Bhutan: A Trekkers Paradise

Travel

by Bibhash Dhar

Perched in the Himalayas, Bhutan attracts trekkers of all abilities. And most visitors landing in Bhutan make it a point to attempt the spectacular climb to the Taktsang (Tiger's Nest) Monastery. I was one of them who successfully completed the one-way 7kms long trek that took three hours to go up and two hours to go down. The circuitous trek had fabulous views along the way and was highly rewarding. In fact, this trek is listed among the 'World’s Top 100 Trek''. The place is also listed in the '1000 Places to See before You Die', a bestselling travel book by Patricia Schultz.
 

TAKTSANG

Taktsang Monastery is located in Paro, Bhutan, about 10kms north of Paro city. Seen from the Paro Valley floor, it's a jaw dropping sight and seemingly inaccessible at 10,240ft above sea level across a vertical canyon. This beautiful but perilously positioned monastery clings onto a rocky mountain ledge at a dizzying altitude of about 900ft above the bottom of the Paro Valley in the Himalayas.
 
Taktsang is also known for the legend of Guru Rinpoche, better known as Guru Padmasambhava the disciple of Gautam Buddha who spread Buddhism in Bhutan. Legend says that he came to Bhutan in the 8th Century on the back of a tigress to defeat the demons. He meditated in a cave before preaching Buddhism in the valley. Many monks followed in his footsteps including Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye (believed to be the reincarnation of Padmasambhava) who completed building the Taktsang Monastery in 1692, making it the holiest and the most revered shrine in Bhutan.

A fire raged through part of the monastery in 1998, damaging valuable paintings, artefacts and statues. The restoration work was undertaken at an estimated cost of Rs 135 million. The Government and the then King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, oversaw the completion of the restoration of the damaged monastery and its contents by 2005.
 
 
TREKKING TO TAKTSANG
 
It is roughly a three-hour trek to the temples and monastery through the beautifully flowering red rhododendron trees and blue pines, past prayer wheels and Buddhist flags. Primroses and orchids flower border the trail and all is silent but for bird songs and the tinkling bells of ponies, who offer a one-way climb up to the half-way point for those not used to trekking.

There, a rustic lodge named Taktsang Jakhang (cafetaria), framed in marigolds, provides refreshments and a magnificent view of the Taktsang Monastery. From here, the monastery appears so close yet so far across the precipice. The path continues to climb above the tree line, skirting holy rocks and caves. 775 steps lead down to the small bridge crossing a large waterfall, which drops by 200ft into a sacred pool, and up to the gate where cameras need to be kept for safekeeping as they are not allowed inside the monastery.
 
 
THE MONASTERY
 
The monastery buildings consist of four main temples and residential shelters designed to adapt to the rock ledges, the caves and the rocky terrain. Out of the eight caves, four are comparatively easy to access. The cave where Padmasambhava first entered on the tigress is known as Tholu Phuk and the original cave where he resided and meditated is known as Pel Phuk. He directed the spiritually enlightened monks to build the monastery here. The monastery is so precariously perched that it is said that it clings to the side of the mountain like a gecko. The main cave is entered through a narrow passage. The dark cave houses a dozen images of Bodhisattvas and butter lamps flickering in front of these idols.

It is also said that the monks who practise Vajrayana Buddhism, the formal state religion of Bhutan, at this cave monastery live here for three years and seldom go down to the Paro Valley. The temples are covered in wall paintings and there are gilded statues, offerings and incense drifting from the altars. The deep chanting of monks echoes now and then while out on the precarious ledge, visitors and pilgrims gaze at the spectacular Paro Valley with its sprinkling of traditional houses far below, the meandering river and golden paddy fields framed by the hills in all shades of green. All the buildings are interconnected through steps and stairways made in rock. There are a few rickety wooden bridges along the paths and stairways to cross over. Each building has a balcony, which provides lovely views of the scenic Paro Valley down below.

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