How and Why Bhutan Came to Worship the Phallus

Gyempo Wangchuk, Lives of the Phalluses (2016)
Gyempo Wangchuk, Lives of the Phalluses (2016)

In a remote corner of the world, lies the ancient landlocked Kingdom of Bhutan. Surrounded by the mighty Himalayas and bordering India and China, this Buddhist country is often referred to as the Last Shangri-La or the Land of the Thunder Dragon. In this obscure kingdom, the erstwhile capital city of Punakha continues to fiercely practice an age-old tradition of worshipping the most intriguing of objects: the phallus.

They are everywhere. Ornate penises flanking doorways, hanging off rooftops, painted on the sides of homes, as signage and on window displays. From bright yellows to pastel pinks, sometimes hairy and sometimes enveloped by a dragon spitting fire, some with piercing eyes and some even ejaculating. How does this rather shocking display of male genitalia fit in with this seemingly traditional country?

This penis fascination has a strong historic and spiritual significance in Bhutan. The story dates back to the 15th-century arrival of an eccentric and maverick Tibetan saint, or Lama, called Drukpa Kunley. He is believed to have shot an arrow from the then-Tibet to mark a new spot to spread his teachings. The arrow landed close to the site of present day Chimi Lakhang in Punakha (which is where his temple stands today) and led him to Bhutan. While searching for the arrow, he chanced upon a young girl who believed in his cause, and, pleased with her loyalty, he spent the night with her and ‘blessed her’ with his offspring. Today, the fertility temple houses an ancient bow and arrow and a 10-inch phallic totem made of ivory and wood.
After this introduction to Bhutan, his travels across the kingdom revealed to him the strict ways of the clergy and their unwavering adherence to orthodox societal norms. With a pledge to rid the people of their conventional ways, he set out to spread the true teachings of Buddha. His philandering ways and the sexual overtones in his often outlandish actions earned him the nickname The Divine Madman. With his bawdy poetry, titillating humour and wine-induced sermons, he deliberately shocked people into questioning the establishment and overthrowing traditions.
Perhaps the most famous legend which points directly toward the phallic symbolism is that of Lama Kunley using his ‘flaming thunderbolt of wisdom’ to subjugate a demoness named Loro Duem who resided in the present day Dochu La pass and terrorised all those who dared to pass by.
When the Lama heard about her exploits, he began to hunt her down and chased her out of Dochu La to the current site of the Chimi Lakhang temple. The fleeing demoness transformed herself into a dog to avoid being caught, but Kunley recognised her, killed her and buried her in the hillock. He then built a black Buddhist shrine, or chorten, over her grave. His cousin, Lam Ngawang Choegyal later built a Lhakhang in honour of his illustrious relative and named it Chimi Lhakhang (named so after the subjugation, Chime means ‘no dog’ and Lakhang means ‘temple’).

There are so many other anecdotes about this mad saint’s idiosyncrasies. One of them states that, upon being gifted a holy thread to tie around his neck, he decided instead to use it to adorn his penis, shockingly stating that he hoped it would bring him some luck with the ladies. This is why quite a few of the current paintings have ribbons around the phallus. Another tale talks about how he supposedly urinated on a holy scroll.
Today, many newly married and childless couples from all over the world hike to the temple of fertility to seek blessings from the ‘divine thunderbolt’, aka the ancient wooden phallus totem. There is even a picture book inside the temple with snapshots of visitors who have sent in pictures with their newborn infants, months after visiting the temple.
While Drukpa Kunley wasn’t widely accepted during his time, today he is worshipped for his bold ways and for the essence of his teachings. The locals continue to paint the phallus outside their homes to ward off evil spirits and invoke the fertility gods.

Reality or myth, Chimi Lakhang is a pleasantly shocking trip to make when in Bhutan. After all, don’t we all need a reminder to dispel stereotypes and conventions and follow our own paths to enlightenment? After listening to these stories dispelling the taboo associated with public displays of the penis, you’re sure to leave with a new perspective on things.
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