Phallus Art Brings Luck in Bhutan — and Tourists, Too
LOBESA, Bhutan — For centuries, Bhutan has celebrated the phallus. They are painted on homes, or carved in wood, installed above doorways and under eaves to ward off evil, including one of its most insidious human forms, gossip. They are worn on necklaces, installed in granaries and in fields as a kind of scarecrow. They are used by masked jesters in religious festivals and at one temple near here in Lobesa as a blessing of fertility.
Now, as Bhutan increasingly opens up to the world, the ancient tradition has been evolving or, some say, sullied — by commercialization.
Though still a religious symbol, it has become, to some, a relic of a patriarchal past, something vaguely embarrassing and not fit for the modern new democracy that has, by all appearances, taken firm root in Bhutan after decades of relative isolation and absolute monarchy.
It has also become a curio to peddle in all sizes and colors to the increasing number of tourists visiting this remote Himalayan kingdom, renowned for its pursuit of “gross national happiness.”
“People still use it as a symbol,” said Needrup Zangpo, the executive director of the Journalist Association of Bhutan, who has written about the historical inspiration for the symbol, “but the necessity of having it painted on your house is going away.” He attributed this erosion of tradition to “the exposure to Western culture.”
The symbol, like Bhutan itself, seems suspended between two impulses: the country’s headlong embrace of modernity and its preservation of traditions that made it unique to start with.
“Stories of Bhutan’s engagement with the phallus shed light on traditions and lifestyle that make Bhutan one of the happiest places on earth,” Karma Choden wrote in the 2014 book “Phallus: Crazy Wisdom from Bhutan,” which was published here and claims to be the first scholarly effort to document the ubiquity of the phallus.
The tradition has been widely traced to one lama, Drukpa Kunley, who spread the tenets of Buddhism through Bhutan in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Called the “Divine Madman,” he was a holy fool, a mendicant, drunkard and Lothario who subdued women and demons alike with his heightened spirituality and what legend called his “Flaming Thunderbolt of Wisdom.”
Drukpa Kunley is celebrated throughout the country — and in Tibet, across the border — but his cult is centered on Chimi Lhakhang, the “no dog” monastery, near Lobesa, which encompasses a cluster of still smaller hamlets nestled in a valley of terraced paddies of red and white rice.
The monastery was built in 1499 on a knoll above the Puna Tsang River, though given the hazy mythology surrounding Drukpa Kunley’s evangelism, there are contradictory accounts of the monastery’s founding.
n the prevailing one, the lama subdued a demon haunting a nearby mountain pass called Dochula by turning her into a red dog, which he buried “with a pile of earth to resemble a woman’s breast.” Hence the name “no dog.”
In the other, according to an oral history compiled in the 1960s and translated into English as “The Divine Madman: The Sublime Life and Songs of Drukpa Kunley,” the lama built a stupa, or monument, on the spot where a follower died after repeating a ribald prayer the lama had taught him. (“I take refuge in the maiden’s Lotus,” one couplet begins.) The lama himself was said to have lived to 115.
In neither scenario of the monastery’s founding, Mr. Zangpo emphasized, did he use his penis, though that is how the legend is often garbled.
“We don’t have a clear line between history and mythology,” said Mr. Zangpo, who is compiling his own translations of the oral histories that he hopes will set the record straight. Like other scholars, he argues that the phallus symbol can more likely be traced to pre-Buddhist pagan rituals than to the Divine Madman’s legend.
Nevertheless, the tales of the lama’s sexual appetite have prevailed — in no small part because of the oral histories, in which Drukpa Kunley flouts both secular and religious sensibilities by reveling in sex and alcohol on his path to enlightenment.
To this day, hopeful couples traverse Bhutan to partake of the monastery’s fertility blessing. They reach it by climbing the knoll on foot after passing through the hamlets of Sopsokha and Teoprongchu. The valley is indisputably beautiful. Dragonflies swarm in circles overhead. Small aqueducts feeding the green rice paddies spin colorful prayer wheels like water mills.