Perched in the hills to the north of Paro in Bhutan is a complex of white, fortress-like walls topped by wide, flat roofs that look like fans spread out to hold everything steady. Through the morning mist it seems as if it can only be magic preventing the whole structure from falling from the cliff it is clinging to.
The Tiger’s Nest temple complex is the superlative of tourist brochure Bhutan – mystic, awe inspiring, devout. And as far as Buddhist religious sites in the Himalaya go, it is remarkably accessible, a short drive from the city of Paro followed by a moderate two hour walk.
The mountains of India, Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan are dotted with sites connected with the life of the eighth century Buddhist saint Padmasambhava, who battled demons and subdued local spirits as he taught and spread Buddhism across the Himalaya. Padmasambhava arrived at Tiger’s Nest from Tibet, on the back of a flying tiger. Here, he meditated in a cave in the cliff before setting out to convert the country; around eight centuries later, in the late 1600s, a temple was built at the site.
The starting point of the walk is not more than six miles by road from Paro, although it will seem a long six miles; in accordance with its aspirations to live more slowly and thoughtfully, Bhutan’s national speed limit of 50km per hour is rigorously adhered to.
We started the walk up at around eight in the morning, as sellers of tourist bric-a-brac were setting up their stalls at the edge of the car park. The path was well maintained, and for the most part zigzagged up the hill in an easy traverse. The air was cool and pleasant in the shade, the valley shone below and a sense of expectation grew. The final approach to the Tiger’s Nest was garlanded with prayer flags strung from tree to cliff. A waterfall thundered by, soaking the path and the vegetation.
Like many of Bhutan’s religious sites, the inside of the complex is a colourfully solemn sequence of shrines and statues, silks, butter lamps and wall paintings. It is the structure of the complex itself that will strike the layperson who has already spent some time in Bhutan on monastery tours, however: passages and short, sharp stairways twisting in precarious harmony with the sheer face of the cliff, the valley more than a thousand feet below.
The caves where Padmasambhava meditated are dotted around the complex. Two were open to look into when I visited – cold and dry and with spectacular views out onto the Paro valley and thickly forested hills. We made the easy walk downhill before the sun had reached its zenith. I noticed a cafeteria about halfway down and had tea there with a rotund Indian tour guide, whose group of Italians were making the ascent to Tiger’s Nest under the full August sun. He said he knew better than to be walking in this heat; and anyway, he had been up so many times before.
On the way back to Paro we stopped off at Kyichu Lhakang, another smaller (but much older, dating from the 7th century) complex, rather less impressively set among the fields in the flat of the valley. The hodgepodge of buildings, chortens and roughly laid flagstones had a quiet, bucolic atmosphere, in contrast to the drama and thunder of Tiger’s Nest. Poultry scratched around in the earth outside the complex. The walls separating the pastoral from the consecrated were wide and low, made of flat, whitewashed stones stacked untidily upon each other.
Before the shrine room was a small inner courtyard with some trees growing in the corners. Inside was a statue of the thousand-armed Avalokiteshvara. Of the many statues and paintings I saw in Bhutan, this one will stay with me the longest.
Article by Ross Adkin.
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