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

Into the Nest

Monasteries are like no other places. The quiet, the scent on the incense, the chanting that becomes part of the place, make a visit to a monastery a cleansing, soothing and therapeutic experience.

The Tiger’s Nest was built in the 17th century around the Taksang Senge Samdup, where the Buddhist guru Padmasambhava is said to have landed on a flying tigress and meditated for three months in the eighth century. Guru Padmasambhava established Buddhism in Bhutan, bringing it in from Tibet, and the monastery is considered one of the holiest places for Buddhists. Wandering through the many interconnected structures, and walking in and out of the cave shrines, I was amazed at the intricacy of the structure, the variety of images within, and the obvious sanctity of the spaces. Perched high in the clouds, the monastery is often shrouded in mist. I marvelled at what it had led devout followers of a religion to create.

Suddenly, the fuss I had created in my mind on the harshness of the way up, was nothing but whimsy. Much before me, others had walked the then un-trodden paths and climbed unexplored surfaces to carry stone and wood and metal to build the shrines.

They had cut the steps out of sheer rock, and balanced themselves precariously as they crafted the routes from one cave to another in the rock face. More amazing was that, when in recent years, a fire had reduced the structure to nothing, devotees reconstructed it piece by piece to create a perfect replica. Only the precious paintings and tapestries destroyed were not easy to recreate. The view from the monastery must delight the monks who choose to spend up to three months in the caves, chanting prayers.

I, on my part, had friends waiting and had to turn back. We sped down the steps, past the waterfall that some others found necessary to sport in; their cries punctuating the essential quiet of the space. Then, it was the long climb up the steps I had so merrily descended, and I fell back, once more.

Toiling before me was a gentleman, very red in the face, and looking close to collapse. My mind was full of joy and new-found resolve and I shared my advice with him, to rest till his heart beat came close to normal, when he felt it racing too fast. He smiled and stopped, and I stopped with him, and for a moment, we took in the view of the glistening roofs on the sheer rock opposite. “You have not put on your shoes,” he said. I nodded. I had taken them off at the temple and planned to wear them after descending the steep stairs. But now, I was suddenly happy barefoot.

Sacred soil needed humble feet, I felt. I am used to walking barefoot, I told him. I grew up climbing barefoot in the hills. Besides, my shoes were cheap and not really meant for hiking; I had bought them at the local market when the hiking plan was made, and I was not sure of their grip going downhill.

Once we had struggled up the steep steps, the rest was easy. I was in my element, body and mind, blessed by one of the most sacred among Buddhist gurus. To my own surprise, I ran most of the way down, almost losing balance once, but not the least bothered by it.

I must admit I got quite a few strange looks from many who were panting their way upslope.

And when I did catch up with some others of the group, they were pleased with my sudden change of attitude and speed. It is all in the mind I told myself, if I had decided the slope was not impossible, right at the start, I would have not almost given up twice!

The bus was waiting for me, the others had already got dropped off and they sent it back to wait for me. I was suitably contrite, though the driver did not seem to be bothered having to make a second trip.

Incidentally, the fact that I had been the slowest was quite overshadowed by my barefoot walk! Through the evening, friends came to ask if my feet were okay. Were there no bruises?

None, I said.

“Did you see the oak forest?” I asked. “No,” they said.

“The butterflies?”

“No,” they chorused.

“The birds?”.

“No…but your feet, don’t they hurt?

Of course they did not. I had tough feet. And now my mind felt toughened too. In finer fettle than ever!

This was first published in the August 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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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