and socially unacceptable behavior. He popularized the depiction of erect penis figures outside houses along with a flying wooden penis on the top of the main entrance of the house, much like the ‘toran’ popular in India.
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- Carry Water Bottles. There is a uphill path at the end of the walk which leaves you thirsty.
- Wear shoes and not slippers. Beware of puddles and open drains.
- Talk to the locals. They might end up offering you some ‘bhooja’ from their kitchen.
- Wear hat and goggles since Punakha is warmer than elsewhere in the Paro-Punakha-Haa valley- Thimphu circuit.
How to reach
- Our car left Thimphu at 9:00 am and reached Dochu La at 9:45 a.m.
- After a break of 45 minutes, we left Dochu La at 10:30 a.m. and reached the road leading to Chimi Lhakhang at 12:15 p.m.
- At 1:30 p.m. we reached Chimi Lhakhang. Though people take 30 minutes to reach Chimi Lhakhang from the approach road, we stopped many times en route because it was gorgeous.
The walk from approach road to the Chimi Lhakhang top is through an easy trail near the village Sopsokha. It is barely 10 kilometres away from Punakha. We left Chimi Lhakhang at 2:45 p.m. and reached Punakha Dzong at 3:15 p.m.
My trip was sponsored and all the logistics were taken care of by Bhutan Bookings. Click here to plan your vacation in Bhutan with them.
I was accompanied by travel bloggers – Dipanshu, Manjulika, Swati and Parnashree in the fun company of Sonam Karma and Dipanjan from Bhutan Bookings. Click on their names to read their stories from Bhutan.
Where to Eat: I would advice to eat at the many restaurants as you you start walking on the dirt tracks. This will give you the energy to keep going! I ate a sumptuous buffet (Noodles, Ema Datshi, rice) at Chimi Lhakhang café. Sit at one of the window seats which overlook the green valley. Beware of the large wooden phallus decorated dubiously at a corner in the washroom though.
When to go: I was twice. April was slightly hotter than August. I preferred the breezy August weather. It was not cold in either of the months. All you need is light cotton clothes. Morning visit advised.
Buy: You can take a phallic souvenir from the many shops. Key Chains, Show pieces, even a penis wearing a gho (local dress) are some of the interesting picks.
Pics above: (L to R): Kids playing oblivious to the graphic phallic symbols, the variety of penis ‘for sale’, the wooden penis above the door of a shop.
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22 thoughts on “CHIMI LHAKHANG: WHY IS EVERYONE SO CHILLED OUT AT PENIS ART ON BHUTAN WALLS?”
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Very well-written article never knew Bhutan had a place like this.
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WOW! I am happily surprised. When I read the headline I thought there was some copy error. But what a lovely village with such amazing wall paintings and I really enjoyed the part where you were softly banged by a 10 inches wooden penis on your head.
Now I so wanna go to Bhutan.
Interesting and could not stop giggling while read about this place. Read it earlier on some other travel blog. Nice way to create awareness and never heard about “infertility temple” 😀
I had absolutely no idea about this, it’s not a side of Bhutan that I’ve ever seen anyone write about or photograph before! I would probably be giggling too, just because it’s so random! It’s interesting to know the story behind it and that in some places self censorship is now changing things.
I had never heard of this part of Bhutan, I think I only ever read about the birds nest. It is crazy that there are penis images and equipment everywhere. The food at the Chimi Lhakhang cafe looks delicious and would certainly give me the energy for the hike.
I wouldn’t have imagined that there is such a place in Bhutan, in such an idyllic places in the mountains. The legend behind the drawings actually makes sense. And you are right, you will not find anything like this in the West and our reaction would probably be shock and giggles. It is however an interesting place to see and I have to admire the art the penises are drawn in.
I agree with you: it’s interesting that “liberal” people from Western countries (myself included) may be shocked at first when they see at place like this. Upon thinking further, though, I recalled learning about phallic statues during a college class about Southeast Asia. I actually love the vibrancy of all the penis paintings — so colorful! Thanks for sharing this post.
I should say I’m not surprised. Even though we assume East is conservative and west in liberal in today’s world, traditionally speaking, India is a land of phallic worship and we have erotic sculptures in our temples!!! And Bhutan being India’s neighbour, which was very much a part of the same region, centuries ago, this kinda sounds normal!!! However for any westerner, this would give a big shock!!!
I’m glad you shared these images of Bhutan. Many travelers have prejudices about Asian cultures and these pictures help to shed light on the diversity of their cultures. In Japan, another “conservative” Asian culture, the penis is also venerated during Kanamara Matsuri.
I have never heard of this place before. Certainly looks like an interesting place to visit and very strange history behind it. Will be adding to my list for when I visit Bhutan.
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That’s very interesting as I always had read about the 2nd interpretation only, saying a monk scared a demon by showing him his sex and that would be the reason why Bhutanese people paint a phallus on their house to scare the devils.
By the way, a few months ago, I shared some similar pics from a friend on Facebook. An Indian guy, who was following me since a while and was a big fan – he even wanted to show me the traditions of Madurai – commented and laughed. So I explained the meaning and said that, for Bhutanese people, it’s part of their belief and religion, just like Shiva Lingam is an important symbol in the Indian culture but can also be misunderstood. A few weeks later, I was shocked to see that this “big fan” of my work had blocked me on Facebook. Tolerance only applies to his own belief…