Paro Taktsang: The Breathtaking Himalayan Cloud Monastery
Bhutan is a small country in South Asia and the home of many sacred sites and monasteries associated with Buddhism. One of these sacred monasteries is called Paro Taktsang or Taktsang Palphug Monastery in Dzongkha (Bhutan’s official language). Paro Taktsang is located in the Himalayan mountains. It is one of the most revered places of pilgrimage, with a founding shrouded in strange tales and legend. Built in the late 17th century, it withstood the test of time until several years ago when it was nearly destroyed by fire. Today, it is considered to be one of the holiest sites in Bhutan as well as a cultural icon that is open only once a year in a special ceremony.
The Adventurous Path to Paro Taktsang
The Taktsang Palphug Monastery (also known as Paro Taktsang or Tiger’s Nest Monastery), is a small Buddhist temple complex located about 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of the town of Paro. It clings to a cliff, 3,120 meters (10,236 feet) on the upper Paro valley in Bhutan.
One unique aspect of this monastery is the isolated location. It is accessible only by mountainous paths and involves a two hour climb from the valley floor through pine forests at around 2,133 meters (7000 feet), to the Tiger’s Nest 914 meters (3000 feet) above. One path near the monastery leads over a 60 meters (196 feet) high waterfall via stone steps (with no hand rails) carved into the open cliff face. After two hours of climbing, the beginning of the entrance to the Tiger’s Nest is reached, which is a rock outcropping overlooking a vast chasm. Beneath the promontory of rock, and across the chasm from the monastery, the cliff drops about 609 meters (2000 feet) to the canyon below.
Waterfall, Paro Taktsang monastery, Bhutan (Bob Witlox/Flickr)
Architectural Elements of Paro Taktsang’s Monastery Complex
The Paro Taktsang monastery has four main temples and residential shelters. Each building has a balcony, which provides views of the Paro valley below. The buildings are interconnected through rock stairways and steps along with several wooden bridges.
There are eight caves, four of which are fairly easy to access. The entrance to the main cave is through a narrow passage. It holds twelve images of Bodhisattvas with butter lamps burning in front of these idols. Paintings can also be found on the walls of the monastery along with a sacred scripture which is kept in an adjoining small cell. The importance of this scripture is that it has been printed with gold dust and the crushed bone powder of a divine Lama.
At the highest level of the complex is a temple that has a frieze of Buddha. The Monastery also has an ancient history of occupation by monks and monks who arrive here often stay for at least for three years, seldom leaving it.
The Legend of the Tiger’s Lair and Guru Rinpoche
According to legend, Guru Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) reached the temple site of Paro Taktsang in the 8th century by flying on the back of a tigress from Khenpajoing, Tibet. Guru Padmasambhava was a Brahmin royal who spread Tantric Buddhism throughout Bhutan and Tibet in the 700’s.
Guru Rinpoche wall painting on Paro Bridge, Paro Taktsang, Bhutan (Wikimedia Commons)
The name “Taktsang" literally means Tiger's Lair and was derived when the people in the locality came across a tigress residing in one of the caves. The legend says that, at that time, Rinpoche took the incarnation of the fiery Dorje Drolo, one of his eight manifestations. That tigress was in fact his consort Yeshe Tsogyal who took the form of an animal to subjugate local demons and spirits.
Rinpoche meditated in thirteen small monasteries or ‘tiger nest’ caves, of which Paro Taktsang is the best known. It is said he meditated in the cave on the mountain for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours. After completing his meditation, Guru Padmasambhava subjugated the eight categories of evil spirits and converted the Bhutanese to Buddhism. Today, he is seen in the area as nearly as holy as the Buddha himself and regarded as the Second Buddha and a guardian spirit of Bhutan. His followers believe that Padmasambhava is still alive and active but in another form, as Rainbow Body.
The Miraculous Return of Pelkyi’s Body
Guru Rinpoche would eventually return to Tibet and disseminated his teaching to his disciples. One of his disciples, Langchen Pelkyi Singye, returned to Taktsang to meditate in the year 853 AD. He called the cave where he prayed Pelkyi’s Cave. Pelkyi is believed to have gone to Nepal where he later died. However, his body miraculously returned to the Taktsang Monastery under the guidance of deity Dorje Legpa and is now sealed inside the Buddhist shrine standing in a room on the top left side of the entrance.
The Legendary Foundation and Reconstruction of the Paro Taktsang Monastery
The building of Paro Taktsang Monastery was built nine centuries later, in 1692, by Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye, Bhutan’s leader at the time. He is believed to have been the reincarnation of Padmasambhava and founded the monastery by planting its first stone during a visit to the holy caves. Legend says that when the temple was built, it was anchored to the cliff by the hairs of female celestial beings known as khandroma.
Between 1961 and 1965, the monastery was renovated by the 34th Je Khenpo, Shedrup Yoezer and further additions were made in 1861-65, 1982-83, and again in 1992.
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On April 19, 1998, a fire broke out at Paro Taktsang, destroying valuable paintings, artifacts and statues. Most of the buildings were burned down and a monk was killed during the blaze. Since the temple is difficult to access, emergency assistance was impossible at the time.
However, the monastery has since been meticulously rebuilt and restored to its original form in 2005 by Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth king of Bhutan. The restoration is estimated to have cost around 135 million ngultrum (more than 2 million USD) and today Paro Taktsang is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country.
Taktsang prayer wheel, Paro Taktsang Monastery, Bhutan (Wikimedia Commons)
Bhutan is deeply connected to its natural surroundings and its heritage seems to stem from ancient spirituality. The Taktsang Monastery is a modern day example of this spiritual history as well as the powerful Bhutanese connection to Buddhism.
Featured Image: Paro Taktsang Monastery, Bhutan (Wikimedia Commons)
By Bryan Hill
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