2011
05.25

There exists many iconic locations in the world that have come to symbolize their country, most often on tour agency walls and tourist brochures.  For India, it is the Taj Mahal; for Peru, Machu Picchu; and for Cambodia, there is Angkor Wat.  Each of these places I have visited with some skepticism, wondering if such highly publicized places could really live up to their hype.  Each I have discovered to be more wondrous than my imagination would allow.  Yet, none of them impressed me as much as Bhutan’s posterchild- the Tiger’s Nest Monastery.

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The Taktshang Goemba, as it is locally known, is a Buddhist monastery perched on a sheer cliff 900m (2,952ft) above the valley floor.  It derived the name “Tiger’s Nest” from the story of its founding which, like most in Bhutan, is rooted in Buddhist folklore.  Among the most revered figures in Bhutan, Guru Rinpoche is a historical figure from the 8th Century who is regarded as the second Buddha and said to have had miraculous powers and performed many magical deeds, including the ability to subdue the demons and evil spirits that plagued the lives of early Bhutanese.  His visit to Bumthang is recognized as the introduction of Buddhism to the kingdom and he remains one of the most 2011.05.25_HDR_59-Editimportant of Bhutan’s religious figures.  Buddhists do not consider Guru Rinpoche to be a normal human being, for this would hinder us from recognizing the full scope of his enlightened qualities.

Guru Rinpoche traveled through Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan in eight different forms, known as manifestations.  These are not the incarnations, or re-births, central to Buddhist belief, but are separate personalities symbolized by a new name and appearance.  The eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche are represented in paintings and sculptures throughout Bhutan and so comprise the chronological scope of his existence.  It is in the form of Dorji Drakpo (meaning “fierce thunderbolt”) that Guru Rinpoche appeared in Bhutan on the second occasion.  During this time, he is said to have subdued all the evil spirits hindering Buddhism and visited two specific sights, while riding upon a flying tiger’s back.

From Singye Dzong in Eastern Bhutan, Guru Rinpoche flew across the country on the back of a tiger and landed on a precarious cliff where he subdued a local demon and then meditated in a cave for three months.  For this reason, this site has long been considered a holy place and it was here that the Taktshang Goemba was built, and given the name “Tiger’s Nest”.  Pilgrims from all over Bhutan come to visit the sacred site and it is the one place in Bhutan featured on nearly every tourist itinerary.

Not surprisingly, there is no way to visit Tiger’s Nest but to walk.  Horses are available at the trailhead to carry the old, feeble, or just plain lazy, but I encourage you to harness your own abilities to carry yourself to the top, a much more rewarding experience.  The trail is reached by a road at the northern end of Paro Valley that carries you 3km (1.8mi) up to the trailhead at 2,600m (8,530ft).  Even from the valley floor, you can spot the monastery, though it appears only as a far-distant dot perched on an seemingly impossible cliff.  As you begin climbing through forests of blue pine with the monastery high above you, it is hard to believe that such a place could even be reached on foot.  But as a sign early on the trail proclaims, you can “Walk to Guru’s glory!  For here in this kingdom rules an unparalleled benevolent king!”

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The initial climb is steep, switch-backing up the mountainside with little shade so be sure to bring a hat and plenty of water.  As you climb, you are awarded excellent views across Paro Valley to the area around Drukygyel Dzong where a trail continues into Tibet.  The Tiger’s Nest Monastery is not visible as you climb, but soon you will be rewarded with a beautiful view when you reach a ridge where a small stupa stands and strings of prayer flags fly.  A short walk from here brings you to a cafeteria where you can have breakfast, lunch, or a cup of tea while savoring an impressive view of the still-distant monastery.  Some only come this far, but having already climbed the steepest part, do yourself a favor and continue on to far more outstanding views.

It takes another half hour of climbing to reach a spring and basic monastery guesthouse.  From here a short walk further brings you to 3,140m (10,301ft) where a spectacular lookout grants you the much anticipated view of a structure which defies gravity and belief.  Now, you can fully appreciate both the surprising size of the monastery and its truly unbelievable position clinging to a near-vertical cliffside.  The world falls away for 900m (2,952ft) below the Tiger’s Monastery and the views of distant mountains and Paro Valley seem to stretch for as far as the eye can see.  Countless colorful prayer flags fly across a deep chasm which still separates you from the monastery though, as the crow flies, it is only a short distance away.

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The trail descends along a paved, snaking path beneath fluttering prayer flags with unparalleled views of one of man’s most impressive creations.  For someone like myself, you can hardly walk ten feet without stopping for another photograph as each new perspective lends even greater wonder and beauty to this jaw-dropping location.  In addition, Tiger’s Nest is not the only sight to be seen in this dramatic location.  Other smaller buildings are jammed into the narrow crags of the rock face, including Singye Phu Lhakhang (Snow Lion Cave), a meditation retreat perched in a narrow crevice next to a beautiful waterfall.  The trail passes through hundreds of prayer flags- blue, green, red, yellow and white- which are highlighted against the natural colors of the rock walls and waterfall, and beckon you along the final short climb to the monastery entrance.

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The sights within Taktshang Goempa are no less impressive.  The monastery complex is surprisingly large and house several small and elaborately-decorated chapels.  In one, a rock image of the goddess Dorje Phagmo is hidden in a recessed hole in the floor.  In another, a holy spring exists behind a chapel honoring a 9th Century disciple of Guru Rinpoche who meditated in the cave.  The largest among them houses several large golden statues, the central among them of Pema Jungme, one of the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche.  Offerings of rice, crackers, cookies, water and money surround the statues, as well as a host of demonic animal-headed deities which are painted on the walls.  2011.05.25_HDR_77-EditAnd in a small lower chapel is found the cave in which Guru Rinpoche was said to have spent three months meditating.  The walls are adorned with mural paintings depicting his eight manifestations and behind a spectacular gilded door is an altar stuffed with miniature phurbas (thunderbolt symbols) with carved heads.  Each is a magnificent sight that only adds to the wonder of this remarkable place.

Above the monastery are several other buildings which are smaller, yet exist on equally impressive and precarious positions.  A side trail leads uphill to the Machig-Phu Lhakhang where Bhutanese pilgrims come to pray for their children.  Other trails lead from here to Ugyen Tshemo Lhakhang and Zangto Pelri Lhakhang, perched on rocky crags with great views down to Tiger’s Nest.  Though usually not represented in photos, this vertical rock face is a treasure trove of architectural and spiritual wonders which defy both the laws of gravity and our most grandiose expectations.

In a world which is so often polluted by man, there are creations that exist in which humankind has displayed both engineering prowess and architectural genius that compliments, rather than diminishes, the natural beauty which we should hold so dear.  Never before have I witnessed such a grand example of the spectacular union that can exist between earth and man when both work to uphold the other.  In the case of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, one can discover a place where the earth is literally holding upon its shoulders an unbelievable construct of man which serves to glorify the heavens above and the earth below.  It is not so hard to believe a tale of deities that change shape and form and the tigers on which they fly when you glimpse the unbelievable place that is the Tiger’s Nest Monastery.

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3 comments so far

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  1. Kyle,

    Great pics of Taktshang Cliffside Monastery. Are there posters available of any of these pics? Especially interested in the one with the trail leading up to the monastery, shown on this web page 3 times. Totally awesome.

    Do let me know.

    Sincerely,

    Robert Lapham
    Upasaka Bodhisattva Drimed Dorje

  2. Hey Robert,
    Thanks so much for your kind words and compliments. You can find prints of the Taktshang Monastery available for sale on my website at http://kylehammons.photoshelter.com/gallery/Bhutan/G0000LwZ6aadEqMA/P00000sCvlS_W.ts . Just select the photo you are interested in, click “Add to Cart” and you will see the sizes available. Please feel free to email me at kyle@kylehammons.com if I can be of assistance. Thanks again and I wish you all the best.

    Kyle

  3. Beautiful photos.