Taktsang Monastery is the holiest, most well-known and most widely photographed landmark in Bhutan. A visit to the infamous monastery is included in every tourist itinerary and it lives up to the hype.A cluster of white structures cling to the face of a cliff with all its strength. This was the first image I saw when I googled Bhutan for the first time twelve months ago. I catch my first real life glimpse of the nest through the cab window. The high noon sun cast such a glare that I had to roll down the glass and squint my eyes to be sure of what I was seeing. From so far away it looks like a white patch painted onto the cliff—there is no dimension to it, nothing 3-D. As we near, the structure begins to take shape, growing out of the rock. Impossible is all I can think as I stand at the base of the mountain looking straight up. You know that its muscles must be trembling from exertion; a battle to the death being waged inside its walls. Yet on the outside it remains poised and collected as if the fight with gravity isn’t happening at all. I’m surprised by the unassuming nature of its splendor—had I unconsciously attributed the qualities of vanity and superiority that so often come with fame to a building?
We walk slowly up the hill feeling sorry for those tourists that, due to strict time constraints, have to climb this mountain within hours of arriving on the plane. Jingle bells floating on the wind bring warning of the approaching herd of pack ponies at fast trot, sending up plumes of dust. They pass us in fast moving single file, compact little train cars barreling down the mountain, barely clinging to the track. Decorated with big tassels hanging from their bridals and little bells under their chins, the oranges, golds and reds of their goh striped pack pads compliment their furry brown bodies.
Thick forests provide welcome shade from the afternoon heat and a fresh gust of wind now carries the sing-song voice of a man running down the trail chasing the indecipherable words of his mantra. Long delicate strands of sage colored lichen blow elegantly in the musical breeze, suspended from the spindly branches of sliver fir trees. Emerging from the forest we reach the postcard viewpoint at the top of the ridge directly in front of an 800 meter cliff and stand breathless. Impossible.
Tiny figures can be seen crawling around inside the monastery like little ants dressed in goh and kira.
Long strings of prayer flags drape across the wide gap between the two ridges; one end is tied to a rock and thrown across to the opposite point, but even knowing this I still cannot imagine how they came to bridge such a vast expanse.
We take sweet time admiring the structures at a distance, taking hundreds of photographs of both the monastery and the crowds of people leaving the monastery, hiking back up the gully we are now descending. By the time we reach the entrance we are told that the lhakhang is closed from 1-2pm for lunch. A flash of frustration washes over me, evaporated moments later by a small kitten I find basking in the sun. I pick him up and he reluctantly lets me cradle him in my arms. This attracts several little kids and we are soon surrounded by the entire family all wanting to touch my little pet. We hand our camera to one of the fathers for him to take a photo. After lots of laughs and “1, 2, 3’s,” the family departs. When we look back to see the pictures there is nothing. He managed to not take a single photo of our brief friendship.
We eat a snack and seek shelter from the wind. An hour later we are allowed to enter. It is so quiet inside. With the morning crowds gone, the afternoon is reserved for those who like to take their time. Perhaps these five months in Bhutan have slowed my pace, calming the constant sense of urgency to get there. A freshly whitewashed stone staircase curves gently toward an archway drowned in light. Potbellied clay pots are planted with fake red flowers. Never has a plastic flower looked more elegant. There are some real flowers too, rebelling against the winter. We enter the first two temples alone. The wide planked floors are soft and smooth from centuries of shuffling feet. Indentations are worn into the boards in front of the central deities, carved by hundreds of thousands of bodies bowing in prostration. The cold wood, shiny drapes and colorful wall paintings are bathed in gold dust, our movements sending spirals of glitter in the air.
Back outside and up another level I spot a cloaked door with a little sign beside it saying, “Tiger’s Lair.” Inside is a dark crevice with three ladders going down to a bottom that can’t be seen. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be here or not. It seems a little sketchy to be open to the public, but there was no one around to tell me no so I started climbing down. I hate ladders so my heart, already accelerated from the adrenalin of possibly getting caught, is in my throat. I almost turn back several times but my curiosity wins the internal battle and at the bottom I am certain I have reached a place that most people don’t get to see.
A small alter glows in the light of a single candle at the deepest corner of the cave. I make a tiny prostration in the cramped temple. At the other end, sunlight breaks through the darkness and my curiosity takes charge again. Squeezing through two big rocks I lean out. I’m looking straight down the sheer face of the cliff. Nothing below me but the black and tan streaked rock and a thick forest of trees a long, long way down. I get that roller coaster feeling in my stomach. I manage one quick glimpse up and see a corner of the monastery hanging even farther out from the wall than I was. Yep, definitely not supposed to be here.
Climbing back up the ladders is far less scary than sticking your head out of a crack in a cliff wall. Two Bhutanese families have gathered in the small courtyard. Sheltered from the wind, the space feels warm and comforting, making you forget that you’re inside a structure anchored to the face of a cliff…
Until you look up and see another 300 meters of mountain towering above you.
Everyone climbs the final staircase together, bare feet making soft pitter-patter noises on the cold stones. There are at least twelve people crowded into the little temple; all moving in a ripple of prostrations, up and down, each to the rhythm of their own incantations. Small painted Buddhas line the walls; hundreds of them, all the same but not one identical. The family leaves and I linger by the window. Looking down all I can see is a tangle of trees and I realize that this is the corner I saw jutting out above the cave. I step slowly back towards the doorway and join the families in the last temple. It is an intimate moment to share, bowing in front of a shrine in one of most sacred sites in a country revered for its sacredness.
I feel honoured to be in the presence of these people from generations both younger and older than mine, from lives so different from mine, in a place so far from my home. But in that small room the differences don’t seem so big. Everything that has happened in our individual lives so distant from one another has brought us all to the same place at the very same moment. Everything we have been through has led us to this exact point and this exact time.
The chances of it seem impossible.