By Katherine Anne Paul
The Land of the Thunder Dragon, better known to the west as Bhutan, is a Buddhist Kingdom in the eastern Himalayas. It is roughly the size of Switzerland and is cradled by the Indian provinces of Arunachal Pradesh to the East, Assam and West Bengal to the South, and Sikkim to the West. Tibet is located to the North. Bhutan’s geology and geography are inextricably inter-woven with its religion and history. The Tiger’s Nest, known to the Bhutanese as Taktsang, is a sacred cave in the Paro Valley in western Bhutan. This cave is just one example of how a sacred site embodies Bhutanese religious belief and historical understanding. It also exemplifies a tension between Western and Bhutanese concepts of cultural preservation.
The geology of the Paro Valley reflects that of the middle Himalayas. The Himalayan mountain range is the youngest in the world. It was created when the continental plate of the Indian sub-continent collided with Asia’s continental plate. Because it is such a young mountain range the soil on top is less compact. The malleability of the earth makes terracing possible allowing the Bhutanese to create relatively flat fields on steep mountains. There are also disadvantages to the loose soil. Landslides are frequent. Small seismic shifts in the bedrock may cause more drastic changes on the surface. Perhaps due to the dramatic geology, the Bhutanese envision the land as a living and moving entity or groups of entities.
The king who supported the first wave of Buddhism that arrived in Bhutan in the seventh century C.E. was the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo. He is known for having 108 temples constructed to pin down the body of a demoness who opposed Buddhism.1 After this period of initial fluorescence, the influence of Buddhism waned. Buddhism was revived in the eighth century C.E. with the arrival of a tantric religious figure, named Guru Rinpoche. Guru Rinpoche is credited with the permanent establishment of Buddhism in Bhutan and other Tibetan cultural areas. The key to his success was his ability to convert local deities to protectors of Buddhism. The integration of local religious traditions with Tibetan Buddhism insured the continued success of Buddhism, and the survival of indigenous Bhutanese religious practice to the present day.2
Taktsang owes its very name to the illustrious Guru Rinpoche. According to legend the tantric master flew to this cave on the back of a tiger or tigress. His purpose was to meditate at this auspicious location. Meditation is an active, not a passive endeavor as practiced in Tantric Buddhism. Meditative retreats in inaccessible caves are believed to assist concentration, heighten meditative powers, and catalyze potent visions. These activities increase the power of the tantric master enabling him to perform super-human feats. In addition to its legendary discovery, the Taktsang cave has had much subsequent activity that has increased its importance as a sacred site. Guru Rinpoche’s powerful consort Yeshe Tshogyal and follower Dubthok Singye are reputed to have meditated at Taktsang.3 In the early 12th century C.E. Milarepa, the primary religious figure of the Kargyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, composed one of his famed 100,000 sacred songs at Taktsung.4 In 1648 a temple was built around the cave.5 The temple complex seems to defy gravity as its clings to the side of the cliff. Over the years the temple complex was expanded to include a monastery. The living presence of Guru Rinpoche came to reside at the monastery in the form of his reincarnation, called a tulku. The relics of the legendary tiger or tigress that Guru Rinpoche rode were enshrined within the monastery.6 Like many Bhutanese temples important ritual paintings, called thangkas, golden statues encrusted with precious and semi-precious jewels, murals and religious texts were installed in the temple complex. The introduction of the tulku lineage, physical relics, artistic treasures, and religious texts, further boosted the prestige of the site, so that cave was only one of several foci for veneration.
The construction of the temple at Taktsang indicates a change in the political climate of the Himalayas in the 17th century. The nascence of the present political Bhutanese State is traced to this period. The founder of Bhutan is referred to as the Shabdrung. He is the “unifier” who succeeded in uniting Bhutan in the early 17th century. Upon unification he named the Drukpa Kargyu sub-sect of the Kargyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism to be the state religion. In 1647 the Shabdrung erected the Drukgyel Dzong, just north of Taktsung, to celebrate both the unification of Bhutan and the defeat of their northern rivals, the Tibetans.7 Thus while Bhutan has many cultural associations with Tibetan cultural areas, it has not been dominated by Tibetan political influence since the 17th century.
Bhutan is also one of the rare areas in which indigenous traditions have had minimal contact with British colonialism. In 1904 the governance of Bhutan shifted from an incarnate system, like that of the Dalai Lama, to a hereditary monarchy. A treaty was signed first with the British Empire and later re-confirmed with independent India, that guaranteed no external interference with Bhutan’s domestic matters. However, in international affairs Bhutan agreed to be guided by Britain, and later India.8 This placed Bhutan in a unique position compared to similar Himalayan Buddhist kingdoms. The British, Tibetans, Chinese, and Indians have not had significant political influence within the country.
Like its Himalayan neighbors, Tibet, Sikkim, and Nepal, Bhutan chose to keep its borders closed to western influence in the early part of this century. After the Chinese invaded Tibet in the late 1950’s Bhutan began reconsidering its isolationist policies. In 1975 India absorbed Bhutan’s western neighbor Sikkim. This confirmed the need for international exposure if Bhutan wished to retain its sovereignty.
Bhutan and Nepal remain the only two independent kingdoms that survive between China and India. Bhutan’s current development policies are quite different from Nepal’s. Bhutan has far less contact with the outside world and, by its own choice, a slower rate of development. The Bhutanese government is attempting to address the disadvantages of development where it affects the environmental and cultural integrity of Bhutan. Some of Bhutan’s worst fears have been confirmed by recent events.
Last spring the 17th century Taktsang temple complex caught fire.9 A plethora of rumors abound regarding the cause of the fire. It may have been an accident. The butter lamps that are used for devotion and illumination are ideal fire hazards and fire is not an unusual occurrence in such structures. Lightning may have caused the fire. Some rumors report that the propane gas tanks used for cooking food exploded. More alarming rumors state the temple was set on fire to conceal the robbing of the temple’s riches and the murder of the caretaker. It is unclear from the rumors if the alleged theft was motivated by the valuable jewels and gold, or if the art objects were the desired items.
The controversy about the fire at Taktsang raises many disturbing issues that stretch well beyond Bhutan. The recent popularity of Bhutanese and Tibetan art in international exhibitions has increased interest to the potential detriment as well as benefit of places like Bhutan. Sacred sites and monuments have been desecrated for their material goods. Temples throughout the Himalayas have been robbed. Stupas have been broken into and consecrating items removed.10 The perpetrators of these crimes are not necessarily highly organized black marketeers. Temples throughout the Himalayas have experienced problems with “tourists” filling their rucksacks with items from the altar.
It is disturbing that some opinions in the West attempt to rationalize Western “collecting” of these treasures. One strand in this conversation discusses the abstract concept of cultural preservation and suggests that only through global dissemination of knowledge of Himalayan art, literature, and language, can the culture be preserved. Another more concrete thread of the discussion rationalizes the physical conditions for preserving art. This rational cites instances of political instability where cultural objects were destroyed in the line of fire. It also suggests because only developed nations have the physical ability (such as climate control) to preserve objects, the West’s ability to preserve should supersede the indigenous control of cultural objects.
The West’s concern for conservation and preservation has a very different perspective and agenda than the Tibetan Buddhist’s cyclic vision of life. The West attempts to conserve murals and monuments in a sort of suspended animation that fights the laws of nature. Because of the confrontational relationship between architecture and nature, conservation almost by necessity goes hand in hand with restoration. The cleaning of Michelangelo’s murals in the Sistine Chapel sparked frenzied controversy regarding different philosophies of conservation and restoration. Despite the controversy no one suggested that new paintings be created over Michelangelo’s originals, as might be the case in Bhutan.
The Bhutanese see the re-building and re-decorating of temples as merit-making activities. According to the Bhutanese conception of life, one may be re-born innumerable times. The objective is to be re-born in the best possible circumstances. The accumulation of merit is the spiritual currency that will help individuals to better future re-births. Merit can be accumulated by donating money, labor, and materials for a number of projects. Temples and temple murals have an additional advantage in the merit-making system. Not only is merit accumulated by donation, but once a temple exists pilgrims who come to view the murals and visit the temples also gather merit from viewing the murals on their visit. This furthers the Tibetan Buddhist philosophy that one’s actions should “benefit all sentient beings”. Thus redecoration of the temple has spiritual advantages that are overlooked in the West.
Another issue that potentially conflicts with Western concepts of conservation is the spiritual effectiveness of the art and architecture. Most Bhutanese religious art and architecture is consecrated. It may be invested with the spirits of deities or saints that it depicts. Thus there is a spiritual danger when such art-objects are damaged. The spirit that inhabits the art may become angry. Lamas may need to appease those angry spirits and request that they leave the vessel, namely the painting or sculpture that houses them. Once the art object has been freed of its inhabiting spirit it becomes ineffective for Tibetan Buddhist spiritual practice. Therefore the re-decoration and re-consecration of the temple may be a pressing necessity to the religious practice.
The Bhutanese are planing to restore the Taktsang temple. Except for the most rudimentary repairs, major restoration of the temple was postponed for several reasons. The Bhutanese believe that last year was inauspicious. It is preferred that the temple restoration should begin in an auspicious time. Secondly, funds for the restoration are required. Happily, initial funding from global sources has been forthcoming. Tourist interest in Taktsang has increased since the fire. Tourists side by side with Bhutanese pilgrims continue to brave the steep hike required to approach the temple. The West, hopefully, has the courage to respect Bhutanese priority as it assists with the continuation of this sacred site.
Katherine Anne Paul is a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, specializing in Himalayan culture.
Footnotes available upon request.