Escapism

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Bhutan: Being blessed with a large wooden phallus

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The paintings of giant phalluses which often adorn the walls of homes in Bhutan can be startling for first-time visitors. Photo / Jill Worrall
The paintings of giant phalluses which often adorn the walls of homes in Bhutan can be startling for first-time visitors. Photo / Jill Worrall

Today I was blessed by a monk wielding a large wooden phallus. Apparently this Bhutanese blessing has proved remarkably successful in promoting fertility.

That's all very well but I'm not sure that, should I return home with a living reminder of Bhutan, my husband will believe me that it was the divine gift from a famous 15th century Buddhist monk.

This blessing is only available at the 15th century Chimi Lkakhang (temple) built in honour of the renowned lama Drukpa Kinley who is also known as the Mad Monk.

Drukpa Kinley was born in Tibet in 1455 but has strong ties with the Punakha valley that lies to the east of Bhutan's capital Thimpu. It's a low altitude valley with a sub-tropical climate where rice and bananas flourish.

So too have the stories and legendary powers of Drukpa Kinley. The Mad Monk developed a unique way of spreading Buddhist teachings in the region - an approach in which demonstrations of his sexual prowess feature strongly.

Drukpa Kinley regularly bedded the wives of his hosts as he travelled around the country and apparently had some show-stopping manoeuvres that upstaged many a more conventional religious ceremony.

As a result he's a much-loved figure in Bhutan and his exploits are remembered in a variety of ways. The blessing at Chimi is one, but so too are the rather startling (at least for first-time visitors) paintings of giant phalluses that are often painted on the walls, most commonly flanking the doorways, of many Bhutanese houses.

Even though these are painted exuberantly with an eye-popping amount of anatomical detail they are in no way regarded as obscene or rude. They are a symbol of power, fertility and protection.

Some householders prefer more subtle references to the Mad Monk and his message. Instead of painted phalluses, they suspend large wooden replicas from the four eaves of their houses. These are usually equipped with "wings' that help them catch the breeze in which they spin lazily. (Now and then this leads to some confusion among tourists. I had to take a deep breath once before answering an elderly lady tourist's inquiry as to why the Bhutanese dangled model aircraft from their roofs).

My favourite flying phallus is in the central valley of Bumthang, where a homeowner, clearly wanting to reeve maximum benefit from his wooden appendages, has attached a small fan to one of them.

Even though Drukpa Kinley has been dead for nearly 500 years the stories connected with his prowess are still amassing.

My favourite concerns a Japanese tourist who, desperate for a baby, made a pilgrimage to Chimi to pray and to ask for a special blessing. Nine months after her visit, the tour company that organised her tour was overjoyed to receive a phone call to say she'd just given birth.

Not many months later she returned to Bhutan to show off the baby and of course to return to Drukpa Kinley's temple to say thank you.

Everyone was astonished that the Mad Monk's powers had apparently spread all the way to Japan. They were also deeply intrigued that the baby had an uncanny resemblance to the tourist's Bhutanese tour guide.

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