Now here’s what is interesting – Monasteries all over Bhutan are not just these gargantuan structures built with solid stone, they are also located in some of the toughest terrains you could imagine. Or cannot imagine.
Cannot imagine, how a solid stone monastery was built on the edge of a cliff, 900 meters (3000 feet) above the valley (that is 7000 feet above sea level) way back in the 8th century.
Legend says that the Guru who built it landed on the spot on the back of a Tigress, who “flew” to the spot. When you see the monastery, you are compelled to “believe” the legend.
Because there is NO WAY in the world a building could have been constructed, in that era, without machines, on that height, amidst harsh terrain and harsher weather, without divine intervention.
That’s Taktsang for you. Taktsang, the most revered monastery in Bhutan also known as the “Tiger’s Nest”.
Most tourists are told that a trip to Bhutan is incomplete without a hike to the Taktsang, which is the ultimate pilgrimage for any Bhutanese. We decided to do the ‘touristy’ thing and found ourselves planning the hike to Taktsang upon our arrival in Paro.
It was a wonderful morning, bright and cool and after a heavy breakfast of Aloo Parathas at John’s aunt’s restaurant, we set forth to the base of the hike by car. We began the climb through a pine forest – picturesque and serene, surrounded by rhododendrons. The first leg of the climb was not very steep, and as we climbed up it wasn’t the incline that caused trouble. It was the altitude, which made it tough to continue climbing without a break, as the heat of the Sun also played havoc with our optimism.
Halfway through, we reached a café where we used the restrooms (clean, but basic) and took some photographs of the monastery. From that vantage point, the climb to the monastery looked intimidating and virtually un-scalable since we could neither see the hike path nor the entrance to the monastery. All we could see was the building perched on the edge of a menacing cliff!
Although we were ravenous when we reached this café, unfortunately we were late for the buffet lunch they offer and had to content ourselves with exorbitantly priced water.
Soon we were on our way looking forward to reaching the monastery that we’d just glimpsed, wondering how we would eventually approach it.
From the cafe, the climb became steep and even dangerous at some points. As we took frequent breaks to rest our limbs, we did wonder if we’d ever make it, especially when we were told that the “tough” part of the hike – a series of stairs – still remained to be encountered.
But, egged on by John who assured us that the mighty Taktsang was worth every drop of sweat and aching muscles (his were aching too), we continued to climb.
When we, parched by the heat, and panting due to the altitude reached the famed “stairs” we were taken aback. The route to the monastery was downhill, and very very steep. We saw climbers amble upwards on the stairs, flushed with heat, the effort writ large on their faces. For a moment or two we lost hope. It was the thought of climbing back all the way up the same steep stairs that gave us the jitters. But after resting for a few minutes, we decided that it made no sense to back off from this point. We climbed down towards the monastery.
Stairs to the monastery
Near the famous Shelkar Zar, the holy waterfall, a few steps before the entrance of the monastery we strung a prayer flag, one amongst the hundreds that danced in the breeze. For some reason, as we whispered our silent prayers, that moment was intensely emotional, making us believe that we had been ‘destined’ to visit this holy temple.
Shelkar Zar Waterfall
After a thorough security check, we walked into the monastery. It was bitterly cold, since the wind had picked up and the Sun had disappeared but the monastery itself left us awe struck.
The construction or architecture is neither spectacular nor unique. Almost all monasteries in this Buddhist nation have similar architecture. But the sheer size of the structure and the idols, the serenity and the tranquility inside the temples, the lingering scent of incense sticks, the rhythmic murmuring of prayers by monks, the paintings on the walls and ceilings that revealed stories of great legends – left us mesmerised. The environ felt pure and so sacred that we could not help but bow our heads and offer our obeisance.
The famed “Tiger’s Nest”, the cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated is not accessible to visitors, given its location. You can however get down a steep narrow gap that leads to the cave, but all you will see is the edge of the cliff and beyond that, nothing.
We would have liked to take photographs inside the monastery but were not allowed to carry either cameras or mobile phones. We consoled ourselves with the thought that even if we had, nothing could’ve possibly captured the harmony of this legendary temple.
After a quick tour, we began our descent and braced ourselves to climb up the steep set of stairs. It was humongous effort no doubt, but eventually after an hour and forty-five minutes, we reached the base, tired but fulfilled by the pilgrimage.
More about Taktsang
Taktsang is one of Bhutan’s most famous monasteries located in Paro, the second most important city in the Himalayan nation. It is believed that Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava landed in a cave on the back of a tigress, where he meditated for three months after which the monastery was built.
Taktsang Monastery is said to be the origin of Buddhism in Bhutan and is an important pilgrimage for all Bhutanese (much like Amarnath and Badrinath for Hindus).
How to get there
Taktsang is located just twenty minutes north of Paro. One can take a cab to the base of the hill from where it is a three-hour hike to the top. It takes 1.5 – 2 hours to come down.
Paro is the second most important city of Bhutan, right after the Capital Thimpu. The country’s only International Airport is also located in Paro.
The hike path is well laid out, and slightly steep after the halfway mark. It was also very dusty and slippery in the month of March.
We opted to take a short cut (through the forest) following John who was hiking to the top for the second time in his life. It is easy to take these forest routes (which are more picturesque than the established hike path) only if you follow the locals who hike like mountain goats through the tricky forest terrain.
When to Start the Hike
The hike is best started at 9 am or so. If you are a quick climber and can make it to the top in 2 hours, you can grab lunch at the halfway café by 1 or so on your way down, way before their closing time. The café offers a buffet lunch that closes by 3 pm.
Beginning the climb late would mean climbing down in failing light, which is not a good idea. At the end of your climb down you will realize the dense forest blocks sunlight by 3 pm and the chill combined with the enveloping darkness can be a tad risky especially since some parts of the hike are dangerous.
The monastery closes for lunch between 1 -2 pm so one must time their hike accordingly.
What to Carry – Our Suggestions
Carry water, eatables and something to drink for quick energy. We found that Bhutanese Red Bull (available in a glass bottle that resembles a cough syrup bottle) gives you instant energy. It is a concentrated version (minus the fizz) of the Red Bull available in India.
Carry offerings. Although one may make offerings of money at the temples and monasteries in Bhutan, offerings in kind – such as ghee to light lamps, biscuits, chips, fruit juices etc are also widely accepted and welcomed. According to a monk we spoke to, after being offered to the deity, the items are distributed amongst the needy.
The prayer flag we hung at Taktsang
Carry a prayer flag. You will be amazed at the number of prayer flags strung through the route of the hike and at the entrance of the monastery. Indeed when you are in Bhutan, the one thing you will get used to will be the sight of prayer flags and will be tempted to string one of your own. Flags are not available for sale at the top or any where along the route. So best carry one before you begin the hike.
Carry a walking Stick. When we began the climb, we were beseeched by vendors selling walking sticks and ponies to make the climb upwards. We, quite confident about our energy and fitness levels, didn’t buy the sticks. But walking down did put a serious strain on our knees. If you have slightly weak knees, don’t hesitate to take a walking stick. Better safe than sorry!
Carry a pack of tea bags – preferably Taj Mahal. Curious? Read all about it here… This post promises to leave you awed.
That Bhutan as a country is very conservative (the colourful legacy of the Divine Madman almost seems like an aberration!) and shorts, sleeveless shirts, half sleeved shirts are not allowed inside monasteries and Dzongs, especially those manned by security personnel who will ask you to cover yourselves up in jackets. This rule applies to men also. It is recommended that full-length trousers and full-sleeved shirts are worn to the monastery.
That as per rules, one cannot enter the Taktsang without a guide. John doubled up as our guide and saved the day for us! A guide will be provided by your tour operator or travel agent when you land in Bhutan. We did not come across private guides during our stay. The official website of the Bhutan government has a list of tour operators that can be looked up here.
That cameras, mobile phones and eatables are not allowed inside the monastery. There is a provision to deposit your valuables in lockers at the entrance. One cannot sneak in any gadget because visitors are frisked to ensure nothing is carried inside.
That you won’t be allowed to loiter about or relax inside the monastery. You would be expected to leave as soon as your tour is done.