Is It Just a Phallusy?
On my recent voyage to Bhutan, we encountered one of the stranger obsessions I’ve seen in a country. With penises. Or more accurately the image and representation of the penis. Not actual peni…it’s not that they…it was hard to understand. I’m here to break it down. It took me some time to work it all out.
First you must know that Bhutan is a primarily Buddhist culture and as such they are very calm, humble, devoted and sweet people. There was nowhere we went that we got an overtly “sexual” vibe, as you do in many countries around the world. Ladies, you know “the look.” Pleasantly, there was none of that in Bhutan. Just a lovely people radiating love and peace, standing next to the image of an ejaculating penis on the wall behind them.
I was a bit thrown off at first coming from a Muslim country where making eye contact with pretty much any man is a bad idea 100% of the time.
One day I ran into a group of 3 monks blessing a woman and they all looked up at me. I literally almost threw myself to the ground to hide, cast my eyes downward, checked my cleavage. But apparently it’s ok to look at a monk and smile. They love it. Do it all the time. There is no cultural imperative to be modest and yet they were all so modest by nature. I even stopped swearing while I was there because it didn’t want to embarrass anyone. Are you seeing the dichotomy here?
I am almost embarrassed to say that I did not take one photo of the wall art. I mean, who wants a bunch of dick pics on their phone. Amiright? But I downloaded one to share with you, so you can visualize the sort of image painted on every single building, sometimes several on a wall.
There were bracelets, earrings, necklaces, club like objects, gardens full of phallic carvings, painted wooden carvings, masks, postcards, carved airplane penises. It was really a lot. And all this against the backdrop of the sweetest people with not even an ounce of overt sexuality. It was so strange.
There is a story behind all this. Like pretty much everything in Bhutan there is a tale to be told and most of the tale related to a Buddha or a guru and dates back centuries. So let me tell the curious tale of the phallus and how it came to be the dominant image.
The phallus is a symbol of both protection and fertility. Mostly when it’s painted on the side of a house or store or restaurant is for protection. We did have the distinct pleasure, while visit the Punakha district, of visiting the temple /monastery called Chimi Lhakhang which is squarely a fertility temple. It came to be fondly known (mostly by me) as the Dong Dhzong. (Dhzong means temple).
I think its mostly clear to many of you why the phallus is an image that represents fertility. But protection was a bit curious to me. There were a number of things that were curious to me in fact, but I knew that in any good tour design there is an element of unfolding and that over the course of time and context it would all be revealed and start to make sense. So I waited and listened with curiosity.
The day we were going to visit Chimi Lhakhang, we were told the permanent road was closed and we would have to walk across the valley to get there. It was one of the most beautiful walks I have enjoyed in a long time. Absolutely stunning valley to wander into. On the other side, we start to walk up a ways as it seems that most of the dhzongs are built atop hills. Of course in days of yore they were also used as defensive lookout points. I was a bit nervous about what we going to find inside the Dong Dhzong because I could not imagine what “ratcheting up” the phallus game could possibly look like after all we had seen.
As it turns out however, the dhonzg is a penis free zone. We saw only one representations inside. It was just a regular temple with the Buddha and the monks and the incense, writing tablets, and small Buddhas and lots of offerings – chips, milk, popcorn and the 7 bowls of water. However, we were definitely in the right place because there were photos of babies that had been born as a result of a visit. And there were babies there who come back each year to be blessed by the monks. I got blessed by the monks there, not for myself of course but as a proxy of good luck for others. When we arrived we did observe a woman walking 3 times around the building holding a substantial wooden phallus. This was all part of her special journey for blessings. We all silently wished her good results while trying not to stare.
Let’s Talk About Protection
This whole penis thing came about because of a guru from the 15th century who liked to shock people with his behaviour, Drukpa Kunley. He was essentially the original f*ck boy. He like to taunt and act crazy, be a womanizer and drinker and was 100% anti-establishment. And he was in charge. He roamed around the country misbehaving.
Now, in Buddhism there are a lot of players. It’s very hard to keep up. But the central theme that runs through all the stories we heard is that there are a few enlightened beings, monks who have transcended and their job is to protect the regular folks, and themselves, from the demons that come out to get them. The demons can manifest as monsters, or they can be described as the 5 poisons that need to be transcended : pride, jealousy, ignorance, greed / desire, and anger. Hey, I don’t make the news – it just report it. I am not an expert on Buddhism. I am just telling you a story from my old lady brain, of things I heard a few weeks ago while standing a top a hill in the Himalayas. Do with it what you will.
Anyway, Drukpa Kunley was famously known as “The Divine Madman” because of his behaviour, but people are particularly fond of him because he liberated generations of sentient beings. He described his penis as “a flaming thunderbolt of wisdom” and said the image of the penis represents the “discomfort society experiences when facing the truth.” Ok. So thats a lot.
Also, in the biggest story of them all, he fought off a demon that had been terrorising the people by clubbing it with his giant penis. That did it. Dead demon. The demons ashes are buried near the temple.
Don’t shake your head. It could be true. Jesus walked on water right? Without video evidence all we can do is believe.
Let’s Talk About The Line
The phalluses were everywhere. Literally. Everywhere. But yet the people were very cavalier about the image. Not embarrassed or childish about it. There was literally no sexual vibe to it at all. None. At all. So this was curious to us.
One day we went to a museum for lunch and they had exhibits that you could visit that brought to life, quite nicely, various traditions that make Bhutan unique. There was an archery area, traditional lunch was offered, people danced, there was a pair making a mud wall and singing in the traditional way. We progressed through each with an explanation and carried on.
And we came to the penis garden. So we lined up in front the cheerily painted members and listened while a young girl told the story of Drukpa Kunley and his thunderbolt of wisdom. Not an ironic lilt or a blush. Totally straight up told us the story while Vannah White-ing the display. Like she was talking about paintings at the Louvre.
And then it happened. We found the line.
One of the ladies in our group, notably the doctor (orthodontist if you must) raised her hand and asked (quite reasonably we all agreed later) “I notice that all the penises are circumcised. Is there a special reason for that?”
Well. The chaos that ensued. This poor young girl from the village turned 90 shades of red, giggled uncontrollably, nearly burst into tears, and called urgently for our guide. “Tachi, Tachi, come here”.
We were all confused, embarrassed for asking, embarrassed for her. There was a lot going on and no one really knew what to do or where to look. The girl in her mind I’m sure quit her job and moved home to the farm while silently cursing American tourists and wishing her shift would end and the earth would open up.
No worries. Our guide came to the rescue. He giggled and blushed as well in a shy manner and then pulled his shoulders back and dove in to the explanation.
The phalluses you see, represent those who not virgins. Because when you have sex for the first time, the foreskin will shrivel up and fall off. So you see. No foreskins.
We definitely needed some lunch after this. I told you it was a lot.