The sacred ascent

Bhutan is serene, but what’s really transforming is a visit to one of the holiest places in the country—the Taktsang Palphug Monastery

Off to the Tiger’s Nest

We moved from Thimpu to Paro, and took a day’s retreat at the Zhiwa Ling Resort. The place is even quieter and more calming, a retreat indeed. But my body is not seeking calm, and will not be tempted by the spa and its offerings.

While checking out Bhutan, I had seen photographs of the Tiger’s Nest, sitting like a jewel atop an impossibly steep rock. It had signalled to me even then, and now, a group of fellow journalists seemed to have received the same invitation too.

Dropping our bags at the reception, we picked up the walking sticks, kept invitingly for the likes of us, and set off in the vehicle to where the feet could take over.

The monastery, when it gleamed into view, looked like a jewel indeed. The golden roofs shining, the colours of the walls below a vibrant aubergine shade, the main walls shining white against the dark of the rock.

Only an eagle can reach this place, I thought, but the road stretched ahead of me, and taking a deep breath and striking my stick resolutely in the ground, I set forth.

My enthusiasm matched the others, but not my speed. I am always the tortoise, I told the racing hares as the distance between us lengthened. Do not wait for me, I will meet you at the top… Or on your way down, I added, under my breath.

In the first 20 minutes, I was ready to turn back. My legs hurt, my breath was a series of gasps, and the slope was unrelenting and steep. Seven kilometres of this, I thought, and still thousand feet to climb…I cannot do it. Why am I doing it, I asked myself, I have nothing to prove, I have no need to challenge myself. Just sit here in the cool shade and enjoy the surroundings, my mind whispered.

But something in me had learnt long ago, to never give up. In college, I remember, I had taken part in a hurdle race. I was swift and jumped easily, despite no formal training, and had come first in the heats. In the final run, as I neared the last hurdle, and watched another girl draw close, my attention wavered and I tripped over a hurdle and fell. Sure, I had lost the chance to continue, I stepped out of the race, despite the cries of onlookers that I should go on.

When the prizes were given, they told me my speed would have gotten me the second prize, had I completed. I don’t know if that was a consolation, and if one still qualifies in a race if one falls, but the lesson it taught me is to never give up. So I plodded on, step after step, sounding more and more like a geyser with a faulty valve.

There was consolation. Others were straining along too, sometimes stopping to sit, they waved me encouragingly along. I thanked the sky for being cloudy, for Bhutan despite its height could get quite hot; which would have made my toil doubly difficult.

Being slow has its advantages. I stopped to take a breath and noticed the thick, tall oaks that grew all around. Magnificent trees, that must have watched thousands of trekkers in various moods and at various speeds going up and down the well-trod climb to the monastery. At every turn, a new climb awaited me, at every incline I told myself, maybe at the next turn the road will level out a bit.

Of course, I knew I had to climb a thousand feet. How I was to cross the chasm that separated the rocks on which the monastery stood from the other mountains, short of flying, I could not fathom, but there must be a way, I knew, and would find it in due course.

Birds walked across my path, looking left and right as if to avoid being run over by speeding humans. I watched a strange bird— half crow, except that it had a grey speckled head and neck, and yellow feet—look at me as if I was the strange one! Butterflies flitted about their business, some flying close enough for me to see the patterns under their wings.

This is cool and so pretty, my mind thought, while my heart thudded on. My feet had found their rhythm; I realised that resting at every curve helped get the heartbeat closer to normal and lessened fatigue. Just as I was celebrating my discovery, the sun came out.

I had a cap. But I had also carried a windcheater coat. It hung heavy and sweaty on my arm, seeming to gain weight with passing time.

Prayer was the answer. I have a self created set of prayers that I recite daily. This, I told myself, was as good a time as any to recite them. When the going gets tough…the devout pray! Thirst was creeping into my throat, turning it to the likeness of dry leaves. The water bottle was probably five kilometres away, having been triumphantly carried by one of the other members of the group. I must have looked at the end of my endurance. When I looked ahead, a monk, accompanying a group, had turned to look at me. As I met his gaze, he smiled encouragingly and lifted a hand in a blessing.

Through the rest of the climb, I found him waiting, to give me a smile and a blessing.

It helped, somehow. I smiled as I found new strength. Perhaps human company gave the vital impetus.

My mind, still working on my prayers, imagined the cool sip of holy water that plays such an important role in the rituals of most religions. It would be wonderful to have but a sip, I thought. And suddenly, I was abreast a tap that spouted cool mountain water. Washing my face and hands I drank deep, and found I could go bounding up the next slope! A prayer answered, I thought, and the tiredness and exhaustion fell away below. This was a sacred space, indeed.

But far away, the Tiger’s Nest, still looked inaccessible.

Ignoring the temptations of the wayside restaurant signs that beckoned me to rest and take a break, I plodded through a particularly tough stretch, to see a group come bounding down like mountain goats.

“Is it like this all the way?” I asked. “It’s not,” they responded, “the road levels out soon enough, and then you go down a bit. Take the road at the fork that heads down and you will reach stairs… Then you are almost there!”

Hope flooded in, and though the legs were complaining again, I walked on, though I was climbing further than their words had led me to believe. Suddenly, I had had enough. I looked up at yet another steep climb ahead and whispered, “Oh Mother, give me the strength to go on,” as I took a turn, and lo! the road levelled. More wonderful, was that I was in a forest that had trees with a fine fretwork of leaves reaching out into the road. It was like lacy hands trying to soothe the tired travellers as they walked past. I was glad that it wasn’t dusk yet, when the mind would attribute the lace with less-friendly aspects.

All fatigue forgotten, I doubled my pace and overtook others ahead of me, and was practically singing. Mules, which had shed their burden at the edge of the climb, walked gaily past, the bells around their necks tinkling merrily. I smiled, sharing their lightness of heart and body.

The road forked, and I took the one leading downhill. I could see the monastery clearly now, across the chasm.

The answer to my riddle came to me in the form of steps. They formed a bridge across a ledge that connected the sheer rock on which the Tiger had nested, to the mountain I was climbing down. The steps were steep, but I was happy not to be toiling up, besides the view was stupendous! Humming under my breath, I reached the bottom.

Well, life underlines some of its truisms. What goes down, must go up, they say, and the steps levelled out, and I was face-to-face with about the same number, approximately 350 someone told me later, heading upwards.

But the monastery was now within touching distance, and nothing could stop me.

I flew up the stairs, to meet my friends, who were well rested and starting back. Two of them, perhaps enjoying the calm the place exuded, offered to wait.

Sathya Saran
Sathya Saran is a renowned journalist. She is best known for her role as Editor of Femina and DNA Me. She is also an author, a columnist and an adjunct professor at NIFT, Mumbai.


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