On The Tiger’s Trail

/ New Delhi
The Tiger’s Nest monastery or Paro Taktsang, as it is commonly known, is the spiritual symbol of Bhutan. The trek to the monastery is not just adventurous but allows the hikers to experience a spiritual transformation.
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Tyger Tyger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night;

What immortal hand or eye,

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake’s famous words from The Tyger poem came automatically to me in the twilight of daybreak as I began the arduous and yet much-vaunted trek to Tiger’s Nest, the most famous monastery in the Land of Thunderbolt as the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan is also known.

Why Tyger? It was the natural recall because during the 8th century, Guru Rinpoche, also known as Guru Padmasambhava, an avatar of Gautam Buddha according to some, flew to a cave here on the back of a flying tigress. That tigress was a transformation of his Tibetan concubine, Yeshe Tsogyal. Guru Rinpoche then meditated at a holy cave here for 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days and 3 hours, to subdue the demons there.

Almost 13 centuries later, in the dewy, early morning hours, dense clumps of tall pine and cypress trees welcome me on the journey that I was about to embark upon. The trees stand as gatekeepers of the Tiger’s Nest monastery, welcoming every traveller into the spiritual kingdom. For the journey, I got the option of choosing my ride, horse, donkey, pony, mule to take me halfway up. However, as the locals believe, if you ride an animal up to get to Paro Taktsang, you split the good merit accumulated from the journey with the animal.

Greedy about the rare good merit that I was about to acquire, and not willing to split it with anyone else, I chose to trek up the hill. On the trek, every few hundred metres, a different landscape with its own vegetation welcomed me. Once out of the shadows of the dense forest of pine and cypress trees, I found myself walking under a scorching sun for few hundred metres more as a patch of barren land welcomes me just before the challenging climb to 3000 metres rocky granite cliff, dominating the Paro valley, with the monastery perched precariously on the edge of the cliff. The hill rose dramatically, and from below the sides looked precipitous even though it was covered with a vast variety of decades-old trees. Towards the summit, the outline of the shrine was barely visible.

All along the journey, I came across long strings of small, colourful Buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the slight, winter breeze. The route also has several spots with Buddhist prayer wheels that one can turn to gain merit even as one gains altitude during the trek. One of the biggest advantages of any journey on foot is that one can stop almost anywhere to relish the amazing views and of course capture them on camera for spending nostalgic moments later. Being on foot, I ensured that I maximised my advantage and clicked hundreds of photographs on the way up, making the rather difficult trek a complete and undiluted pleasure.

After over two hours of a fairly tiresome walk, I came to a small café on flat ground with an amazing view of the valley and the monastery. Though the café offers some basic beverages and snacks, it is worth a stop not just to regain one’s breath but also to capture great views. It also comes with an adequate washroom for the travellers’ comfort.

After a short but very refreshing break, I continued onward on my spiritual discovery. After another gruelling walk, just as I approach the granite cliff, I see steps carved out of stone leading the pedestrians to the monastery. The steps first take me down to a small bridge over a waterfall that falls over 65 metres, into a pool, considered to be very sacred by the locals. Around the waterfall and the holy pool are hundreds of prayer flags and in the small crevices on the cliff face the locals deposit ashes of the deceased along with a few items.

But as you cross the pool, the steps suddenly lead you a vertical climb making you gain an altitude of over 500 metres in the short journey. The last few steps leave you breathless, not just for the steep angle at which they seem to climb, but also for the view of the Paro valley that awaits at the top of the cliff.

The monastery is one of the most pious ones in the country, every Bhutanese person is expected to make the pilgrimage at least once in a lifetime. But not just the local believers, Tiger’s Nest, built-in 1692, is also a must-visit site on every tourist’s first trip to Bhutan. However, the original structure was destroyed in a fire in 1998. It took USD 2 million and six years to restore and rebuilt the monastery as we see today.

As I entered the monastery, I was asked to deposit the camera as well as my mobile phone at the entrance. Stepping in, I could see that there were numerous small temples built as shrines to various avatars of Guru Rinpoche. Several of these shrines contained huge stupas and statues.

I was left wondering how these large and heavy statues were brought up to the monastery in the 16th century, as walking uphill with just a camera itself proved to be quite a challenge for someone very fit. The shrines were also crammed with various Buddhist icons and heaps of money and food that had been presented to the deities as offerings by pilgrims. The shrines and the monastery, in general, were all lit with dozens of traditional butter lamps.

The spiritual ambience prevailing inside the monastery and in the various shrines was such that it evoked the desire to meditate within me and I joined dozens of other visitors who had also succumbed to the peace prevailing around them to seek the peace within. I sat down to meditate and the pleasure of seeking the peace of mind and soul was such that I didn’t notice how the time went by. It was only when I looked at my watch I realised that it was time to leave the monastery and its pure atmosphere and begin the descent down to Paro and to my normal, everyday life.

Walking back and thinking about the entire experience of the day so far, the words of another famous poet came to my mind. This time The Daffodils by William Wordsworth.

“I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought”

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