SEX IN BHUTAN
Karma Phuntsho wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Although the spirit of Buddhism pervades all facets and all levels of Bhutanese life, there are no formal Buddhist rites and rituals pertaining to family life and marriage. Religious influences are, however, evident in Bhutanese family life. Bhutanese are well known for their laxity and openness in sexual affairs, and most indulge in sexual promiscuity, perhaps because of the influence of tantric figures such as the "crazy saint" Drukpa Kunley (1455-1529). The fact that both polygynous and polyandrous relations remain common may be explained by the same influences.” [Source: Karma Phuntsho, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: “A sense of humor, even mischief, runs through Bhutanese Buddhism.... Sexual imagery also abounds, reflecting the tantric belief that carnal relations can be the gateway to enlightenment. Nobody embodied this idea more provocatively than the 16th-century lama Drukpa Kunley, better known as the Divine Madman, who remains a beloved saint in much of Bhutan. Carousing across the countryside, Kunley slew demons and granted enlightenment to young maidens with the magical powers of his “flaming thunderbolt.” To this day, many Bhutanese houses are adorned with his sign of protection: an enormous painted phallus, often wrapped in a jaunty bow.” [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, March 2008]
On the impact of social media on the discussion of sex in Bhutan, Sonam Yangden, a radio jockey for Bhutan's Kuzoo FM, told the BBC: Social media has had a massive impact - mostly good. Sex education is” an “area where social media has played an important role in Bhutan. I happen to be a voluntary member of a sexual education awareness programme. We try to spread awareness about sexual education through social media and why it is important young people should know about it. And it was only after it started on social media that people started talking about it in mass media - it even led to debates on television. Initially, people were anonymous but later on many of them started discussing these issues using their own identities. We would not have talked about such things 10 years ago. [Source: BBC, February 19, 2014]
Birth Control in Bhutan
Top method of contraception: injectibles. Injection contraceptives such as Depo-Provera, Sayana Press or Noristerat release the hormone progestogen into the bloodstream to prevent pregnancy. Depo-Provera lasts for 13 weeks. [Source: Birth Control Around the World onlinedoctor.superdrug.com ]
Types of birth control used (2015); female sterilization: 7.2 percent; male sterilization: 12.8 percent; pill: 7.6 percent; injectible: 29.3 percent; Implant: 0.1 percent; IUD: 3.8 percent; male condom: 5.6 percent; early withdrawal: 0 percent; rhythm method: 0.7 percent; other: 0.2 percent total: 67.8 percent [Source: Trends in Contraceptive Use Worldwide 2015 — the United Nations un.org/en/development/desa/population/publications ]
Types of birth control used (1994): female sterilization: 3.2 percent; male sterilization: 8.2 percent; pill: 2.3 percent; injectible: 4.1 percent; implant: 0 percent IUD: 1.0 percent; male condom: 0.3 percent; total: 19.9 percent. [Source: Trends in Contraceptive Use Worldwide 2015 — the United Nations un.org/en/development/desa/population/publications ]
The government launched a birth control campaign with the slogan "Small Family, Happy Family" to encourage broader use of contraception and lower the fertility rate, especially among adolescents. In the early 2000s, health officials traveled from village to village to encourage families to have no more than three children and gave buttons with a portrait of the king the "Small Family — Happy family" slogan. Sex education classes were sponsored by the government and financial rewards of a few dollars were given to men or women that got sterilized. Local clinics advertised vasectomies” “No incision, No stitch, Walk Home in Ten Minutes.”
Abortion is illegal under the Penal Code except for the purpose of saving the life of the mother or when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, or when the mother is of unsound mental condition. [Source: OECD Development Center, genderindex.org, 2014]
Polygamy and Polyandry in Bhutan
Polygamy (men marrying multiple wives) and polyandry (women marrying multiple husbands) are practiced by some groups in Bhutan. There were laws restricting polygamy to a maximum of three wives per man. After this law was enacted the Fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, married four sisters. Before taking a new wife a man was supposed to secure permission of the first wife., who was free to seek divorce and receive alimony for life.
Polyandry was abolished and polygamy was restricted in the mid-20th century. According to a law enacted in the 1990s man can have as many as three wives, providing he had the first wife's permission. The first wife also had the power to sue for divorce and alimony if she did not agree. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
According to the OECD Social Institutions and Gender Index: Polygamy “may be in decline. The Government reported in 2003 that the practice is accepted in the south, some parts of western and central Bhutan, as well as among some nomadic communities in the north; however, in 2007 it noted that polygamy was becoming less popular due to socio-economic changes and increasing education. In 2010 the NBS reported that 5 percent of women between 15 and 49 years of age lived in a polygamous union. The Government reports that women remain primarily responsible for unpaid work in the family. [Source: OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Development Center, genderindex.org, 2014]
Zann Huizhen Huang wrote in the Daily Bhutan: “Polyandry is still practised in Bhutan, Tibet, Nepal and pockets of India, particularly amongst the minority tribes living in the Himalaya region. An age-old practice that has gradually disappeared in some parts of the world, polyandry which means ‘many’ (poly) and ‘man’ (andros) in Greek, literally refers to a woman taking two or more husbands. This rare and unique form of marriage custom existed in some communities for centuries but has mostly faded in the past few decades. [Source: Zann Huizhen Huang, Daily Bhutan, February 29, 2020]
Why is polyandry practiced? “A system of union which most likely arose in populations where resources such as land and food were scarce, it could also possibly have been adopted as a way to address the issue of gender imbalance, that is, when there were more males than females. Interestingly, in almost all cases, the kind of polyandry which existed was fraternal or adelphic (brothers sharing one wife) as opposed to non-fraternal polyandry, where a few unrelated men share a wife.”
“Borne out of necessity due to specific geographical challenges such as a place’s remoteness or lack of tillable land, the practice of polyandry allows family wealth and land to remain intact and undivided. Having one woman married to a few brothers is a way to guarantee that their children would all inherit the pasture land and flocks together. Conversely, if every brother had married separately and produced children, land and other properties would have to be split, this can be impractical in environments where resources are scarce. Typically, the eldest brother usually dominates the household, and all the brothers are regarded as equal sexual partners of the shared wife.”
Polyandry Among the Brokpa
The Brokpas (Drogpas) are a semi nomadic community settled mainly in the two villages of Merak and Sakteng in eastern Bhutan. They mostly depend on yaks and sheep for their livelihood and do not typically grow crops due to the high altitude zones they inhabit. They speak a distinct dialect and have their own unique dress that is made of yak hair and sheep wool. The Brokpas retain some ancient customs and beliefs, which predate the introduction of Buddhism. The also live in Arunachal Pradesh, India. [Source: Tourism Council of Bhutan, tourism.gov.bt]
Zann Huizhen Huang wrote in the Daily Bhutan: In Bhutan, polyandry is still practised in the remote highlands of Laya as well as the Brokpa tribe living in Merak and Sakteng, district of Trashigang. Pertaining to Laya, which remains largely inaccessible due to its geographical isolation, practising fraternal polyandry enabled the sharing of responsibilities amongst the brothers. [Source: Zann Huizhen Huang, Daily Bhutan, February 29, 2020]
“According to Laya’s Gup, Lhakpa Tshering: “Laya was remote, detached and remained hidden in the mountains. Marrying an outsider was looked down upon. As a small and independent community, trust was important. People also preferred to live together as not many could afford to build a house of their own, so the custom of marrying more than one husband was common.” Fraternal polyandry allows for better distribution of duties between brothers, while one might be in charge of animal husbandry, another could be farming or travelling to other villages to barter goods. In Eastern Bhutan, Dechen Wangmo, is one among a few Brokpa women who is married to two husbands, who are brothers.
“The main reason is because being a highlander we need to rear animals. Initially I was married to the elder brother. But then I had to look after my aging parents. So I had to marry the younger brother too since there is no one to look after the animals. So far there is no problem with my marriage,” she said. Marriage ceremonies sometimes only involve the oldest brother and all the adult brothers. In the event that there are brothers who are still not of age, they may join the household later.
Polyandry is vanishing. “As the young are better educated, men tend to leave their villages to look for better jobs and opportunities elsewhere. Phurpa Zangmo of Merak felt that marriages based on mutual consent and affection is the preferred norm nowadays rather than polyandry: “Our Parents still want us to keep the tradition alive but I think differently. So we cannot fulfil their wishes. Even if our parents make arrangements, the marriage does not last for long.”
The improvement in the highlanders’ standard of living is also another contributing factor to the decline of polyandry which has somewhat outlived its usefulness. As Bhutan opened its doors to tourism, homestays became a viable source of income for the highlanders unlike in the past, the lack of provisions compelled some Layaps to marry multiple partners. Another catalytic factor is the legalisation of cordyceps collection in 2003. This lucrative trade changed the economic dynamics of these highlanders, prompting more women to settle for just one husband. No matter how far flung these places are in Bhutan, it seems that the Layaps and Brokpas cannot resist the tides of change.
The Layaps live in the extreme north of Bhutan and speak layapkha, a Tibeto-Burman language. Like the Brokpas, they are semi-nomadic and their livelihood is dependent upon yaks and sheep.
Casual sex has traditionally been commonplace and accepted among both male and female Layaps, for both unmarried and married alike. One consequence of this is high rates of sexually-transmitted diseases among the Layap, a problem being addressed with condoms. The Layap have traditionally practiced polyandry (wives with multiple husbands) to keep families and property together. This and custom of child marriage — also once common — are now in decline. In the old days Layup girls were as young as 10 years old when they got married. Increased schooling for girls has contributed to the decline in child marriages. Due to their isolation many Layap don’t have access to good medical care.
Some Layaps still practice polyandry. Zann Huizhen Huang wrote in the Daily Bhutan: “Zam, a Layap from Thongra chiwog married her first husband at the age of 19. After two years, she married his younger brother and they have three children together. “I love them both equally. Our secret of happiness is that I do not differentiate between my husbands. At one given time, one of my husbands will be with the yaks in the mountains while my other husband stays with me at home and helps with the household chores.” [Source: Zann Huizhen Huang, Daily Bhutan, February 29, 2020]
Drukpa Kunley and His Divine Madness
Drukpa Kunley is a revered religious figure in Bhutan. Credited with introducing the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism to Bhutan, he was born in Tibet in 1450 and received a traditional Buddhist education but otherwise his early life was not one of abstemious virtue. He reportedly was a heavy drinker who is rumored to have had sex with his mother and a string tied around his penis as a blessing. He once wrote: “My meditation practice is girls and wine/ I do what ever I feel like, strolling around in the Void.” Kunley traveled everywhere with a small. dog.
The Bhutanese are very fond of Drukpa Kunley. They call him the Divine madness. His hobby, archery, was adopted by Bhutan, as its national sport. His image is everywhere. He is often depicted with a mustache, with a villainous leer and his small dog at his side. His disembodied penis — “flaming thunderbolt” is features in murals and painting all over the country. All across Bhutan who will see paintings and wooden carvings of phalluses dedicated to him. Chime Lhakhang, the temple dedicated to him, is sought out by women with fertility problems.
Steven Lee Myers, New York Times: Called the “Divine Madman,” he was a holy fool, a mendicant, drunkard and Lothario who subdued women and demons alike with his heightened spirituality and what legend called his “Flaming Thunderbolt of Wisdom.” Nevertheless, the tales of the lama’s sexual appetite have prevailed — in no small part because of the oral histories, in which Drukpa Kunley flouts both secular and religious sensibilities by reveling in sex and alcohol on his path to enlightenment. [Source: Steven Lee Myers, New York Times, August 24, 2017]
Drukpa Kunley Legends and Stories
A wandering ascetic often depicted with a bow and arrow, Drukpa Kunley is said to subdued frightening demonesses with his thunderbolt and bawdy poetry. Heather Elton wrote for bayleafyoga.com: “Drukpa Kunley is infamous for his blasphemous and unorthodox methods of teaching Buddhism. Fond of women, wine, dance, writing risqué poetry and songs and shocking the prudish clergy; his outrageous behaviour greatly appealed to to the lay practitioners of the time. He earned himself the title ‘The Saint of 5,000 Women’ by bringing them to enlightenment through sex. He demonstrated that celibacy was not a necessity to the path. His unorthodox means of disseminating this teaching brought him many followers, mainly women, and continues to draw them to the monastery for his blessing. [Source: Heather Elton, bayleafyoga.com, February 27, 2019]
“Even today his legend and influence looms large in the form of giant phalli, painted on walls and hanging from the rooftops of houses. Kunley’s organ, lavishly dubbed the ‘Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom’, supposedly unnerved demons and demonesses alike and thus subdued them. It is also said that he is perhaps the only saint, in all the religions of the world, who is exclusively identified with the phallus and its creative power. For this reason his member is popularly rendered in paintings and he is depicted in thangka paintings holding a wooden stick with a penis head.
“The story goes, that the legendary saint came to expel a demon from Dochula, the stunning snow-capped mountain pass on the road from Thimpu to Punakha. The demon took the form of a dog which Kunley trapped in the chorten (stupa) atop a mound in the form of a woman’s breast, now the sacred site of the fertility temple. He struck the demon with his Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom, his penis, and it fell down dead. As he did so he spoke the words “Chi Mi”, or no dog, and there we have the origin of the name of the temple. The site was blessed by Kunley and in 1499 C.E. the monastery was built in his honour by his cousin Ngawang Choegyel, the 14th Drukpa hierarch.
“The Five Spiritual Way,” a poem by Drukpa Kunley goes:
I practice the path of self-discipline. I meditate every day.
I go the way of embracing love. I work as a mother and father of all beings.
I do the deity yoga. I visualize myself as a Buddha in the cosmic unity.
I read the books of all religions and practice all at the right moment.
The life is my teacher and my inner wisdom is my guide.
Steven Lee Myers, New York Times: “Given the hazy mythology surrounding Drukpa Kunley’s evangelism, there are contradictory accounts of” how the monastery associated with him was founded “In the prevailing one, the lama subdued a demon haunting a nearby mountain pass called Dochula by turning her into a red dog, which he buried “with a pile of earth to resemble a woman’s breast.” Hence the name “no dog.” In the other, according to an oral history compiled in the 1960s and translated into English as “The Divine Madman: The Sublime Life and Songs of Drukpa Kunley,” the lama built a stupa, or monument, on the spot where a follower died after repeating a ribald prayer the lama had taught him. (“I take refuge in the maiden’s Lotus,” one couplet begins.) The lama himself was said to have lived to 115. [Source: Steven Lee Myers, New York Times, August 24, 2017]
“In neither scenario of the monastery’s founding, Mr. Zangpo emphasized, did he use his penis, though that is how the legend is often garbled. “We don’t have a clear line between history and mythology,” said Mr. Zangpo, who is compiling his own translations of the oral histories that he hopes will set the record straight. Like other scholars, he argues that the phallus symbol can more likely be traced to pre-Buddhist pagan rituals than to the Divine Madman’s legend.
Drukpa Subsect of the Kargyupa School of Tibetan Buddhism
A large portion of Bhutan's Buddhists are adherents of the Drukpa subsect of the Kargyupa (literally, oral transmission) school, one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, which is itself a combination of the Theravada (monastic), Mahayana (messianic), and Tantrayana (apocalyptic) forms of Buddhism. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
The Kargyupa school of Buddhism has traditionally put a strong emphasis on meditation and bonding between students and teacher. The Drukpa sect is a Bhutanese form of the school that embraces several local saints. Bhutanese Buddhists have many Tantric practices, such as spells and symbolic mysticism. Kagyupa rituals tend to be carefully scripted with monks performing ceremonies in a specific way and the participants given careful instructions about what offerings need to be made, usually in the form of yak butter, incense, locally-made wine and small denominations of cash.
The Kargyupa school was introduced into Tibet from India and into Bhutan from Tibet in the eleventh century. The central teaching of the Kargyupa school is meditation on mahamudra (Sanskrit for great seal), a concept tying the realization of emptiness to freedom from reincarnation. Also central to the Kargyupa school are the dharma (laws of nature, all that exists, real or imaginary), which consist of six Tantric meditative practices teaching bodily self-control so as to achieve nirvana. One of the key aspects of the Kargyupa school is the direct transmission of the tenets of the faith from teacher to disciple. The Drukpa subsect, which grew out of one of the four Kargyupa sects, was the preeminent religious belief in Bhutan by the end of the twelfth century.
Phallic Art in Bhutan
Penises are prominently featured throughout Bhutan. They are painted on the walls of houses next to images of dragons and birds and at shops and restaurants above sack of grain. Phallus symbols are used as scarecrows, worn as jewelry and donned by masked dancers in religious festivals. Women hoping to get pregnant worship stone phalluses. They are even prominently featured at temples and monasteries and children walk passed them on their way to school. The sight of so many phalluses in an otherwise conservative, chaste society is shocking to many outsiders. Many of the disembodied penis belong to the revered saint Drukpa Kunley described above. Heather Elton wrote for bayleafyoga.com: “The phalli you can see painted on the outer walls of buildings across Bhutan are traditionally intended to ward off the evil eye and malicious gossip. You can find them painted on homes, schools, businesses, sculpted as pillars holding up roofs and as talismans swinging from the eaves. You may even be surprised to find one sitting between you and your fellow diners as a centerpiece at a restaurant.” [Source: Heather Elton, bayleafyoga.com, February 27, 2019]
Reporting from Lobesa, which can described a phallus central in Bhutan, Steven Lee Myers wrote in the New York Times: “For centuries, Bhutan has celebrated the phallus. They are painted on homes, or carved in wood, installed above doorways and under eaves to ward off evil, including one of its most insidious human forms, gossip. They are worn on necklaces, installed in granaries and in fields as a kind of scarecrow. They are used by masked jesters in religious festivals and at one temple near here in Lobesa as a blessing of fertility. [Source: Steven Lee Myers, New York Times, August 24, 2017]
“The symbol, like Bhutan itself, seems suspended between two impulses: the country’s headlong embrace of modernity and its preservation of traditions that made it unique to start with. “Stories of Bhutan’s engagement with the phallus shed light on traditions and lifestyle that make Bhutan one of the happiest places on earth,” Karma Choden wrote in the 2014 book “Phallus: Crazy Wisdom from Bhutan,” which was published here and claims to be the first scholarly effort to document the ubiquity of the phallus.
“House after house is painted with phalluses. While highly stylized, they are in some cases graphically detailed: always erect, often ejaculating. One appears with the country’s name, a marketing ploy by the owner of one of the proliferating souvenir shops. The displays in some — rows of colorful wooden carvings — would not seem out of place in a sex shop. Bhutan’s phalluses are not considered explicitly sexual, noted Ms. Choden, the writer. “In essence, the phallus represents the center of the male ego, and not a celebration of sex,” she writes. “It reminds onlookers that if this force is harnessed properly, it will fuel productivity and creativity rather than wanton lust.” Lotay Tshering, a 51-year-old rice farmer, owns a house in Sopsokha that is adorned with two giant penis murals. His wife’s uncle painted them in homage to the Divine Madman, “who has blessed this place,” as he put it. He and his wife have six children.
Phallic Rituals in Bhutan
Many of the phalluses are associated with fertility rituals and festivals. There are anecdotal stories about the success of these rituals so that even an American tour company called “Fertility Blessing, Spiritual Bhutan” sponsors trips to Bhutan. American women who have had trouble conceiving have signed up for the tour
Fertility rituals performed at the monastery at Chime Lhakhang are said to be particularly auspicious. Women having trouble conceiving have come there from the United States to be blessed in traditional Bhutanese fertility rituals by a monk who works from an altar with two phalluses, one of which is said to have been found growing naturally in Tibet in the 15th century by Drukpa Kunley. See Below
Heather Elton wrote for bayleafyoga.com: “Studies by the Center of Bhutan Studies (CBS) identified the phallus as an integral part of early pre-Buddhist religion in Bhutan. It was associated with the ethnic religion of Bon (1100 BC) wherein the phallus was integral to all rituals. These divine symbols are now embarrassing to many urbanites and this folk culture is now informally discouraged in urban centers. However you can still see many rituals, artworks and cultural practices relating to the “Mad Saint” and fertility still alive across Bhutan. [Source: Heather Elton, bayleafyoga.com, February 27, 2019]
“One ritual still practiced is a peculiar housewarming ceremony particular to the Bhutanese. Phallus symbols are erected on the four corners, the eaves, of the house and one inside. A basket is then filled with more wooden sculptures and a group of men and women, hired by the owner of the house, then battle to draw the basket up to the roof. While the men attempt to raise the basket the women try to pull it down. The intention is to win free hooch (spirit) from the owner of the house to gain energy to raise the basket. After some heavy drinking, the men finally raise the basket and fix the phalluses at the four corners of the roof.
Chime Lhakhang: Bhutan’s Fertility Temple
Chime Lhakhang (30 miles from Thimphu) is a temple in built in 1499 on a site blessed by the great Bhutanese saint Drukpa Kunley. It is sought by women who want to receive a fertility blessing. Even foreign women who thought they had no chance of getting pregnant did become pregnant after receiving a blessing at the temple.
Steven Lee Myers, New York Times: “Drukpa Kunley is celebrated throughout the country — and in Tibet, across the border — but his cult is centered on Chimi Lhakhang, the “no dog” monastery, near Lobesa, which encompasses a cluster of still smaller hamlets nestled in a valley of terraced paddies of red and white rice. The monastery was built on a knoll above the Puna Tsang River. To this day, hopeful couples traverse Bhutan to partake of the monastery’s fertility blessing. They reach it by climbing the knoll on foot after passing through the hamlets of Sopsokha and Teoprongchu. The valley is indisputably beautiful. Dragonflies swarm in circles overhead. Small aqueducts feeding the green rice paddies spin colorful prayer wheels like water mills. What has made the area famous, though, are the phalluses, a must-see for foreigners who pay the US$250 per day minimum that Bhutan requires for tourist visas. And more tourists, perhaps inevitably, mean more phalluses. [Source: Steven Lee Myers, New York Times, August 24, 2017]
Heather Elton wrote for bayleafyoga.com: “The journey to Chimi Lhakhang is a picturesque one. The most popular trail from Sopsokha to the temple leads through rice fields and an orange orchard, passing fluttering prayer flags and lone chortens (stupas) like pilgrims dotting the landscape, and brown and red homes beautifully juxtaposed against the surrounding green of the fertile land. [Source: Heather Elton, bayleafyoga.com, February 27, 2019]
“Approaching the temple, one cannot ignore the colourful facades and artworks of the buildings along the way. To my amazement wall upon wall are filled with whimsical, graphic renditions of gigantic phalluses. They are credited to Bhutan’s favorite saint, Lama Drukpa Kunley or ‘The Divine Madman’, a Tibetan monk who came to Bhutan in the 15th century to share his buddhist teachings.
“The temple itself is unimposing compared to other grander examples that can be found across Bhutan. As you approach, you are first greeted by one giant prayer wheel, past this can be found the black chorten where it is said the Divine madman trapped a demon. The main structure stands elegantly in white, studded with gold and brown medallions, surrounded by prayer wheels and topped by a gold and brown roof. Within the lhakhang stands a large statue of Guru Padmasamhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche or the second Buddha), beside him lies a reclined rendering of Lama Drukpa Kunley.
Fertility Rituals at Chime Lhakhang
The fertility ritual performed at Chime Lhakhang in the 1990s featured two phalluses — an ivory one and a wooden one — and was presided over by an elderly monk, who instructed participants to leave offerings of biscuits and yak butter at the foot of a statue of Drukpa Kunley. While chanting Buddhist scriptures he tapped the head of the statue, touched the saint’s archery set and drank holy water. After touching the ivory penis and the wooden one, the monk threw some dice to determine the lucky numbers for the children that were expected to be born. Names for the children were selected from cards drawn from an old deck of cards.
Heather Elton wrote for bayleafyoga.com: Chimi Lhakhang is visited not only by the Bhutanese but by couples from all over the world hoping to conceive. It is rumoured that Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge visited the temple prior to conceiving, as did Their Majesties King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema of Bhutan. Getting to the temple is an adventure in itself, the cliff side roads are precarious and not for the faint of heart. However, the fear of driving off a cliff is no deterrent to those serious about having a baby. [Source: Heather Elton, bayleafyoga.com, February 27, 2019]
“As part of a fertility ritual, hopeful women carry a large phallus sculpture around the outside of the monastery. A wooden effigy of the lama’s thunderbolt held in the lhakhang is then used to give childless women a wang (blessing or empowerment) from the saint by tapping them on the head with it. The women then roll a pair of 300 year old bone dice and after much deliberation and thoughtful analysis, several monks conclude the couple’s chance of conceiving. You can also request the monks’ assistance in naming a prospective child or newborn. To do this, one chooses a small piece of bamboo parchment at random from a stack, after which the monks confer and interpret the meaning before presenting the name, either Chimi or Kunley. The parchment is then left on the altar inside the lhakhang. Donating to the temple is also supposed to better one’s chances of conceiving even more.”
Jambay Lhakhang Fertility Festival
Jampa Lhakang Drub in September is annual fertility festival in the town of Jakar. The festival features clowns and dwarfs wearing masks who prance around with a wooden phallus and steal it from one another while the audience claps and children squeal with delight. During a mass fertility blessing one of the clowns drips water from a wooden phallus on the women who want to receive the blessing while each of the woman hold a stone phallus.
Jambay Lhakhang is located in Bumthang and is situated on the way to the Kurjie Lhakhang. It’s a ten minutes drive to the temple from the Chamkhar town. Jambay Lhakhang is one of the oldest temples in the kingdom. It was founded by, Songtsen Gampo, a Tibetan King in the 7th century AD. The king was destined to build 108 temples known as Thadhul- Yangdhul (temples on and across the border) in a day to subdue the demoness that was residing in the Himalayas. The temple is one of the two of the 108 built in Bhutan. A second is located in Paro, the Kichu lhakhang also built on the same day. [Source: Tourism Council of Bhutan, tourism.gov.bt]
Jambay Lhakhang Drup lasts for five days The highlight of the festival is the fire ritual that is held in the evening where crowds gather to witness the ritualistic naked dance. A fire dance performed at Bumthang is intended to help childless women attending the festival conceive in the upcoming year.
Commercialism, Tourism and Phallic Art in Bhutan
In the area of Chime Lhakhang there are shops that sell, Elton wrote, a variety of “phallic souvenirs in a different sizes and colours to suit every occasion. They range from a few inches to a couple of feet and come in colours from fire-engine red to tigerprint. With uses ranging from keychains to porch posts, doorknobs to walking sticks and even jewelry for the very bold, there’s something for everyone.” [Source: Heather Elton, bayleafyoga.com, February 27, 2019]
Steven Lee Myers, New York Times: “As Bhutan increasingly opens up to the world, the ancient tradition has been evolving or, some say, sullied — by commercialization. Though still a religious symbol, it has become, to some, a relic of a patriarchal past, something vaguely embarrassing and not fit for the modern new democracy that has, by all appearances, taken firm root in Bhutan after decades of relative isolation and absolute monarchy. [Source: Steven Lee Myers, New York Times, August 24, 2017]
“It has also become a curio to peddle in all sizes and colors to the increasing number of tourists visiting this remote Himalayan kingdom, renowned for its pursuit of “gross national happiness.” “People still use it as a symbol,” said Needrup Zangpo, the executive director of the Journalist Association of Bhutan, who has written about the historical inspiration for the symbol, “but the necessity of having it painted on your house is going away.” He attributed this erosion of tradition to “the exposure to Western culture.”
“Over a cup of salt butter tea, Mr. Tshering lamented the proliferation of shops and cafes that accompanied the rise of tourism (though his main complaint for the authorities was the sorry state of the local roads). “When I grew up, there were no shops,” he said. He says the trend came with the advent of parliamentary elections in 2008, which Bhutan’s former king ordered after abdicating in favor of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. “From then on there was no stopping the number of shops sprouting up,” Mr. Tshering said, adding that he found the trend unseemly. “I have no commercial interest,” he said, referring to his display of phalluses, which have been so widely photographed that they appear on Wikipedia. “I ask for nothing.”
“The phalluses certainly have been a boon for the villages here, a two-hour drive from the capital, Thimphu. The area has around 2,700 people, according to the most recent census, in 2005. Most are farmers, though there is a growing number of shopkeepers and artists. Tenpa Renchen, the deputy headman of the village, an elected post, said the gains to the local economy had come mostly from the rents that villagers can charge to the souvenir shops. A few more opened in the last year, as did a restaurant with a stunning view of the monastery. “Personally,” he emphasized, with a diplomatic touch, “I don’t like people selling these in shops, but they have to make a living.”
“The village elders, however, are watching the commercialization with caution. The proliferation of shops has not yet reached a crisis, Mr. Renchen said, but could soon test the limits of tolerance. Mr. Renchen sounded wistful in an interview, lamenting the modern exploitation of something with a deeper religious significance. “The Divine Madman,” he said, “has much more to offer than just a phallus.”
Decriminalizing Homosexuality in Bhutan
In 2019, the Bhutanese government decriminalized homosexuality and legalize gay sex. Al Jazeera reported: Bhutan’s lower house of parliament voted overwhelmingly to repeal provisions that said "unnatural sex" is illegal. The bill still needs to be passed by Bhutan parliament's upper chamber before being sent for royal assent. “Taking steps to end the criminalisation of same-sex relationships is a welcome and progressive step by Bhutan," Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, told Reuters news agency on Sunday. [Source: Al Jazeera, June 10, 2019]
“Bhutanese Finance Minister Namgay Tshering had proposed to repeal the penal code provisions, saying the law, despite never being used, had become "a stain" on the country's reputation. The minister said he was optimistic that the upper house in the nation of 750,000 people would back the lower house decision when it votes on Monday. “A lot of us cried," said Tashi Tsheten of Rainbow Bhutan that represents the country's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. “We are a small and marginalised community and when our rights are discussed in parliament, it makes us extremely happy," Tashi said. He added that some ministers had been social workers with contacts in the LGBT community and Prime Minister Lotay Tshering was a surgeon. “So we had lot of hopes in this government," he said.
“There is no annual Gay Pride rally or other such public display in Bhutan. And while Tashi said there was a general acceptance of transgenders, especially in rural areas, they still faced much discrimination, particularly in schools. “There are lots of barriers and our education system does not understand LGBT," Tashi said, adding that most LGBT youths dropped out of school. Bhutan's move follows India, whose Supreme Court last year decriminalised homosexuality by declaring the related British-era laws unconstitutional.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Council of Bhutan (tourism.gov.bt), National Portal of Bhutan, the Bhutan government’s main site (gov.bt), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022