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Ascending Bhutan’s Sacred Tiger’s Nest

PARO, Bhutan–It’s a steep climb to Taktsang, a monastery hugging the side of a rocky cliff 3,000 feet above the Paro valley in Bhutan. But the going is fairly easy if taken slowly, for the path is well constructed and maintained and the mountain air is fresh and cool. It requires ascending a thousand steps or more, with plenty of opportunities to admire the view and to catch one’s breath. For those of us who live at sea level it can be difficult to breathe comfortably while exercising vigorously at 10,000 feet, so a relaxed pace with plenty of rest was definitely the way to do it, as advised by our expedition leader.

Taktsang monastery on the side of a mountain overlooking Paro Valley in Bhutan. Photograph by David Braun.
Taktsang monastery on the side of a mountain overlooking Paro Valley in Bhutan. The World Heritage site is featured prominently in the National Geographic book “Sacred Places of a Lifetime,” a showcase of the world’s most powerful and spiritual places. Photograph by David Braun.
The National Geographic Committee for Research and Explorations at the start of the walk up to Taktsang monastery. Photograph by David Braun.
The National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration at the start of the hike up to Taktsang monastery. Photograph by David Braun.

The pilgrimage to Taktsang, also known as Tiger’s Nest or Tiger’s Lair, is (literally and figuratively) the high point of any visitor’s sojourn in Bhutan. For the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration delegation, it was the final stop of a week-long visit that had taken us around the western part of the kingdom, visiting dzongs (monastery fortresses), temples, and the wintering grounds of white-bellied herons and black-necked cranes. We’d had plenty of time to acclimate to the altitude and there had been at least two long walks through farms and villages to prepare us for the steep climb to the Tiger’s Nest.

Wall painting of Padmasambhava on Paro bridge by Baldiri, Wikimedia Creative Commons.
Wall painting of Padmasambhava on Paro bridge. Image by by Baldiri, Wikimedia Creative Commons.

Flying in on a Tigress

Taktsang is said to be the holiest site in Bhutan. It’s where Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava, materialized some 1,300 years ago on the back of a flying tigress. Finding shelter in a series of caves, he meditated for some three years and then set about converting the Bhutanese to Buddhism. The monastery that commemorates this auspicious beginning was built nine centuries later, in the 1600s, although the buildings we see today have been replaced several times, including major reconstruction completed in 2005 after a fire devastated the structure and its contents in 1998. But as the Bhutanese point out, buildings are temporal and meant to be renewed; the ideas and philosophies they represent cannot be destroyed.

 

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Thousands of prayer flags frame a 200-foot waterfall below the Tiger's Nest Monastery. Photograph by David Braun.
Thousands of prayer flags frame a 200-foot waterfall below the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Photograph by David Braun.
Small reliquaries known as "tsa-tsas" contain the ashes of the dead and are placed on ledges in the vicinity of Tiger's Nest. Photograph by David Braun.
Small reliquaries or “tsa-tsas” containing ashes of the dead on ledges in the vicinity of Tiger’s Nest. Photograph by David Braun.

The final approach to the monastery after a climb of around two hours is over a bridge across a waterfall that drops 200 feet into a sacred pool. The entire area is wrapped in prayer flags, while crevices in the rock are crammed with tsa-tsas, small reliquaries containing ashes of the dead. One last brutal flight of steep steps hewn out of rock delivers pilgrims to the monastery, which for our visit was blanketed in low-hanging cloud, adding an aura of heaven to the place.

Entry to the sanctuary is granted on condition that shoes, cameras, cell phones and other electronic equipment are left at the gates. A security guard patted us down to make sure we were not smuggling cameras and he instructed us to button our jackets in respect. Inside we were given a tour of various temples and other chambers crammed with Buddhist icons and heaped offerings of food and money. Flickering traditional butter lamps cast a warm ethereal light.

Taktsang's main structures were rebuilt after a fire all but destroyed the complex in 2005. A consortium of international donors restored the site, listed in National Geographic's book "Sacred Journey's of a Lifetime," to its former glory. Photograph by David Braun.
Taktsang’s main structures were rebuilt after a fire all but destroyed the complex 16 years ago. A consortium of international donors restored the site to its former glory in 2005. Photograph by David Braun.

Holy Water

In one temple we encountered a monk watching over a door sealing the cave used by Padmasambhava all those centuries ago. It is opened only once a year in a special ceremony, perhaps like Easter Sunday in the Vatican’s St Peter’s basilica. The monk blessed us and poured saffron-laced water into our hands which we brought to our lips and splashed on the back of our heads. In the next sanctuary we found a monk chanting from sacred texts. He too splashed holy water into our hands for our mouths and heads, and he offered us something to eat.

We were alone in the third room we visited. Our guide stood with us at the door and explained the chamber’s purpose and the iconography on the altar, including a sitting statue of Padmasambhava. Then he invited us to sit quietly on the floor and meditate a while about where we were and what we were seeing.

Cross-legged comfortably on a mat, feet pointed in respectfully, I first thought what a difference it made to be looking at the icons without the encumbrance of a camera. I became conscious of the complete silence of our situation in the clouds thousands of feet up on the side of a mountain deep in the Himalayas. And as I listened to the silence and stared into the fierce eyes of one of the statues my mind shifted abruptly; into my head came the memory of my mother who passed away 34 years ago, and I thought how much she would have wanted to visit this special place. Just then a bird trilled loudly through the open window behind me, and I imagined it was my mother’s way of telling me that she had heard me.

It is not uncommon for people to have some kind of spiritual experience at Taktsang, Bill Jones, our expedition leader, told me after we had left the monastery. Bill has led groups to Bhutan more than a hundred times, taking perhaps a thousand people up to the shrine. “I can’t tell you how many people have told me that something happened to them spiritually up there,” he said when I told him my story. I also learned that the bird that had interrupted my reverie was a rufous-breasted accentor, a common resident throughout the Himalayas. (You can listen to its song here.)

The two-hour stroll up the mountain to Taktsang is through forests of rhododendron and pines, with many birds and smaller animals to be enjoyed. Photograph by David Braun.
The two-hour stroll up the mountain to Taktsang is through forests of rhododendron and pines, with many birds and smaller animals to be enjoyed. Photograph by David Braun.

Birds are abundant in Bhutan. Everywhere we went we saw crows on houses and monasteries. We learned that schools had been relocated and electricity cables buried to make wetlands safe for black-necked cranes that migrate from Tibet for the winter. Their numbers are growing. The government has committed to protecting them and also more than half the country for forest. Wildlife corridors have been set aside for elephants, tigers, leopards, and all the animals smaller than them, to be able to migrate between national parks in both Bhutan and neighboring India.

Surrounded entirely by China and India, the two most populous nations on Earth, Bhutan’s isolation and its ancient spirituality have enabled the country to hang on to much of its culture and natural heritage. But as the country continues to modernize and open to the world, Bhutan will be challenged to stay this way. The teachings brought to Taktsang by Padmasambhava 1,300 years ago include belief in the power and value of nature. Keeping the faith might be what empowers the country to choose the right way forward.

National Geographic President and CEO Gary Knell turns a prayer wheel prior to ascending the mountain to the Tiger's Nest monastery. Photograph by David Braun.
National Geographic President and CEO Gary Knell spins prayer wheels prior to hiking to the Tiger’s Nest monastery. Photograph by David Braun.
CRE member Keith Clarke and David Braun pause for a photo en route to the Tiger's Nest monastery. Photograph courtesy of David Braun.
CRE member Keith Clarke and David Braun pause for a photo en route to Tiger’s Nest. Photograph courtesy of David Braun.

National Geographic President and CEO Gary Knell led the CRE on a tour of the Himalayan country to meet with grantees, listen to briefings from government officials and environment groups, and observe science, exploration, and conservation in the field. The Society has funded nearly two dozen grants in Bhutan, two of which are active.

Taktsang is built on a series of ledges on near vertical rock cliffs thousands of feet above Paro Valley. Photograph by David Braun.
Taktsang is built on a series of ledges on near vertical rock cliffs thousands of feet above Paro. The monastery is some 10,000 feet above sea level. Photograph by David Braun.

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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Comments

  1. Natalie
    USA
    June 27, 11:31 pm

    Greetings,

    Thank you very much for sharing your experience. We will travel to Bhutan this October. I could not find any information regarding best time of a day to photo the Tiger’s Nest. Please advice me. Thank you very much for your help.

    Best regards,
    Natalie

  2. Sunil Mathur
    Mumbai, India
    September 13, 2015, 12:01 pm

    I visited Bhutan with my family in nov 2014. The entire experience was amazing and our last activity was the trek up to Tiger Nest Monastery. It was a wonderful experience and the surprising thing was that my mother, at over 69 years of age managed to complete the trek as well.
    I will surely return to Bhutan.

  3. Phub Dorji
    http://www.bhutanjourneys.com/
    July 3, 2015, 7:10 am

    The photos were looking so real. Amazing photography guys and post was also very informative.

  4. Jennifer Tasker
    Australia
    February 6, 2015, 6:26 am

    So wonderful to see these photos and read about your experience climbing Taktsang. I was privileged to travel to Bhutan with Nat Geo with Bill as my Guide in Oct 2014. An amazing place, an amazing climb and journey, an amazing guide and an amazing company.

    Your description of spending time in the temple room in silence and having a Spiritual experience with your mother brings tears to my eyes. The 20+ minutes we spent in that room was the highlight of my trip; words cannot describe it. Thank you.