Bhutan can be quite a scandalous place! It is possibly, the only place where Phalluses are worn as charms! I swear! They are! And if you find this first line shocking, well, then a quick alert before you proceed to read this post. While there is nothing obscene about the post, it could get you uncomfortable. If you do decide to read on, you are likely to enjoy the fascinating tales of the Fertility Temple of Bhutan – the Chimi Lhakhang. Once you hear the stories, you will realize why the public display of these private parts is not so unusual in Bhutan.
Our first stop in Punakha turned out to be this Fertility Temple. Quite renowned, the Chimi Lhakhang temple beckons visitors from not just Bhutan – but across the world for it is believed that any childless couple who visits here is blessed with a baby. For me, the temple was all about the unusual rituals and colorful legends. Though it might seem scandalous from its symbols, it is quite sacred and clean to visit. In fact, it is quite a delightful visit as you walk through lovely open fields to a beautifully carved monument of faith. The best way to make you believe this is to take you along my journey to the Chimi Lakhang – The Fertility Temple of Bhutan.
History of the Fertility Temple, Bhutan
Once upon a time, there was a monk called Drukpa Kunley. In fact, he was one of the key monks that brought Buddhism from Tibet to Bhutan. Known for his unusual methods of teaching and his crazy songs lined with humor and sexual connotations, he soon became famous as the “Divine Madman“. This Divine Madman came to Punakha to get rid of a demon from Dochula. The demon took the form of a dog and fell dead as he was struck down by the “Flaming Thunderbolt of Wisdom” created by the Divine Madman. This Flaming Thunderbolt of wisdom is what they say was the Phallus and thus, the symbol of Chimi Lhakhang.
The stricken Demon was captured in a Chorten (Stupa) by the Divine Madman and he uttered the words “Chi Mi” meaning no dog. The Chorten is said to be on top of a mountain in the form of a woman’s breast and it is at this sacred spot that the fertility temple was built.
Since then, phallus became a symbol of prosperity and luck. It also used to ward off evil and malice. And this, my friends, is a reason why it is found painted on house, erected on rooftops and even worn, around the neck! (Mostly by Scarecrows ;-))
Through the Village of Sopsokha
The Village of Sopsokha greeted us with these divine symbols. I knew what to expect and in some ways, found it funny to see it in person. The depictions of the said private parts were what made it so – for they were colorfully shaded, some with ribbons and funny saying written around them. While every visitor here had this secret embarrassing smile, the locals were quite nonchalant. They went about their business of selling the wooden wares, showcasing the different colors and designs on these “divine art forms”. As amusing as it was to us, we also, understood that it was their part of life and we needed to respect that!
A small walk through the fields
A long stretch of paddy fields lay between the village Sopsokha and the Fertility temple. It was crossing these that turned out to be the most amazing part of this journey. There is something refreshing as you walk amid the green layers of paddy. We jumped some terraces and walked through a few fields to capture those dreamy moments that you possibly see only in the movies.
The villages of Punakha seemed so gorgeous in that terraced field set-up. The brown and red homes of people were beautifully offset by the surrounding green. Prayer Flags fluttered at regular intervals along the path as well as the lone Chortens along the way. Every angle of that landscape was just picture perfect.
With the winds blowing on our face, a few playful stops with the sprinklers and loads of photos, we finally crossed over to another small village called Lobena.
Artifacts along the way
The village was lined with shops selling not just the Wooden charms but also, beautiful Bhutanese Thangka Art and Mani stones. I would recommend a quick stop in one of these shops to see how Thangka Art is made. You will see the artisans working on pieces, carefully filling in the gem-stone colors. Each piece of Thangka art depicts scenes from Buddhist scriptures or the Bhutanese Buddhist history. One look at the work and you know why these paintings are worth every penny that you pay for it.
Chimi Lhakhang – the fertility temple
And then, we finally reached the fertility temple. The first thing that we encountered as we walked up the little incline is a huge prayer wheel and a little drinking station. Going past it, just outside the main temple, is a black Chorten. This is where they say the Divine Madman has trapped the dog demon!
The temple itself is an elegant structure with its brown and golden roof. The white of the building was further enhanced by the gold medallions stuck at regular intervals in a brown band. The temple was a brilliant example of how you can have beauty in simplicity.
There were loads of families – couples and ones with kids, turning the line of prayer wheels around the temple. Their faith oozed into the air, lending serenity to the atmosphere. Following them, we entered the temple, Once within, I had to put away my camera for no pictures were allowed.
The temple is quite small compared to a lot of others that I had already visited in Bhutan. Even then, it was as beautiful. A large statue of Guru Padmasambhava stood at the center of the altar along with one of the Divine Madman in a reclining pose next to it. The interesting part of the rituals here is when a childless couple visits the temple, they are blessed with a divine phallus – a wooden one that is attached to a silver stick. Once the couple gets a baby, they return with the child to seek blessings and name it. The child’s name is written on a bamboo parchment and kept on the altar.
Back for some lunch
Having observed a few of these rituals, we stepped back into the outer compound of the Fertility temple. There is a small monastery attached to the temple, where plenty of monk kids study and stay. It must have been a break time, for they were engrossed in a serious game of football. With their permission, I clicked a few pictures, all the while cheering them on. It was kind of cute seeing them.
With a quick wave to them, we returned back through the fields to the Sopsokha village for some quick lunch. With our bellies filled with the tasty Ema Datshi, we bundled back into the car for our next destination – Punakha Dzong. As I glimpsed at the last of those divine symbols of Sopsokha village, I told myself “Ah Well! That wasn’t so bad! Just a different and unique part of the Bhutanese culture”
- The only way to get to Punakha is by road – either from Paro or Thimphu. A cab is recommended for the same.
- The Chimi Lhakhang temple is located on the outskirts of the main Punakha town. You can visit it before you get into the town or while leaving the town as it is on the way to Dochula Pass.
- To know how to get to Bhutan and for cab rentals, I recommend reading my Bhutan Travel Guide.
- There is nothing obscene about the Fertility temples. While the depictions are graphic, there is nothing in the temple that is scandalous. It is based on the tolerance levels that you can decide whether you want to take your kids there or not. The locals always do.
- There are no entrance fees to the temple
- Wear flat shoes as there is plenty of walking to be done. The hike to the temple is a flat land and will take around 20 mins. If you do not wish to walk through the fields, you can drive right up to the beginning of the hill where the temple is built. However, after that, you will have to still walk uphill.
- The shops selling the various artifacts have more or less fixed pricing. I did find the same higher than what I saw in Paro.
- There are restrooms along the way.
- There is only one restaurant in Sopsokha, where you can grab a meal. You will not find any other cafe or restaurant around here.
- Punakha requires an additional permit to visit. This can be arranged from Thimphu. You can get more details on this through my Bhutan Travel Guide.