Hidden Locales: Sacred Buddhist Sites

Buddhism is known the world over for its majestic sacred sites. Amongst the most famous are Lumbini in Nepal where Siddhartha Guatama, the Buddha, was born, and Bodh Gaya in India, where he gained enlightenment under what became known as the Bodhi tree. These sites reverberate with a mystical energy that is hard to describe, but is deeply palpable in these holy sites. Millions of people visit these sacred locales every year, from pilgrims, to travelers and tourists, sometimes travelling many miles on foot to get there. It is said the more arduous the journey, the more positive merit the pilgrim will generate towards their next lives.

Amongst the sacred sites recognized across the Himalayas are two important locales in Bhutan, a country where Vajrayana Buddhism is widely practiced. While one sacred site is famous and well known by travellers the world over, the other is less so. These two sites are of course Taktsang (also known as Tiger’s Nest) in Paro, and Kurtoe Singye Dzong Neykor (the mystical lion fortress) in Lhuentse.

Both sites are strongly connected with Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche (the Precious Teacher), a highly revered tantric Buddhist master who visited Bhutan in the eighth century. Believed to be connected to Bhutan through karma, Guru Rinpoche is an important and popular religious figure in the Himalayan Kingdom. This is because he is credited with bringing Buddhism to Bhutan and spreading the teachings of the Buddha across the country.

As one travels across Bhutan, especially in the north and central parts of the nation, it becomes apparent that many places are associated with Guru Rinpoche. This is because he himself travelled across Bhutan, visiting a great many places. However, none are more powerfully associated and sacred than Takstang and Singye Dzong.

Taktshang

Taktsang

Taktsang Monastery is perched high on a precarious cliffside in the upper Paro valley, approximately 10 kilometers from Paro town. The temple complex is miraculously built into the rock face that measures 3,120 meters above sea level.

According to legend, a disciple of Guru Rinpoche transformed herself into a tigress and carried him on her back from Tibet to the present place of her choosing, that is now known as Tiger’s nest. It is here that Guru Rinpoche, consecrated the place to tame the Tiger demon. He performed meditation in one of the caves, and later emerged in eight incarnated forms, thereby rendering the location holy.

A temple was built at the site in 1692, which was an incredible architectural feat, given the remoteness and high cliff edge where it was constructed. Subsequently, many important Tibetan saints and eminent Buddhist Lamas came to Taktsang to meditate. Unfortunately, a fire destroyed the temple in 1998, which contained valuable paintings and artefacts. The temple complex and its contents were restored in 2005, with the support of the Royal Government of Bhutan and His Majesty the King of Bhutan.

From the moment one gains sight of Taktsang in the distance, it captures the imagination. The sense of wonder remains from the start of the trail, marked by water-powered prayer wheels, to the sloping path that makes it way towards the monastery. On the path to Taktsang, and from the cafeteria on the opposite ravine, it is possible to get an incredible view the temple complex. From here, the trek becomes a little more steep and scenic, as it passes through blue pine trees, colorful prayer flags dancing in the wind, a high cascading waterfall, and eventually to the winding staircase leading to Takstang. Before reaching the temple complex, an amazing viewpoint provides visitors with iconic once-in-a-lifetime views of the monastery to capture the moment.

The monastery has several temples, connected by interlacing staircases. There are also several caves of historical significance. The main shrine is dedicated to Padmasambhava and his eight manifestations, and many important paintings and artefacts are housed within the temple complex. Each temple is unique in its own way, while the views of the valley and surrounding mountains are truly breathtaking. While Taktsang has become a cultural icon of Bhutan, it also remains an important sacred Buddhist locale.

Singye Dzong

Located an altitude of more than 3,000 meters above sea level, Singye Dzong is an important historic and sacred site. It was built in a sacred valley near the Tibetan border, and was visited by the revered Guru Rinpoche, whereupon he blessed the site on his second visit to Bhutan. He spent three months at the site carrying out Buddhist accomplishment practices, and the locale became one of the most sacred places for his enlightened activity. 

Although it is less known and inaccessible to foreign visitors and tourists, it is visited by thousands of Bhutanese pilgrims each year. The temple contains several important Buddhist and historical relics and artefacts associated with Guru Rinpoche. Many believe that at least one visit in their lifetime to this sacred site is auspicious and can cleanse their sins and generate positive merit in their next lives.

The fortress sits atop a hill overlooking the roaring Kurichhu river, and is a three-day hearty uphill walk from Khoma Gewog (sub-district) in Lhuentse district in Eastern Bhutan. It is located within Bumdeling wildlife sanctuary, with the area boasting a meditation centre. Four nearby aqua green lakes make the visit to Singye Dzong an amazing experience. The journey takes travellers across wooden bridges, river-lined pathways and resting places. The last stretch towards the sacred site opens up to breathtaking vistas of tall rocky mountains, yaks grazing in the meadows, crystal clear streams, and an environment replete with flowers, birds, and rich vegetation and medicinal herbs.

Travelling to Sacred Sites

The opportunity to travel to sacred sites in Bhutan is not just an amazing opportunity, but also considered a great blessing. It allows the traveller to experience sacred places that are living, breathing sites of worship and Buddhist practice. This is unlike other tourist destinations in the world that represent remains of a distant and long-gone civilizations. Rather, sacred sites in Bhutan are active sites of Buddhist worship, rituals and practice by Bhutanese women, men, children, monks, nuns. eminent Lamas as well as pilgrims and travelers from around the world.

Buddhist practice is not only a matter of daily custom, it also involves making arduous journeys to sacred sites in one’s lifetime. This normally involves walking uphill or up many flights of stairs to holy sites that are off the beaten path or hidden, thereby making the journey harder, but also more spiritual in that the traveler generates more merit in doing so. Every step towards the destination, especially those that are sacred, carries great weight, culminating in experiencing joy and bliss when arriving at one’s final destination, and an incredible sense of accomplishment.

Such journeys are also often intertwined with connecting with nature, as most sacred sites are nestled amongst natural environments high in the mountains. The journey is thus external, as well as internal, with breathtaking natural vistas as well as opportunities for inner reflection, contemplation and meditation.

For foreign travellers, a trip to Taktsang is the opportunity of a lifetime, to see and experience rare, mystical and breathtaking beautiful sites. It also reminds us of the responsibility we have as travellers, pilgrims and tourists. Therefore, we must tread carefully and gently, with great respect and compassion in the locales that we visit. These spiritually, culturally and environmentally important sites are not just “tourist destinations”, but are the central ways of life for people and all other sentient beings that inhabit these precious spaces. We are all mere visitors passing by, but also have the potential of being transformed by our travels, while being careful not to impact or harm such fragile locales in turn. As the famous saying goes, take only memories, leave only footprints. Such sacred sites provide us with the conditions of inner-transformation – and the power to awaken mindfulness, compassion, kindness, and a reminder that we are all interconnected with one another, to nature, and this amazing blue dot called earth.

Dr. Ritu Verma

An anthropologist, researcher, author and photographer, she has published extensively on GNH, Bhutan, and beyond. She is a regular columnist in this magazine. Find her at rituvermapuri.wordpress. com, ucla.academia.edu/RituVerma and twitter.com/Rituvermapuri