Thimphu, Bhutan - For centuries, Buddhists in this tiny landlocked Himalayan kingdom have had a special devotion to the most unusual of objects: the phallus. Painted on the walls of their homes, hanging from the eaves of their houses and seen in vehicles and on rooftops, images of the phallus are an essential part of Bhutan’s traditional ceremonies.
Bhutanese believe the “scandalous” yet integral image aids in fertility, offers protection from evil and dispels malicious gossip.
Now, Bhutan’s phallic worship is getting a second look. The age-old tradition is being reconsidered — to preserve its rich narratives, as artistic inspiration and as a tool for religious belief. In fact, the phallic symbol is suddenly again in vogue, contrary to the popular belief that modern Bhutanese are discomfited by the graphic paintings of an erect penis.
A young Bhutanese female author has written a new book, “Phallus: Crazy Wisdom from Bhutan,” a filmmaker is working on a film that explores phallic culture and an artist has carved a provocative phallus with dragon.
“I not only saw phalluses of all kinds — from one village to the other — but I found the stories behind its symbolism equally intriguing,” said the author, Karma Choden. “It is like a new art form is found. We are now giving our own spin to spirituality, culture and ritual.”
The popularity of phallic worship is attributed to the 15th-century Buddhist teacher, Drukpa Kunley, popularly known as the “Divine Madman.” A 2011 study titled “Bhutan’s Pervasive Phallus” by French historian Francoise Pommaret and Bhutanese scholar Tashi Tobgay, says the belief in the phallus’ ability to ward off evil spirits and transform them into protective deities is traced to Drukpa Kunley, who subdued demonesses with his “thunderbolt.”
His unconventional teachings, often fraught with sexual overtones, are said to have simplified Tantric Buddhism. “The best wine lies at the bottom of the pail,” he is quoted as saying, “and happiness lies below the navel.”
The Divine Madman also supposedly said that if what he utters is nonsense, enjoy it. “If you think what I have said is profound, practice it,” he said.
Choden, the author, said Bhutanese can be creative when it comes to phallic paintings and carvings: “All kinds of phalluses have recently emerged … some smiling, some angry, and some downright obscene,” she writes.
Kinley Tshering, the general secretary of the Journalist Association of Bhutan, said instead of shunning the otherwise risque images of phalluses, a younger generation is embracing this symbol in new ways. “They are redefining the idea of phalluses,” Tshering said, “not just as an image or symbol of ritualism but as an idea in itself.”
For example, Bhutanese filmmaker Tashi Gyeltshen will be exploring the idea of phallus in his next film, “The Red Phallus.” “Phallus is the object and idea that creates and destroys; it is about life and death, the duality of existence,” Tshering said.
On the other hand, another young filmmaker, Phuntshok Rabten, said modern Bhutanese aren’t sure what to make of the ubiquitous symbol: “We neither understand the profundity of traditions, nor are we truly modern like Westerners.”
Still, the phallus remains a staple of Bhutanese culture. Drukpa Kunley’s silver-handled bamboo phallus, believed to have been brought from Tibet, can be found in the Chimi Lhakhang monastery, which was built in 1499 to honor the eccentric Buddhist teacher. The silver-handled bamboo phallus is believed to possess divine power to help childless couples procreate.
An animist ritual, which predates the arrival of Buddhism in Bhutan, is still practiced in western Bhutan. During the festival called “Lhabon,” or “calling the gods,” one community uses a ladder that has its edges carved in a shape of a phallus. They believe the deities, who will bless them with prosperity and good health, descend on a rope tied to the ladder.
Meanwhile, in the eastern district of Lhuntse, an ancient festival called “Wayo” is meant to shed sexual inhibitions. During the festival, symbols and images of male and female genitals are used and verses filled with sexual innuendos are recited.
Rabten, the filmmaker, said he sees the phallus as a mirror of the mind: “The multiplicity of reactions it evokes, from mirth to profundity, represents the rigidity of one’s perspectives.”
Anthropologist Tandin Dorji said modern education, instead of broadening the thought process, is actually compressing the “openness” that’s always been a feature of Bhutanese culture.
“The unacceptability of traditions and teachings that have sexual overtones,” he said, “has become quite visible.”