In Bhutan in the back seat of a Santa Fe SUV, our bodies gently swayed from side to side, kneaded by road bumps. “Massage roads,” is what Tashi, our Wind Horse driver, called the roads with potholes, switchbacks, steep drop-offs and slippage—essentially most roads in the country. The scenery was so spectacular it took us awhile to notice what was hanging right in front of us.
Three charms dangled from the rear-view mirror. A photo of Ngawang Namgyal, the man who united Bhutan. A blue-square pouch tied with an orange string to provide travel protection. And a small wooden phallus banging against the windshield with every bump. “Don’t ask about that one,” said Namgyel, our guide.
“How risqué,” you’re probably thinking. Not so fast.
The phallus has been a symbol of Bhutanese culture for six centuries. We frequently saw them painted on the exterior walls of people’s homes, hanging from the eaves of roofs and as good-luck charms, like the one in Tashi’s car.
In Bhutan, the perceived power of the phallic symbol stretches back to Lama Drukpa Kunley (1455-1529), commonly called the Divine Madman. Legend has it that he was born in Tibet, where he trained as a Buddhist monk after growing disillusioned by greed and hypocrisy and saddened by the death of his father in a family feud. In his 20s, he began the life of a mendicant, “giving up his Buddhist orthodoxy, finding it too stiff for his liking” as Susan Orlean writes. Wandering the countryside, he poked fun at dogmatic opinions, institutional hierarchies and political correctness, often through bawdy poetry delivered after he’d imbibed a few stiff rounds of the local chaang (booze). Our Wind Horse itinerary described him as “remembered more for the outrageous nature of his teachings using strong sexual overtones and inclinations. In Bhutan he is also a cultural icon around whom countless yarns of facts and fiction, and stories and legends have been spun.”
The Divine Madman’s unconventional teachings and “thunderbolt” powers are said to ward off evil spirits and transform them into protective deities, as well as to help couples procreate. “Happiness lies below the navel,” he’s quoted as saying.
Magellan, Namgyel and I traipsed along a dusty road through Pana Village and fertile fields to visit the Chimi Lhakhang Monastery, built in 1499 to honour the Divine Madman, while Tashi stayed behind with the car as always. (“Tashi, have you called your wife?” Namgyel would tease him. “It’s been 10 minutes.” Then he’d turn to us and say, “Chimi is so beautiful. If she were my wife I’d have trouble leaving her alone in Paro.”) I am not sure if Chimi is a “Chimi baby,” born to parents who have made a fertility pilgrimage to Chimi Lhakhang Monastery and been blessed by the resident lama with a silver-handled bamboo phallus.
Unless you are a professional with a special photography permit, you cannot take photos of the interiors of monasteries and temples in Bhutan. Murals, photos and at the altar, a towering statue of the Divine Madman ringed with flowers and necklaces, adorn the rectangular room filled with couples, young and not-so-young. Newborns and children, like the six-year-old girl in a pink hoodie who Namgyel talked to, are also brought here to be named—in her case, renamed and hopefully joined by a baby brother. After Magellan added a few hundred Ngu to the offerings of currency, cookies, candy, wine and plastic flowers, Namgyel told us to bow our heads onto which the lama in his burgundy robe poured a little holy water that trickled into our ears. Entitled now to a blessing, we silently (wondering about its efficacy for our niece) made our wishes.
Bhutan isn’t blessed with much of a road network and even today, nowhere in the country is there a traffic light. It takes more than five hours to travel the 130 km “Slow Massage” road between Punakha and Trongsa—and that was fast compared with our trip to the Tong valley, where every time I looked, the needle was hovering near 22 km/hour. With road construction and rest stops, the “All-Day Massage” road to Paro from Bumthang, a distance of 315 km, took Namgyel and Tashi 11½ hours– a return trip we chose to do by domestic air. There are only 10,000 km of paved and unpaved roads, mostly funded through the Asian Development Bank. By comparison, Nova Scotia, which has the same landmass (and 20% more people), has almost 30 times as many kilometres of roads. But it had a head start on Bhutan, which until the 1960s had only yak tracks before thousands of Nepalese labourers were brought in to build the country’s infrastructure.
Today Bhutan has about 77,000 vehicles, one for every ten people. Auto sales are on the rise. Since July 2014 when an import ban was removed, about 8,000 cars have been imported, half of them into Thimphu. With that many cars in the capital, more “Little Woodies” will be needed to ward off accidents. In 2010 Bhutan had 13.2 fatalities/100,000 people, more than double Canada’s rate but not bad on a worldwide scale. We never saw any reckless driving; everyone was as careful and considerate as Tashi. But on the road to the Pele la Pass, we came upon a large blue tent surrounded by about eight people, music blaring from within. Namgyel recognized a friend and discovered the group was in day 21 of 49 days of puja for the dead—in this case, for his friend’s father who had been killed in a car that plunged into the steep gorge below.
Bhutan’s steep mountains and abundant water help to create the country’s major source of revenue—hydroelectric power that’s sold primarily to India. With all that hydropower, the country has a laudable goal to become a world leader in the use of electric vehicles. But like here in B.C., there are few charging stations—and those few are found only in Thimphu.
No matter what kind of vehicle you’re riding in in Bhutan, you’re certain to get a charge out of the massage, the landscape, the people and the little woodies dangling and bobbing from rear-view mirrors.
Carpenter, Russ and Blyth. The Blessings of Bhutan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2002.
Orlean, Susan. “Fertile Ground”, The New Yorker: June 7, 1999, pages 58-65, http://archives.newyorker.com/?i=1999-06-07#folio=058, and My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been Everywhere. Random House: New York, 2005.
Pommaret, Francoise. Bhutan, Himalayan Mountain Kingdom. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009.
Reuters notices a few electric car bumps on the massage roads.