Standing in front of Punakha Dzong its mighty white walls, intricate red-patterned roofs, wood carvings, and the calmness that enveloped the entire atmosphere of the monastic fort complex, made time stand still. It was the penultimate day of my week-long adventure in Bhutan.
After a scenic four-hour drive to Paro, my guide Sherab Dorjee greeted us with a cheery “kuzo zangpo la.” Braving the chilly October winds, my friends and I set off for the base of the Taktsang trek.
The aura and mystery that surrounded the Taktsang—or Tiger’s Nest—Monastery had me hooked on Sherab’s narrative. In his heavy Bhutanese accent, he explained the age-old saga of how Guru Padmasambhava flew to the site on the back of a tigress from Thimphu to meditate. The monastery has been dedicated to him ever since.
Hidden behind a wall of clouds at 11,000 feet above sea level, Taktsang complemented its legend. Armed with bamboo sticks we set out for the 12-kilometre uphill trek. The greenery of the base was short-lived, as the barren mountainous terrain soon took over. The trail was scant, and loose soil and rolling stones marked just enough room for two people, this was also a bridle path. Occasionally, a horse or two could be seen carrying the elderly up to the cafeteria, halfway to the monastery.
The prayer flags fluttering in the wind formed a canopy of myriad colours above us as the bright sun shone down on the rolling valley of Paro beyond the edge. After an hour of trekking with no monastery in sight, the true expanse of the Himalaya began to dawn on me. You could be an adventure junkie seeking the adrenaline rush, a tourist wanting to visit the revered shrine, or a devotee on an enterprise for blessings, the journey was the same, our paths crossing each others’.
Throughout the trek, our trusty Sherab chewed on betel nuts, never once losing his breath. We, on the other hand, were huffing and puffing away. The guides around us eventually formed a collective of sorts, encouraging each other’s patrons through the trek. It was quite easy to spot the locals amid the swarms of tourists. Men in kimono-style ghos and women in wrap- around keras effortlessly made their way up the steep slopes.
Nearly two hours had passed and we had lost count of how many times we paused. “Come come, just a little bit more,” Sherab egged us on. “We’ll reach the rock there and stop,” he promised. By giving us incentives to keep walking and setting his own mini-goals, he kept us on our feet. Which was just as well because if we sat, our knees might lock and go numb. Although tired and in pain, the sun-kissed mountain views didn’t escape me. The birds were chirping, there was a faint chanting in the background, the guides were chatting around us, but it was a sublime mysticism that kept creeping over me. I had to see the hanging monastery. It was simply non-negotiable.
It was three hours later we were halfway up, nearly at the cafeteria. There was a young lady serving tea and biscuits and tourists bee-lined for the empty chairs. It was an intergenerational, international conference, of sorts. There were Buddhist devotees from Myanmar in grey religious cloaks and straw hats, professional trekkers with equipment, elderly folks on a post-retirement trip, honeymooning couples, and young friends like us, all huddled together, sharing photographs. Differences didn’t exist in light of the enterprise ahead.
I could see the monastery in the distance, could even touch it if I closed one eye. The clouds had passed from the front to form a halo behind it. The only things that separated me from it were three hours and some 700-odd steps. The promise of a photo-spot was Sherab’s next proposed mini-goal. We gave in and set out for the last leg of our climb.
A few kilometres into the trek we came across the Taktsang Zangdo Pari, or the caretaker’s house. It was where Padmasambhava’s wife—called the ‘Fairy of Wisdom’—lived. She, Yeshe Tshogyal, had founded the Mon, or the Taktsang Convent. Today, an old nun and her young apprentice act as the caretaker.
Miraculously, the path had gotten even narrower. Soon, true to his word, Sherab unveiled a breathtaking view of the monastery. Hanging from the edge of the mountain, it almost appeared to blend in with nature. We climbed a few more steps, deposited our phones and cameras, took off our shoes, and went inside the revered Taktsang Monastery.
We were greeted by monks tending to the butter lamps or brooming the premises, they were also talking to the guests or silently praying. Essential to Buddhist custom, the butter lamps must never die out. Time stood by like an onlooker as the humdrum of the world ceased to exist atop this mountain.
Built in the typical Bhutanese style of architecture, the monastery, with its beautiful floral motifs, hung loosely from the mountain cliff. I couldn’t wrap my head around how they constructed it back in the day. Sherab told us that a massive fire broke out in 1998 that destroyed large parts of the complex. The restoration went on for two years before the monastery was reopened.
Just when we were soaking up the breathtaking view and the serenity of the holy place, Sherab took us into a cave deep underground—the actual Tiger’s Nest—where Guru Padmasambhava’s tigress rested and lived. We crisscrossed down the wooden planks, more than a little scared. But after all that trekking all that way, there was no question of missing this part of my spiritual adventure. The atmosphere was enveloped by the loud hymns of the grey-cloaked devotees.
Spreading straw mats, they sat in front of the main altar and prayed with folded hands. The children, who were earlier running around, joined their parents in prayer. Devotion and spirituality mingled with nature in its purest form here. It was 5pm when we returned to our van, exhausted after trekking for nearly nine hours. The Taktsang Trek brought a myriad of people together, and the Bhutanese hospitality wove them into one.
Bhutan can be reached via direct and connecting flights from almost all major cities in India. International flights are also available to Paro International Airport. For a better experience, try getting a window seat on the right side while going, and on the left on your return journey to catch a glimpse of the Everest peak. You can also drive through India with an ‘entry permit’ via West Bengal, through New Jalpaiguri and in through the Phuensholing Border. This permit only allows you to visit Paro and Thimphu. To venture beyond, you must acquire a ‘special area permit’ from the Royal Government of Bhutan Immigration Office in Thimphu. It is also possible to arrange the visa from Kolkata at the Royal Bhutan Consulate Office.
In Paro, apart from the Taktsang Trek, you can drive to Chelela Pass and visit the National Museum of Bhutan. Bhutan is famous for its wooden souvenirs like wooden darts, wall hangings, masks and mythical figurines, and also traditional hand-painted ceramic wares. The capital city is well known for exquisite handmade gho and kera. They can range from thousands to a few lakh in price depending on the weaving, material, and detailing.