Taktsang Lhakhang, the name that’s a tongue twister for most non-residents, is Bhutan’s biggest draw. The Himalayan Kingdom’s most iconic tourist destination, landmark and religious address, the word “Taktsang” commonly translates to “The Tiger’s Nest”. Even before you start your trip to Bhutan, you are bound to see this beautiful site everywhere – on travel portals, brochures, hotel websites, government portals and anything to do with the “must-visits” in the Buddhist nation.
A brief history
It’s no small wonder that this precariously erected temple is rated high among the most revered = holy sites for the followers of Buddhism, globally. When I first saw the beautiful structure (which seemed quite small from 900 meters below) clinging impossibly to its sheer cliff face, I knew it was special. Why else would pilgrims from across the world trek all the way up the sharp incline, leaving the beautiful bounties of the Paro Valley deep down below?
“Paro Taktsang –a prominent Himalayan Buddhist sacred site and temple complex, located in upper Paro, hangs on a precipitous cliff at 3,120 meters (10,240 ft), about 900 meters (3,000 ft) above the valley. Taktsang Lhakhang is located approximately 10 km north of Paro town. In order to arrive at the temple, visitors must trek for around 2-3 hours through beautiful, shady pine forests.
It was first built in 1692 at a cave where Guru Rimpoche meditated in the 7th century A.D. Legend states that Guru Rimpoche flew to the site atop the back of a tigress and meditated in the cave for 3 years, 3 months, 3 days and 3 hours in order to subdue evil demons residing within it. The cave has been considered a sacred site ever since and many famous saints have travelled to meditate in it.”
The ups and downs, till we reached the top
Take it from me, the trek to the top is a difficult one but not impossible. On our way up, I came across many children, the elderly and ailing, professional trekkers and the usual devout. There was a common thread running through them all. The synergy created by the chants reverberating in thin air was the primary driving force that drove us all upwards, and forward. The first part of the climb was moderate and doable. It made the temple look bigger as we ‘seemingly’ came close to it. Interestingly at one point, when we were almost abreast in terms of altitude with the coveted monastery, we came upon a sharp drop.
“What?” “I thought we were just a few hundred steps away!”
A few hundred steps away we were, but in the literal sense of the term. Instead of walking straight to reach our destination, we had to brace ourselves for a “V” like drop with about 600 steps going down, and then up! As we kept stepping downwards, the temple started disappearing from our view. This was the most tedious part of the trek. Going low and lower after reaching so high was not something I had bargained for.
And then the dip arrived. It was a low that left me in tears. Now, we had to climb all the way up again to complete the arm of the V incline that led into the monastic premises.
From that point, the stairs shot upwards and straight making me remember the “Stairway to Heaven” – a tough green to play on at the Kalimpong Army Golf Course. I remember puffing and panting my way up the stairs with the air becoming rarefied and cooler in ascent. After what seemed like a never-ending hour (maybe more), we finally reached the top.
The best view came after the hardest climb
Lo and behold, just as it had disappeared from view, the magnificent Taktsang Monastery stretched out in front of our eyes in all its glory. Once the self-congratulatory feelings subsided and we caught our breath, our senses were left awe-stricken all over again.
There was lot that was mystical yet connecting, awe-inspiring but realistic, and unapologetically holy about the site. In all honesty, it was way too beautiful for my words to paint here. Most importantly, I found myself in a state of trance after sanctifying and entering the sacred inner sanctum. There was nothing here that was in common with the world that I had left behind and far below. The murals, idols, offerings, monks, scriptures, flowers, candles and the holy water – they all had their own story to tell.
We spent more than forty minutes sitting against a thick cold stoned wall in the most respected and holy part of the temple. I kept looking at the idol of Buddha and others flanking his sides. The experience was spiritual, overtly celestial and mind-blowing to say the least. I made mental notes to read about this wonderful monastery. I had to figure out a lot more about its architecture, history, religious values, and the idea behind Taktsang’s erection at such a strategic place.
Yes, I had merely managed to see the top of this iceberg!
Pointers to carry along
1. Carry a set of lock and key as you will not be allowed to take leather goods, passport, etc. inside the monastery. There are lockers present outside where you can stock your valuables.
2. Remember not to outpace yourself as you climb up or down. Walk at ease as your body may not be accustomed to steep gradients and climbs.
3. If you feel that you’re running out of breath, take rest. Do not drink water immediately. Wait for your heart beat to normalize before taking the first sips.
4. Carry a small bottle to collect the holy water from Taktsang.
5. Pack in high-energy giving edibles, fruit juices, few medicines, etc. If the weather looks unpredictable carry a raincoat and torch.
6. There are several things to observe and do after you reach the monastery. As the climb is long and difficult, do not be in a rush to head back. Ask for inputs for the “special features” of the monastery. For instance, there is a stone where wishes are believed to get fulfilled. You are blindfolded and asked to walk a small distance and place your finger on the stone. Touching the sweet spot can fulfil your desires. Try it out.
7. Once you are inside the monastery, find a tunnel wherein only one person can enter at a time. It leads to a triangular opening that opens into oblivion. If you have the nerves to peer down, you can see a whopping drop of thousands of feet into the forests below. It is said that the holy tigress sat here and kept a watch on the people of Paro below with a view of protecting them. Arvind, my husband, went through this tunnel and it was quite a nerve-wrenching experience. It was so narrow that there was no place to take a u-turn after reaching the opening. He had to back up on all fours to reach the light at the start of the tunnel!
8. You will find colts and horses taking tourists up and down the narrow paths leading to the monastery. They do not take you the whole way. Your ride ends at the V incline I wrote about earlier. This is the point where six hundred (phew!) plus steps plunge into the valley below. Thereafter, you have to walk down these steps and then climb an equal number upwards to get to the last leg of the trek. Plan accordingly.
9. Always carry the details of where you are staying or that of your friends below while on this trek. The information can come in handy if you feel sick or cannot make it forward on your own. Medical help is readily available en route.
10. Do not plan any other activity after finishing your trek except a spa or massage. Hot stone massages can be availed at many places to provide relief to your “oohs and aahs!” after the long day.
Not to be missed
Whenever you can, brace yourself for this trip of a lifetime. If religious instincts do not drive you up there, feed your adrenalin rush with the thoughts of an altogether new outdoor adventure. Whatever you do to get going, just go.
You will love what you see and feel.