Bhutan: In the Tiger's Nest

Get some face time with the head lama at the Tiger's Nest monastery, in the land that famously measures its wealth by Gross National Happiness

By James Draven
Published 16 Aug 2016, 09:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 14:31 BST
Tigers Nest Monastery.

Tigers Nest Monastery.

Photograph by James Draven

An arrow silently punctures the atmosphere. Hurtling through the air above a field the length of an unmown football pitch, tangled with wild-growing marijuana, it finds its mark, thudding into a target the size of a soccer ball.

With prayer flags, redolent of medieval banners, fluttering in the wind behind them, the archer and his teammates, dressed in knee-length robes, perform a choreographed celebratory dance, both jubilant and restrained. Wattle-and-daub farmhouses of wood-frame construction, along with swathes of first-growth pine forest on a ridge overlooked by the imposing Tiger's Nest temple, complete a tableau that could be England in the 15th century.

A mountain kingdom, out of time, Bhutan breeds some of the best archers in the world. TV didn't come here until 1999, around the same time the internet arrived, so they've had aeons undistracted by Dynasty and Peak Practice to… erm… practice.

It takes about three hours – after stopping en route to admire flag-strewn vistas of ancient perfection and spin spectacular prayer wheels – to make the serpentine, 3,000-foot climb to Taktsang Palphug, the proper name for the country's iconic Tiger's Nest monastery. I arrive just 45 minutes before the monks' lunch break, when the temple complex closes for an hour, but once inside – awestruck by towering golden gods, and exploring creaking, wooden shrine rooms, hazy and stained from butter-candle smoke – I'm so absorbed I can't help but dawdle. I've scarcely uncovered its secrets by the time the lunch bell rings.

The lama locks the door: he knows I'm going to stay. It's a real privilege to be allowed to remain in this sanctuary alone and experience it as it once was, before the prying eyes of the world wide web peeked in and brought legions of tourists.

He's silent. He offers me the chance to pray and reflect, anoints me with saffron-scented holy water, and gifts me with a necklace depicting Bhutanese deity, Guru Rinpoche.

We walk outside and, together with my guide, Chhimi, take in the views from the ramparts with hushed reverence. The lama's claret robes ripple in the Himalayan breeze against an emerald pine backdrop. The white specks of the surrounding monasteries in his charge are all that punctuates the verdant spread of nature. I'd make a great Buddhist; it's taken me just three hours to reach nirvana.

I point to the other monasteries: "You look after them all?" I ask. He nods.
"And you accept visitors every day?"

Finally, he speaks. And he's the least zen monk ever.

"At the moment I'm open seven days!" he rants. "I applied for us to get one day a week off, but the tour operators are trying to stop it," he adds, shooting a sideways glance at Chhimi.

Bhutan is a nation of marksmen, and both the pointed comment and sharp look hit their target, but the ever-equable Chhimi simply nods respectfully and, through a tranquil smile, she softly replies that it would be disappointing for international visitors to not be able to visit the temple.

"I've only got 40 monks working for me, and they are spread across all of these monasteries," he says, casting an arm around, the serenity of the scene the very antithesis to his irate expression, "but these tourism companies don't want us to rest!" He's probably going to pull down the average score a bit, come the country's next Gross National Happiness audit.

"How are they blocking you?" I ask.

He reaches into his cloak and produces a top-end smartphone from its depths, and barks: "They started a Facebook campaign!"

He and Chhimi exchange a smirk, and then both let out a muted chuckle.


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