PARO, Bhutan–It’s a steep climb to Taktsang, a monastery hugging the side of a rocky cliff 3,000 feet above the Paro valley in Bhutan. But the going is fairly easy if taken slowly, for the path is well constructed and maintained and the mountain air is fresh and cool. It requires ascending a thousand steps or more, with plenty of opportunities to admire the view and to catch one’s breath. For those of us who live at sea level it can be difficult to breathe comfortably while exercising vigorously at 10,000 feet, so a relaxed pace with plenty of rest is definitely the way to make this pilgrimage, as advised by our expedition leader, Bill Jones.
The pilgrimage to Taktsang, also known as Tiger’s Nest or Tiger’s Lair, is (literally and figuratively) the high point of any visitor’s sojourn in Bhutan. For the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration delegation, it was the final stop of a week-long visit that had taken us around the western part of the kingdom, visiting dzongs (monastery fortresses), temples, and the wintering grounds of white-bellied herons and black-necked cranes. We’d had plenty of time to acclimate to the altitude and there had been at least two long walks through farms and villages to prepare us for the steep climb to the Tiger’s Nest.
Flying in on a Tigress
Taktsang is said to be the holiest site in Bhutan. It’s where Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava, materialized some 1,300 years ago on the back of a flying tigress. Finding shelter in a series of caves, he meditated for some three years and then set about converting the Bhutanese to Buddhism. The monastery that commemorates this auspicious beginning was built nine centuries later, in the 1600s, although the buildings we see today have been replaced several times, including major reconstruction completed in 2005 after a fire devastated the structure and its contents in 1998. But as the Bhutanese point out, buildings are temporal and meant to be renewed; the ideas and philosophies they represent cannot be destroyed.
The final approach to the monastery after a climb of around two hours is over a bridge across a waterfall that drops 200 feet into a sacred pool. The entire area is wrapped in prayer flags, while crevices in the rock are crammed with tsa-tsas, small reliquaries containing ashes of the dead. One last brutal flight of steep steps hewn out of rock delivers pilgrims to the monastery, which for our visit was blanketed in low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to the place.
Entry to the sanctuary is granted on condition that shoes, cameras, cell phones and other electronic equipment are left at the gates. A security guard patted us down to make sure we were not smuggling cameras and he instructed us to button our jackets as a mark of respect for the holy place. Inside we were given a tour of various temples and other chambers crammed with Buddhist icons and heaped offerings of food and money. Flickering traditional butter lamps cast a warm ethereal light.
In one temple we encountered a monk watching over a door sealing the cave used by Padmasambhava all those centuries ago. It is opened only once a year in a special ceremony, perhaps like Easter Sunday in the Vatican’s St Peter’s basilica. The monk blessed us and poured saffron-laced water into our hands which we brought to our lips and splashed on the crown of our heads. In the next sanctuary we found a monk chanting sacred texts. He too splashed holy water into our hands for our mouths and heads, and he offered us something to eat.
We were alone in the third room we visited. Our guide stood with us at the door and explained the chamber’s purpose and the iconography on the altar, including a sitting statue of Padmasambhava. Then he invited us to sit quietly on the floor and meditate a while about where we were and what we were seeing.
Cross-legged comfortably on a mat, feet pointed in respectfully, I first thought what a difference it made to be looking at the icons without the encumbrance of a camera. I became conscious of the complete silence of our situation in the clouds thousands of feet up on the side of a mountain deep in the Himalayas.
As I listened to the silence and stared into the fierce eyes of one of the statues my mind shifted abruptly; into my head came the memory of my mother who passed away 34 years ago, and I thought how much she, a Buddhist at heart, would have wanted to visit this remarkable holy shrine. Just then a bird trilled loudly from the ledge of an open window right behind me, and I imagined it was my mother’s way of telling me that she heard me, and that she was with me in this special place.
It is not uncommon for people to have some kind of spiritual experience at Taktsang, Bill Jones, our expedition leader, told me after we had left the monastery. Bill has led groups to Bhutan more than a hundred times, taking perhaps a thousand people up to the shrine. “I can’t tell you how many people have told me that something happened to them spiritually up there,” he said when I told him my story about the bird and thoughts of my mother. I also learned that the bird that had interrupted my reverie was a rufous-breasted accentor (Prunella strophiata), a common resident throughout the Himalayas. (You can listen to its song here.)
Birds are abundant in Bhutan. Everywhere we went we saw crows on houses and monasteries. We learned that schools had been relocated and electricity cables buried to make wetlands safe for the black-necked cranes (Grus nigricollis) that migrate from the Tibetan Plateau, where they breed in the summer. To make this annual journey, the cranes must fly through extremely harsh conditions over the world’s highest mountains. Residents of Phobjikha say they see the birds circle Gangteng Monastery three times when they arrive at the valley’s marshes for the winter, and three times again when they begin their return. It’s one more spiritual connection between the people and wildlife of Bhutan.
Led by the royal family, the government has committed to protecting Phobjikha Valley for the cranes, and also to keeping more than half of the rest of the country as natural forest. Wildlife corridors have also been set aside for elephants, tigers, leopards, and all the animals smaller than them, to be able to migrate freely between national parks in both Bhutan and neighboring India.
Surrounded entirely by China and India, the two most populous nations on Earth, Bhutan’s isolation and its ancient spirituality have enabled the country to hang on to much of its culture and natural heritage. But as the country continues to modernize and open to the world, Bhutan will be challenged to stay this way. The teachings brought to Taktsang by Padmasambhava 1,300 years ago include belief in the power and value of nature. Keeping the faith might be what empowers the country to choose the right way forward.
National Geographic President and CEO Gary Knell led the Committee for Research and Exploration on a tour of the Himalayan kingdom to meet with grantees, listen to briefings from government officials and environment groups, and observe science, exploration, and conservation in the field. The delegation visited dzongs and other religious places, wildlife sites, and had an audience with King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. The Society has funded nearly two dozen research projects in Bhutan, two of which were active at the time of the National Geographic visit. National Geographic published its first article about Bhutan in 1914: a compelling account of explorations and surveys by John Claude White, a British Raj administrator and an accomplished amateur photographer. Read (and enjoy the 100-year-old photos) here: Castles in the Air: Experiences and Journeys in Unknown Bhutan
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.