Kaibos and Flaming Lake, Bhutan

Confluence of two rivers at Punakha Dzong

Colour: pearlescent pink  Mnemonic: TONDUE

Original Information and Clues: Kaibos, Himalayas

The original clue for this location was, as with many others, quite simple. Kaibos (also spelt Kaibosh, Kibosh and Kybosh) in the Himalayas. Perhaps this was a mountain pass, where the British had fought and lost a battle with local tribesmen, hence the saying ‘putting the kibosh’ on something? According to ‘Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable’, it means to put an end to something (Evans, 1981); with a suggested derivation from the Irish ‘Cie bais’ (pronounced bosh) or ‘cap of death’. Many of the people I spoke to about this location, corrected me and suggested I probably meant Mt Kailas; the sacred mountain of Tibet and, according to Robert Coon, the location of the Crown Chakra of the planet (Coon, 1968). But I knew Mt Kailas was not the location I was looking for. Kaibos was something different.

Later research and insights:

Following this early thinking, that the name Kaibos might relate to a pass through the Himalayas, I wondered whether it was in some way linked to the Khyber Pass, which is in the Safed Koh range on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan? Historically, the 33 mile long Khyber Pass was the gateway for invasions of the Indian Sub-continent from the Northwest; and Persians, Greeks, Mughals, Afghans and the British had all traversed it. There are other passes through the Himalayas of course. Perhaps Kaibos was in East Turkistan, which is now Chinese Turkistan and called XinJiang Uygur?

At this point, it’s worth introducing the deity of Guru Rinpoche; to help set the scene for the legends found; and many of the temples and sacred places visited during this journey.

Guru Rinpoche (Armington, 2002); is credited with many magical deeds; is regarded as the founder of Nyingma Buddhism; and hence, one of the most important religious figures in Bhutan’s past and present. Guru Rinpoche is an historical figure from the 8th century, whose birth was predicted by Sakyamuni, the Historical Buddha. He is regarded as the second Buddha and has several names, including the great tantric master Padmasambhava, Precious Master and Ugyen Rinpoche. He is also said to have had miraculous powers, including the ability to subdue demons and evil spirits. His visit to Bumthang in AD 746 is recognised as the true introduction of Buddhism to Bhutan; and his statue appears in almost all temples. It is said he left an impression of his body on the rock where he meditated near the head of the Choskhor valley in Bumthang, which is the site of the temple of Kurjey Lhakhang.

Guru Rinpoche is said to have had eight manifestations, or forms, which represent his eight main initiations. When he came to Bhutan the second time and visited Singye Dzong in Kurtoe; and Taktshang in Paro, he was in the form of Dorji Drakpo, or fierce thunderbolt; and is shown riding a Tigress. Legend has it that he fired arrows high into the air; and wherever the arrows landed there would be demons and malevolent spirits that were hindering the spread and practise of Buddhism. He went on to subdue all these evil spirits and to subsequently bless them as guardians of the doctrine.

According to legend, Guru Rinpoche designated twenty-one secret valleys in the Himalayas (Hitching, 1978), but rendered them invisible, to provide hidden retreats for the faithful in times of danger. Legend also says that each is to be used when a specific crisis occurs and will remain closed until that time. They are places where the enlightened can take refuge and, where sacred objects and texts are hidden away in times of danger, to await later discovery. Examples are said to include:

  • The Village of Jhang, SE of Halji (near the Nepal/Tibet border).The Lama of Jhang had, it is said, saved many treasures from the Chinese Red Guards, during the Cultural Revolution; when they wrecked shrines around Mt Kailash and the sacred Lake Manasarovar; and smashed the unique temples of Tsaparang.
  • The Monastery of Rinchenling, Halji, in north-western Nepal. This is said to be one of the few monasteries still standing, of the original 108 sacred Buddhist monasteries founded by the Guge Kingdom. Sadly, this 1,000-year-old monastery, and the nearby village of 80 stone and mud houses, are now threatened by glacial floods and climate change. 
  • The Monastery of Toling, which was known as ‘The Mother House’; located in the remote valleys of the Karnali peoples in the far west of Tibet, over 1,000 years ago. The Toling Monastery is on the Sutlej River NW of Mt Kailash and was founded in 996.
  • Tsaparang, was the name of the old Guge Kingdom capital, and located west of Toling. Carved out of a solid, isolated, monolithic mountain peak, it was founded in the 9th century and destroyed in 1685; but the eroded remains can still be seen to this day.

Legend also says that many of these ancient monasteries in the Himalayas were linked by underground tunnels (Hitching, 1978); and a complete tunnel complex was said to have existed beneath the holy city of Lhasa in Tibet too.

Perhaps Kaibos was a remote location in one of these hidden valleys, a monastery or even a sacred object, which was waiting to be discovered?

In the weeks leading up to my journey, three very distinct images were repeatedly shown to me in meditation. The first was of an old drum and a striker with a bell. Perhaps these were sacred relics that had been moved to a remote monastery in Bhutan for safe-keeping, when the Chinese Red Guards rampaged through Tibet? Was Kaibos perhaps the name of this ancient treasure, or the place it was to be found? Only time would tell.

The second image was of myself sitting in a suspended seat, with a fringed awning and a figure sitting next to me. The seat was on ropes that hung in space and was open all round with a spectacular view of mountains above and in front of us. The third image was similar, but this time I was sitting inside a cave in a rock face, high up a cliff. Again, someone was sitting next to me and we were looking out down a spectacular valley, with mountains on either side. In both situations, my companion was friendly, with a round, smiling face that I instinctively trusted. He appeared to be dressed in white, flowing, ankle-length robes, with bare feet. In later meditations, the figure next to me in the cave changed and became more like a statue than a person.

Bhutan, is known as the ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’; a land of impressive fortresses, or Dzongs, which dominate important routes through the landscape. These Dzongs are both centres of local government and protectors of the monastic communities, which live within them. It’s a country where selling cigarettes or plastic bags is illegal; and where giant protective penises are painted on house walls to bring fertility. Bhutan is the last remaining Himalayan Kingdom, where Buddhism is a key part of its culture and traditions; with the Dragon King, or Druk Gyalpo, responsible for the physical welfare of its citizens; and the Chief Lama, or Je Khenpo, responsible for their spiritual welfare.

In Himalayan Buddhism, consciousness exists as an unbroken stream from lifetime to lifetime and, is reborn into a new body, be it human, animal or insect, dependent on the good and bad actions accumulated in each lifetime. So, for the Bhutanese people, Buddhism is not a religion but a way of life. Individuals can gain merit in this lifetime by: adhering to the Buddhist moral code, which prohibits them from killing any living thing; and by performing personal and community-based tasks for the benefit of others. These can include spinning a prayer wheel at a temple (prayer wheels can contain thousands of prayers written on paper inside), contributing to the construction of religious monuments, supporting the monastic community, erecting prayer flags, witnessing ritual performances and dances by young monks, or reciting mantras and making pilgrimages to sites of sacred significance.

Applying the Buddhist moral code can have interesting outcomes. For example, the majority of inhabitants are rural farmers with farmhouses plagued by fleas in summer months. In the west we would simply spray the fleas and kill them. In Bhutan, a flea could be the reincarnation of a recently ‘departed’ relative, so people simply suffer the bites as ‘one of those hardships’ that must be endured. The principle of not killing anything also extends to the food they eat. The Bhutanese will eat meat, but it will more than likely be an Indian that slaughters and butchers it for them.

Bhutan is a country of the juxtaposition of old and new. It has an ancient history of legends and miracles, performed by deities that are worshipped daily by the majority of the population. Whilst modern hydro-electric power schemes now bring electricity to most people’s homes; and a new King, who was crowned in 2008, works alongside a recently established democratic parliament. It is a country in transit.

Following the clues on the ground: November/December 2004

A trip to Chinese controlled Tibet seemed highly unlikely; and Nepal didn’t entice me either: but in the summer of 2004, I came across a story of a journey to Bhutan and was immediately intrigued. Although Bhutan was in the eastern Himalayas, perhaps it was somehow linked to Kaibos; and this remote, geographical area was where I should focus my search? For some reason it felt just right. My trip was booked through a small travel company called Far Fung Places, which, although based in San Francisco, was run by folks who were practising Buddhists and worked together with local guides and drivers to deliver an intimate, personal service. This would be an ideal way to explore the country and my trip was set for late November.

The Geography of Bhutan

Bhutan is a small country the size of Switzerland, about 190 miles across and 105 miles from north to south, with mountains across the centre and north; and located on the southern slopes of the eastern Himalayas. It is a landlocked country, between the Tibet Autonomous Region of China to the north; the Indian states of Sikkim, West Bengal, and Assam to the west and south; and Arunachal Pradesh to the east. The land is mostly steep, high mountains, crisscrossed by a network of swift rivers (called chhus) that form deep valleys, before flowing south into the Brahmaputra. Most Bhutanese rivers have created large fertile valleys such as those of Paro, Punakha, Thimphu, Haa and Bumthang. Elevations rise from 200 m (660 ft) in the southern hills to more than 7,000 m (23,000 ft) in the foothills of the Himalayas to the north. The majority of travellers arrive by air, flying courtesy of Druk (dragon) Air, into the western town of Paro, Bhutan’s only airport. In November 2004, the captain proudly announced we were flying in one of two new Aerobus 319’s, specifically built to land on narrow, short runways at high altitudes. The plane banked and dipped sharply and passengers gasped, as a glance out the window showed wing tips, seemingly metres away from barren mountainsides. We landed safely on what looked like a miniscule airstrip, jammed between a mountainside and the Paro River.

Guides, drivers, transport and roads:  

Karchung, our guide, introduced himself to us at the airport and it soon became apparent he was very experienced and well-respected. Our transport would be a 10-seater minibus, with room at the back for plenty of luggage; and our driver, Chenche, also proved to be highly experienced at driving the challenging mountain roads we encountered along the way.

Over the centuries, two major road routes have emerged in this rugged terrain: one north-south, with links from India to the capital Thimphu and on into Tibet; and one east-west, crossing six mountain ranges to link the poorer, rural eastern side with the ‘richer’ west and the capital. In 2004, the majority of roads were very narrow, similar to British single-track roads, that hug the mountainsides in a non-ending series of tortuous hairpin bends, with sheer drops on one side and solid rock faces on the other. Our speed averaged between 20 and 30m.p.h, because we were always slowing down for blind bends, fallen rocks, wandering animals and oncoming traffic. Our driver was excellent and very careful, but we often felt sorry for travellers in the small Toyota taxis that careered around bends at break-neck speed. Not for nothing were they nicked-named ‘vomit comets’.

Our plan, for the next 12 days, was to head east from Paro, exploring Thimpu, the pass at Dochu La, Punakha, Trongsa and into the central province of Bumthang to explore Jakar and the ancient monastery of Jampey Lhakhang; then to return to Paro to explore the western pass of Chele La and the magnificent, restored monastery of Taktshang Goemba, or Tiger’s Nest.

On leaving the airport at Paro, our first stop was to watch an archery contest. The Bhutanese are passionate about their national sport of archery, or dahtse as it is known; and nearly all villages in the kingdom boast an archery range. We watched as two teams, in traditional dress, took turns to shoot at small wooden targets placed 140m apart. It’s worth noting here that the Olympic standard range is 50m. Because the distance is so great, team members gathered dangerously close to the target, to yell back to the archer to tell him how good his aim was. This was accompanied with howls, chanting, encouragement and jokes; whilst members of the opposing team made ribald remarks about the archer’s parentage or sexual prowess. Every time an arrow hit the target, which seemed to happen surprisingly often, the team mates performed a celebratory dance in front of the target, whilst singing the praises of the archer, who then tucked a coloured scarf into his belt. Whilst the setting was rural, and traditionally, long bamboo bows were used; the bows in use here were imported, state of the art, carbonite Hoyt brand ones, with complicated-looking pulley systems that released the arrows at tremendous speeds. Our guide, explained that women are not allowed to touch an archer’s bow; and it is said to decrease performance if an archer sleeps with a woman the night before a contest.

As I watched the archers shooting their arrows into the air, I realised their bows looked very similar to the symbol for this energy pumping station, so perhaps the legend of Guru Rinpoche firing arrows into the air was a major clue to its location?

What follows is a summary of the main locations, in the sequence visited; as various clues presented themselves.

Travelling eastwards through Dochu La and the drive to Punakha

Dochu La is a major mountain pass, elevation 3050m. The moment I stood on the summit of this pass and looked out north towards Jhomulhari, a sacred mountain on the border with Tibet, I immediately felt the soft but familiar presence and link in to the World Female Dragon Line. Whilst it was unexpected, it made absolute sense. I was aware the line flowed south-east from Moscow and through Tibet; but clearly it continued South-eastwards through Bhutan, before flowing on towards the crossover point at Bali and on to Uluru in Australia.

Jhomulhari (also spelt Jhomolhari) is a very sacred mountain, and the home of the protective deity of the Paro valley. One legend says that Guru Rinpoche spent a night on this mountain on his way to Tibet. In the distance to the north and north-west, were spectacular views of the Bhutanese mountains, which are the lower part of the Himalayas. I’m told the Tibetan border is 10km further north beyond these mountains, although the border is not marked in any way except on a map, and is often disputed by the Chinese.

In 2003 the Bhutanese Government, at the request of the Indian Government, had managed to flush out Indian insurgents and guerrilla units operating in Southern Bhutan. The insurgents were handed over to the Indian Government, with great success and very little, loss of life. The then First Queen, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, decided they should celebrate this success and called on the people of Bhutan to build 108 sacred chortens, known as the Druk Wamgyal Khang Zhang Chortens on Dochu La. The surrounding forest was cleared, leaving the tallest trees intact, and in 4 months the project was completed. Everyone gave of their spare time, labour, materials, etc. to build the chortens and the site is now even more revered than before. It was a labour of love, which earned everyone who took part, ‘merit’ in this life, which would go forward to help them in the next. Since my visit in 2004, a new temple complex was completed in June 2008, called Druk Wangyal Lhakang, to celebrate 100 years of monarchy in Bhutan.

It was very peaceful sitting at the top, just quietly observing the views. Each of the guides had left the tourists they were accompanying to explore the site; whilst they made a clockwise perambulation of the chortens, some saying mantras, which would earn even more merit. It occurred to me that this ‘religious observation’, which we saw many times at all the temples along the way, and performed by guides, tourists and pilgrims alike, was helping to keep the energy pathways clear and the energy flowing freely through the landscape. We always went around clockwise and to the left of stupas, chortens, prayer flags, temples and mani walls; Karchung himself, said they never went anticlockwise, because that was against the (energy) flow.

On the hillside above the new chortens, were hundreds of prayer flags, all in the traditional Bhutanese colours of green for earth, red for fire, blue for water, white for air and yellow for wood. For me, this hillside clearly carried the energy flow southwards. It was a very special place. Unprompted, Karchung mentioned this was his favourite place too and he often came up here at weekends with his daughters to meditate and walk amongst the trees on the hill.

All mountain passes are considered to be sacred and local peoples believe their protective deities live in these places. It is said that in olden days, no one could go through Dochu La at night; and people still talk about its demon threatening travellers if they tried. The Divine Madman is said to be the one who subdued the demon of this pass.

Just before Punakha, we parked the minibus at the village of Sopsokha then walked for 20 minutes across terraces and through the tiny village of Pana, before climbing up to the temple of Chimi Lhakhang, or The Divine Madman.

Temple of Chimi Lhakhang, The Divine Madman

The Divine Madman, or Lama Drukpa Kunley (1455-1529), is one of Bhutan’s favourite saints. Born in Tibet and trained at Ralung Monastery, he was a contemporary and disciple of Pema Lingpa (see section on Jakar). It is said that when preparing for a journey, he always fired an arrow into the air, to see in which direction he should go. He travelled throughout Bhutan and Tibet as a ‘neljorpa’, or yogi; using songs, humour and outrageous behaviour to dramatize his teachings. He believed both the clergy of the time and social conventions were too rigid, so his teaching was a kind of ‘crazy wisdom’ using jokes and outlandish behaviour that many found shocking, insulting, or even obscene. It is said he had three enjoyments in life: girls, alcohol and hunting animals. The latter was particularly abhorrent to Buddhists, who would not kill a fly. His lascivious sexual appetite, was said to have never been sated. But these outrageous actions and sexual antics were a deliberate way of provoking people to discard their preconceptions; plus, he also had fun! One legend tells of how he killed a dog with the soul of a demon, then buried it in a Stupa, which is now the centre of the Chimi Lhakhang temple complex. His approach was to emphasise the difference between practising religion from the heart and practising it by rote.

Our guide told the story of a competition between the monks and Lamas of Bhutan, versus those of Tibet. Both sets of clergy sat in their finest robes and were challenged to bring the bones that were put in front of them, back to life. The divine madman sat at the end of the row dressed rather scruffily, so no-one was taking any notice of him. As the story goes, a mixed set of bones was put in front of him from a goat and a cow and from these he made the takin, an animal unique to Bhutan. In reality, I have to say, it looks more like a cross between a cow and a yak.

The Takin – an animal unique to Bhutan

On another occasion, he received a blessing thread to hang around his neck, but wound it round his penis instead, saying he hoped it would bring him good luck with many more ladies. At the same time, he is quoted as saying, that if a pretty girl was attracted to his manhood, then she was clearly a demon, so he would kill and free her from her demonic existence. But this then of course begs the question of whether all the recipients of his sexual exploits ended up dead? These exploits are legendary and the flying phalluses painted on houses and hanging from rooftops are said to be his.

Punakha

The climate of Punakha, at an elevation of 1200m, is much warmer than that further west; and so it is the winter home for the monks and the theocracy. It is also a very prolific food growing area. We saw terraces of rice and winter wheat; and vegetable gardens with spring onions, broccoli, spinach, and turnips (mainly fed to the animals). There were also lots of flowers; with poinsettias in bloom, spiky agave plants, flowering cacti and small birds flitting backwards and forwards between them. Fruit like oranges and bananas also grow in abundance.

Punakha Dzong sits on a promontory, at the confluence of two rivers. This was the second most important of Bhutan’s dzongs and is now a seat of government, as well as the home of the monk body during winter. The construction of the dzong was foretold by Guru Rinpoche, who predicted that a person named Namgyal would arrive at a hill that looked like an elephant. It is said the river confluence looked like the tip of the trunk of a sleeping elephant, with its body up in the hills behind. Construction began in 1637 and was completed the following year; when the complex was named Punthang Dechen Phodrang, or Palace of great happiness.

The fast-flowing Pho Chhu comes from the right, and carries the male energy. It has many rapids and upstream glacial melt caused the river to flood its banks in 1999, sweeping away part of the old dzong, the old town and many old houses and buildings. A new barrier wall has since been built, with trees planted on top, in an effort to stop this happening again. The river from the left is the Mo Chhu and it carries the female energy, which is softer and deeper. All the shops, facilities and houses, which were swept away, have been rebuilt in the new, nearby town of Khuruthang. The area opposite the dzong on the side of the Mo Chhu still has some houses and the hospital, but the plan is for these to be moved too. The rivers combine to become the Punak(ha) Sang Chhu, which flows southwards to eventually link up with the Brahmaputra.

At the entrances to all dzongs, temples and monasteries, etc. there are always three things:

  • An entrance portal
  • One or more prayer wheels either side of the main entrance.
  • An urn for burning incense or wood for the purification of all who enter

Goembas and Lhakhangs:

Goemba: is a monastery in Dzongkha (the National language of Bhutan). Goembas are often located in remote, sacred places, where monks can find peace and solitude – so are found on rocky crags or remote hillsides. Some goembas were built in sacred caves, which were places of meditation. For example, Takshang (or Tiger’s Nest) in Paro and Kurjey in Bumthang. Both are places where Guru Rinpoche is said to have meditated for extended periods. All goembas are different, but possess certain common features. They are self-contained communities with a central Lhakhang, or temple and separate quarters for sleeping. The Lhakhang is at the centre of a dochey, the inner courtyard of a dzong, which is used as a dancing area by monks during festivals.

Lhakhang: is a temple and the word refers to the building itself and the room inside that’s the primary chapel. A Lhakhang has a cupola and gilded ball-shaped ornament, or serto, on the roof. It also has a paved path around the circumference of the building, so pilgrims can walk around the perimeter. On the outside wall are racks of prayer wheels which monks and pilgrims, or devotees, spin as they circumnambulate the building. The entrance to a Lhakhang is through a raised veranda, called a gorikha, and covered with murals that usually depict the guardians of the four directions, or a wheel of life. Entry is through a painted wooden door, which sometimes opens to an assembly hall/area, called a tshoklang; and at the far end is an elaborately decorated, two-tiered altar called a choesham, with a gilded statue that is the focal point of the Lhakhang. We saw all sizes of Lhakhang and altars on our travels.

Dzongs often include a Goemba; for example, both Punakha and Trongsa Dzongs have important monasteries; and can have multiple Lhakhangs; again Punakha and Trongsa Dzongs have multiple temples.

Punakha Dzong can only be reached from the western (Mo Chhu) side by a small suspension bridge. We started by walking clockwise round the old Dzong building, moving the prayer wheels as we went. It had highly decorated wooden sections and rafters, with gold leaf covered garudas and dragons as ‘gargoyles’ on the four corners of each roof.

The then current Chief Monk was a reincarnated Lama called Jeyshendo; and, because he was in residence, we had to have a permit to enter the Dzong, all organised in advance by Karchung. We climbed up steep wooden steps, designed to be pulled up at night, to an entrance area with brightly coloured wall paintings and two giant prayer wheels, which we turned. At the main entrance, was a heavy wooden door, which again could be closed at night.

The first courtyard housed all the regional administrative functions, including Punakha Court and, at the far end, was a giant, sacred fig tree. The second courtyard was the monastic quarter and where the utse, or central tower that is the heart of a Lhakhang, is located. Again, the brightly coloured wood of the buildings was covered in dragons and other animals. In this second courtyard there was also a small ‘shrine’ in one wall, surrounded by painted serpents; and another copper doorway burnished with gold. Everywhere we went the air was filled with birds and birdsong. At the far end of the third and southernmost courtyard, was the Hundred Pillar Congregation Hall.

Again, the wood was brightly decorated and the walls themselves were covered in four giant murals. The 54 internal pillars were the main supports for the building and each was made from a tall cedar/cypress tree burnished with copper and gold and covered in dragons. To the right, at the far end inside the hall, were the 108 Holy Scriptures stored in their long, glass fronted holes. 108 volumes of the Kanjur, the holy book of the Drukpa Kagyu lineage, and said to be written in gold.

Jakar and Bumthang Province

In 2004, less than 50% of the tourists visiting Bhutan ventured east of Punakha, to Trongsa; and fewer still visited Bumthang. The Black Mountains in the west form a natural barrier and the only route through is the pass of Pele La. To the east is a chain of near vertical hills, with a single, narrow road through the mountain pass of Trumseng La, which marks the border between the provinces of Bumthang, Lhuentse and Mongar.

Bumthang province is considered to be Bhutan’s cultural heartland, with a sacred landscape dotted with palaces, ancient temples and monasteries. The name Bumthang means a flat valley (a thang) shaped like a treasure vase (a bumpa), or container of holy water usually found on the altar of a Lhakhang. The Bumthang Chhu drains four culturally rich river valleys, which are also very fertile; before joining the Mangde Chhu in the southern tropical jungle province of Zhemgang. Because the dzongs and most important temples are in the large Choskhor valley, it is commonly referred to as the Bumthang valley. In the 8th century, the Indian Sindhu Raja, one of the most important kings of Bumthang, was converted to Buddhism by Guru Rinpoche; although Bumthang continued to be a separate kingdom, ruled from Jakar Dzong, until the time of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 17th century.

Once we’d crossed the pass into Bumthang province, the energy changed distinctly. The fields were much bigger and there were no terraces for growing rice. Plus, the roads were much straighter and, as we drove along the longest, straightest road in Bhutan, it felt very strange not to be weaving around corners and hairpin bends.The road continued east through the apple orchards of Mangarand into blue pine forests, followed by a short climb to Kiki La (2860m), which was marked by a chorten and prayer flags. Then over the ridge into the Choskhor valley (or Jakar valley) towards Bumthang Chhu and the town of Chamkar, the local name for Jakar, which is the major trading centre for the region and our base for the next two days and nights.

That evening I asked our guide and the ex-governor of Bumthang, who was our host, about Kaibos; and showed them the symbol for this location. I also explained this was a spiritual quest and how and why I came to be in Bhutan. Neither of them seemed to be fazed by anything I said at all, although they could possibly just have been very polite! Neither the name Kaibos, or any derivation of it, rang any bells with them; as far as places, or names of sacred relics was concerned. They suggested the symbol could be of an ancient bow, confirming my thoughts from the very first day at the archery contest; with the three lines signifying: picking up the arrow, aiming it at 45° in the sky and firing it. The ex-governor also suggested a couple of places in northern Bhutan, near the border with Tibet, that could be possible locations for remote monasteries. Both Khenpajong and Singye Dzongs, in Lhuentse province, were on possible ancient routes through the Himalayas where sacred relics might be stored for safekeeping. They are places, which are seldom visited by foreign travellers and Bhutanese alike; but are in some of the poorest parts of the country.

Kurjey Lhakhang

Kurjey Lhakhang: The following morning, we visited the Kurjey Lhakhang complex, with its three temples. The oldest is the furthest to the right and was built in 1652 by Mingyur Tenpa when he was Penlop, or governor, of Trongsa. This is the place where it is said Guru Rinpoche meditated, leaving an imprint ‘jey’ of his body ‘kur’ in the rock of a cave; and this rock was still visible in the wall of the outer room of the temple. I wasn’t given permission to enter the temple by its guardians, so stayed in the outer room, contemplating the rock. As I watched, various images appeared: including a monkey, an upside-down face of Buddha which was smiling, and a hamster. Several of the faces looked tired and weary, as if they had had their time and wanted to move on. So, I asked the guardian energies of this place to channel through whatever energy was appropriate for them. Growing out the back and top of the temple was an old cypress tree, with what looked like the head of a dragon; which legend says grew from Guru Rinpoche’s walking stick.

Tamshing Monastery (means: Temple of the Good Message);also known as Tamshing Lhendup Chholing, was built in 1501 by Pema Lingpa, who was himself a reincarnation of Guru Rinpoche, the second Buddha. Legend says he had the help of five Khandroms, or female celestial beings, who made many of the statues inside. We arrived at lunchtime and as we entered the monastery, around 20 monks were eating a meal of rice and curried vegetables. Unlike the often-pristine monastery buildings further west, these were crumbling and clearly in need of some repair. Karchung explained that the Lama of this monastery was away in Eastern Bhutan helping some of the even poorer monasteries.

Terton Pema Lingpa (1450 – 1521) was one of the 5 great tertons of Nyingma Buddhism; and the most important terton in Bhutan. A terton was a discoverer of ‘terma’, the sacred texts and artefacts hidden by Guru Rinpoche. The name Pema Lingpa means ‘the seeker of treasures’, or ‘treasure discoverer’. The texts and artefacts Pema Lingpa found, the dances he composed and the art he produced, are an important part of Bhutan’s heritage.

Once inside the monastery, the main temple building was small. There were no great ornate things here, or items of burnished copper as we had seen further west. Around the outside of the inner temple, we walked past walls covered in yellow wall-hangings, behind which were very old paintings. These are believed to be original, un-restored images painted by Pema Lingpa himself, although recent research has uncovered even older paintings beneath them. Some were still fairly visible, but many were in a sad state. They are not going to be restored, instead they are going to be left as is, until they disappear completely. The inner temple was like a small chapel in the centre of an assembly hall, which had three thrones for the three incarnations (body, mind and speech) of Pema Lingpa. During important ceremonies, the reincarnations sit here, although a statue is substituted if one of the incarnations is not present. Pema Lingpa was a short man and it’s said the low ceilings of the surrounding balcony, or upper floor, were built exactly to his height.

The inner temple itself was even smaller and dedicated to Guru Rinpoche, who sat centre stage with eyes that stared and mesmerized. Apparently, the eyes are meant to be looking upwards, following the angels in their flight. In all the other statues we’ve seen, the eyes are shown looking downwards. In Buddhism, Angels are known as Celestial Beings; and Khandrom, are female celestial beings. It is said this statue of Guru Rinpoche was sculpted by the Khandroms. The statue is also unique, in that the Guru is not wearing shoes. On his right is Jampa (as in Jampey Lhakhang which we saw the next day), or Maitreya, the Buddha of the future. On his left is Sakyamuni, the original Buddha. Above the altar, i.e., above Guru Rinpoche’s head, were two crocodiles and a Garuda, a griffin-like animal that eats snakes. On the walls were paintings of the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche, four on each side.

There was a very strong masculine energy here, which our guide suggested was because he was angry at having to suppress so many demons. Just outside the temple was a cloak of chain mail, which pilgrims would put on and walk three times round the outer temple area, to earn future merit. Apparently, it weighs 25-30kg. It is said Pema Lingpa made the chain mail himself, along with many of the clay statues on display; he was a very skillful artisan.

The Legend of the Ogress in the Landscape (Armington, 2002): when the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo married the Chinese princess Wencheng in 641, a part of her dowry was a statue called Jowo; which was an Indian image of the Buddha, Sakyamuni as a small boy. As the statue was being transported through Lhasa, it became stuck in the mud and could not be moved. The princess divined that the problem was being caused by a huge supine ogress (also referred to as a demoness) lying on her back, with her navel in the place where Lhasa’s cathedral, the Jokhang, now stands. In 659 the king decided to build 108 temples in a single day to pin the ogress to the earth forever and, at the same time, convert the Tibetan people to Buddhism. The head of the ogress was to the east, and her legs were to the west, so temples were constructed at the shoulders and hips, which corresponded to the four districts of central Tibet. The knees and elbows of the ogress were in the provinces, which were also duly pinned and the people converted. The arms and legs lay in the borderlands of Tibet; and several temples were built in Bhutan to pin down the left leg. The best known of these temples are Kyichu Lhakhang in Paro, which holds the left foot; and Jampa, or Jampey Lhakhang in Bumthang, which pins the left knee.

Jampey Lhakhang: is the oldest temple in Bhutan, built in 659AD. This is a major pilgrimage site and whilst we were there, two old men and an old woman were working their way around the outside, saying mantras, turning prayer wheels and carrying a little pot of holy water. The temple is dedicated to Maitreya, the future Buddha (a 5th Dimensional being), and had a wonderful, welcoming feel to it. Once inside the temple, the statue of Maitreya also had a very welcoming energy, very different from that of Guru Rinpoche at Tamshing Monastery, the previous day; and I immediately felt a heart connection and surge of energy. The caretaker took the white silk scarves, our guide had given to each of us beforehand; and placed them over the hands of the statue for the blessing of holy water. Once outside again, I felt a distinctive WSW-ENE flow of soft feminine energy through the temple complex.

Taktshang Goemba: from Jakar we headed back westwards to Paro and three days later we left our hotel around 9am to drive up the Paro Valley, through several little villages and then across a bridge over the Paro River. For two to three km, we travelled along a new road, which was built to give access for transporting building materials to Taktshang Goemba, or Tiger’s Nest. The original temple burnt down in 1998 after an incident with a butter lamp. Repair work started in 2000 and it is now, at the end of 2004, completely restored and awaiting re-consecration.

The start of our climb, on foot, was along a trail, which passed through blue pines, before switching back steeply up to a cafeteria at 2940m. In places, the trail had dirt steps, worn by the footprints of monks, tourists and builders alike. In others, it was a dirt runnel, where the rain had cascaded down and washed away any semblance of a path. We stopped for a cup of tea at the cafeteria; and to enjoy the spectacular view of the temples perched high on the rocks directly above us. To the right, and slightly above the main temple complex, was another man-made wall built into the rock. Our guide explained this was a smaller temple. Apparently, the main temple complex is built around a cave where Guru Rinpoche is said to have meditated, after flying to this elevated spot on the back of a Tigress, hence the name ‘Tiger’s Nest’. I felt an immediate connection to this smaller temple, which appeared to be the viewpoint I had been taken to in meditation; and clearly, I had been ‘seeing’ it before the current wall was built. Our guide informed me it wasn’t the Bhutanese custom to have statues out in the open, so what I’ve been experiencing doesn’t appear to fit the ‘agreed’ view, but that’s nothing new.

I was going to stop at the cafeteria, but am persuaded to go up to the main lookout, whilst our companions continue on up to the temple complex itself. The trail to the main lookout sometimes had inclines of 30-60˚; so, I took my time, walking slowly and resting often. I was glad I decided to go the extra distance, because it was a beautiful route. Along the way we passed over small mountain streams, as they gurgled their way towards the river in the valley below; and huge, old, oak-type trees, with bands of wispy lichen; like old man’s beards, floating in the wind. Some of the trees grew out of huge granite rocks. I said ‘hello’, often, asking permission to continue on. Permission given. Occasionally, groups of monks ran past, going both up and down, with effortless ease. There was even a group of nuns on the way down, dressed exactly the same as the monks and with short, cropped hair; but with slightly softer features and build. Our guide enlightened me: monks and nuns can do anything except: have sex, or kill any living thing, be it animal, bird, insect or person. They are even allowed to drink alcohol and chew betelnut.

My climb finally stopped at the lookout point directly across from the temple complex. It was next to the ‘cable car’ point, used to transport building materials from the car parking area in the valley below. I say ‘cable car’, but it’s actually a wire basket and totally unsafe to be used to carry humans. But it did remind me of the suspended seat hanging in space, that I had been seeing in meditation. From this vantage point, I could see many wonderful rock beings and so I asked permission to rest and stay here. The answer was a resounding ‘yes’. There was one, very prominent rock being, clearly visible above the temple complex, and according to Bhutanese legend, this is an Elephant deity. The rock directly above the temple complex is its head, whilst the mountains up behind form its back and lead up to the Sky Burial place; and its trunk is the rocks below. To my eyes, the rock looks more like the head of a dragon, with its snout pointing downwards – but then I am biased.

I sat at the lookout point, dressed up against the chill wind, whilst the others descended the stone steps, all 477 of them, to a small temple in a rock crevice, which is at the apex of the chasm. Another, similar number of steps then climbs up to the Temple complex itself. I’m told later, that the inside was highly decorated; but sadly, the temple built around the original cave was locked and the caretaker wasn’t around to let them in. They did however, see huge statues, newly burnished with gold. The current plan is for this newly refurbished temple complex to be reconsecrated by the end of 2004.

As I sat there, I kept being called to the little temple above and to the right of the main complex. All that was visible was a white wall with what looked like windows and a door in the rock face. It felt very much as if this was the location of the figure with the feet that I had seen in my meditations. The figure had large legs, which went down in front to the floor, i.e., standing like the statue of Guru Rinpoche we saw at Tamshing Monastery in Bumthang Province; it was not sitting cross-legged like other Bhutanese statues. Our guide reiterated that the Bhutanese don’t normally have their statues in the open, they are all in buildings; but suggested that perhaps the original cave, before the temple was enclosed, was like this?

Energy Pumping Station location and description:

Membartsho, or Flaming Lake as it is also known, is really a wide section in the Tang Chhu (river), that flows south from the northern mountains of Bumthang province; and eventually joins up with the Bumthang Chhu. This sacred location had not been on our original itinerary, but after our stay at Jakar Lodge, our guide decided it would be worth a visit. Perhaps it was something I’d said that triggered an old memory? Access was via a narrow, rickety bridge and winding footpath, that led to an area festooned with old, frayed prayer flags. The wooden bridge provided a good vantage point to view the lake and perhaps see the temple that is said to be hidden in its depths. After crossing over, we scrambled upstream to a spot where there was a deep, round hole in the rock. Looking around, it was clear many of the rocks had been eroded by the constant movement of water and pebbles flowing downstream. At the point just before the river enters the small, but calm lake, there were obvious eddies, which caused the stones and pebbles to rotate in a vortex and wear away these holes in the bedrock. This one was about 8ft deep and said to be used as a ‘punishment cell’, where penitent people were placed. In the process of getting out they would inevitably hurt themselves; and it seems the more pain and the more hurt they experienced, the greater the salvation and ‘brownie points’ they could earn. Off to one side was a large rock with a carving of Pema Lingpa and his two sons. Below the carved rock was a cave that virtuous people are said to be able to crawl through, whatever their size; but I wasn’t tempted to explore this small dusty space.

Legend has it, that at the age of 25, Pema Lingpa had a dream in which a monk gave him a scroll, in a fairy script, that instructed him to take five companions and go to a point at the bottom of the Tang valley, where he would find a treasure (Armington, 2002). On the night of the full moon, along with his younger brothers, he went to the place where the river forms a large pool that looks like a lake. After standing on a large rock for a while, gazing into the lake, he saw a temple with many doors, but only one was open. He plunged naked into the lake and entered a large cave where there was a throne with a seated, life-size statue of Lord Buddha and many large boxes. An old woman with one eye handed him one of the chests; and he suddenly found himself back standing on the rock at the side of the lake, holding the treasure; a scroll written in fairy text. The excited brothers returned home, where their father suggested Pema Lingpa go to a monastery to pray for help in deciphering the text. He eventually managed to translate the scroll, but it was a huge project, because in the fairy script one word is said to stand for 1,000 words and each has a deeper meaning. Later, assisted by the Khandroms, he used the text as a basis for his teachings. During his life, Pema Lingpa found a total of 34 statues, scrolls and sacred relics hidden by Guru Rinpoche, many of which are now preserved in Lhakhangs throughout Bhutan.

The original terma, or scroll had instructed him to return to the lake to find more treasures, hidden by Guru Rinpoche. His second and most famous discovery was in 1496 and there are several versions of this story. On arriving at the lake, he declared it was too early to retrieve the treasure hidden beneath the water’s surface, because it hadn’t matured. The timing was wrong. The King insisted he retrieve it, believing whatever lay beneath the waters of the lake would be a great and valuable treasure. Pema Lingpa took a lighted butter lamp and is said to have proclaimed ‘If I am a genuine revealer of treasures, then may I return with it now, with my lamp still burning. If I am some devil, may I perish in the water’. He entered the lake with the butter lamp on his head, which floated as he went below the surface, then settled back on his head again as he rose out of the water, carrying a lump of clay. The King was angry at such a ‘poor’ treasure, and insisted that Pema Lingpa open it, so he could see what was inside. Pema Lingpa refused and the King broke it open with his sword. The sword cut across the shoulders of each of the three statues of Buddha that had been hidden inside the lump of clay; and the statues spoke a prophecy: that Pema Lingpa would have a short life-time and all his reincarnations would be short too; and that the King would die, plus all his family would die out. From that day on the lake became known as Membartsho or Flaming Lake.

Rock Beings upstream of the Flaming Lake of Pema Lingpa – how many can you see?

Standing amongst the boulders to one side of the lake, I could see there were many beings in the rocks both up and downstream. At the time, it was a case of aim and shoot, whilst keeping a precarious balance on the damp, smooth surfaces beneath my feet. I was surprised by the number of rock beings upstream that chose to present themselves; and still today, many years later, I see more and more every time I look at this picture. And I wasn’t the only one. When I showed the pictures to Karchung he too could see the rock beings when I pointed them out, as have countless others who have subsequently viewed it.

Upstream, the water flows swiftly through a narrow passage, before entering ‘the lake’, where it is very deep and clear. This was a lovely spot, with a lively energy that zinged through my body. Thinking about this later, it became clear that the river which runs through Flaming Lake, with its legends of treasures hidden by Guru Rinpoche and later found by Pema Lingpa; might at one time have linked to a special energy location in the Himalayas. But the energy pumping station is now located here in Bhutan, where many ancient, sacred scrolls and statutes are stored in Bhutanese Temples for safe-keeping. The gorge upstream and the lake combined, were in fact the place I was searching for.

Local geology: Taken from Lonely Planet (Armington, 2002)

Millions of years ago, Bhutan was an open expanse of shallow water on the edge of the Tethys Sea; and the land that became the Tibetan plateau, or ‘roof of the world’, was beach-front property. 60 million years ago, the Indo-Australian plate collided with the Eurasian continent and was pushed under Eurasia. The Earth’s crust buckled and folded and mountain building began. Ancient crystalline and sedimentary rocks were pushed upwards and then folded into great ridges, that became the Himalayan Mountain ranges we see today. The new mountains blocked off rivers that once flowed unimpeded from Eurasia to the sea; and on the Southern slopes of the young mountains, new rivers formed as moist winds blowing from the tropical sea were forced upwards, until they cooled and shed their moisture onto the slopes below. As the mountains continued to rise and the gradient steepened, the rivers cut deeply into the terrain – hence many river valleys run from north to south. Where river courses were interrupted by mountain building a few east-west valleys evolved. The geology of Bhutan is complex and continues to evolve to this day; with three main regions, which have been defined by The Geological Survey of India and Augusto Gansser (an authority on Bhutan’s geology), as the Greater Himalaya, the Inner Himalaya and the Southern foothills.

  • Greater Himalaya: These giant peaks are the ‘thrones of the gods’ and almost none have been climbed, let alone explored or named. From north of Paro through the Thimphu valley to Trongsa is the ‘main central thrust fault’. North of the fault is a crystalline mass of gneiss, a coarse-grained metamorphic rock that Gansser calls ‘Taktshang Gneiss’. A large intrusion of tourmaline granite, or ‘Jhomolhari granite’ forms the peak of Jhomolhari, and the western side of the Paro valley. Jhomolhari is a sacred mountain and clearly visible from Dochu La mountain pass, as I found out. To the north of this granite is the Lingzhi valley, a wide deposit of sedimentary rocks. Along Bhutan’s northern border, a large granite mass forms the high Himalaya; and to the north of that is the Tibetan Plateau of mainly uplifted sedimentary deposits.
  • Inner Himalaya: South of the high peaks lies a maze of broad valleys and forested hillsides, marking the main areas of population in Bhutan.  The ‘main boundary fault’, which marks where the Indian plate pushed under the Eurasian plate, extends across part of the far south of the country, then enters India south of Phuentsholing. It re-enters Bhutan near Gelephu, passes north of Deothang and then continues east, back into India. Just north of this main boundary fault are sedimentary deposits, which have sheared, faulted and metamorphosed into complex structures. Bhutan’s central region has layers of quartziferous sandstone, with thin layers of coal in the east. South of the main central thrust fault is a wide band of gneiss. South of that is the Paro metamorphic belt, which includes marble and quartzite. Iron is found in Paro and Punakha.
  • Southern Foothills: In the southern part of the country lie plains of forest and terraced farmland. This region south of the boundary fault is mostly sandstone and ancient sedimentary deposits.

Local legends:

Migoi – The Bhutanese Yeti (Armington, 2002): Bhutanese yetis have different characteristics from yetis which have been found (or not found) in Tibet and other Himalayan regions. The Bhutanese name for a yeti is migoi (strong man) and they are believed to exist throughout the northern part of the country. The migoi is covered in hair that may be anything from reddish-brown to black, but its face is hairless, almost human. It is similar to the yetis of Nepal and Tibet in that the breasts of the female are large and sagging, and both sexes have an extremely unpleasant smell. Bhutanese migoi are special because they have the power to become invisible, which accounts for the fact that few people have seen them. The feet of many yetis are said to face backwards, confusing anyone who tries to follow them. The book Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti by Kunzang Choden, provides a colourful collection of stories, by local village people in Bhutan, who have seen, or have met people who have seen a migoi.

Conclusions:

Michael Woods, (program shown in 2005) in his TV program and associated book ‘In Search of Myths and Heroes’, showed an ancient monastery high in a mountain pass that housed sacred texts (huge rolls that were stored in purpose built rectangular holes in the inner walls of monastery buildings). Many of the monasteries I visited in Bhutan had these sacred texts too, stored in similar purpose built rectangular holes in their inner walls . Footage filmed inside the monastery, showed a drum and striker with a bell, being played. These objects were strikingly similar to the images I had seen in meditation. In my mind they could very well have been sacred objects hidden by Guru Rinpoche; and, for me, there was no question that sacred texts and objects had been moved to remote Nepalese and Bhutanese monasteries, when the Chinese Red Guards had entered Tibet.

Works Cited

Armington, S. (2002). Lonely Planet – Bhutan. Lonely Planet Publications.

Choden, K. (n.d.). Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti.

Coon, R. (1968). The Planetary Gates of the New Jerusalem. Glastonbury, England.

Evans, I. H. (1981). Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable. Cassell.

Hitching, F. (1978). The World Atlas of Mysteries. London: Pan Books.

Salmi, R. N. (n.d.). Lahoul, The Mystery Land in the Himalayas. New Delhi: Indus Publishing Company.

Wood, M. (2005). In Search of Myths and Heroes. London: BBC Books.

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