painted phallus in Bhutan

The Phallus of Bhutan and its unique meaning

There is one thing that catches visitors’ attention on their first trip to Bhutan: Phalluses! Phalluses are indeed a very common sight in Bhutan. Painted or carved, colorful phalluses are drawn on the walls of Bhutanese homes. Big ones hang from the eaves of the houses. Small ones hang around the necks of children. Key-chained ones are sold to giggling tourists.  When visiting Bhutan, you can’t help to notice penises of all sizes all around the country, particularly in rural areas. Tourists who are unfamiliar with this unusual culture may be taken aback at first sight.

The phallus is an occult emblem in Bhutan that represents protection from evil and good fortune. Bhutanese people have held this notion for generations. They also consider the phallus as a symbol of fertility. From vivid yellows to pastel pinks, sometimes hairy, sometimes engulfed by a dragon spitting fire, some with piercing eyes, some even ejaculating, the phallus can be seen all around the country and is revered by its people.

The origin of the symbolic phallus

The drawings of these unconventional paintings of phalluses date back to the arrival of a maverick Tibetan Lama, named Drukpa Kunley in Bhutan in the 15th century.

The legend says Drukpa Kunley launched an arrow from Tibet to identify a new location where he could propagate his Buddhist teachings. The arrow fell near the current site of Chimi Lhakhang in Punakha (where his temple now stands) and guided him to Bhutan. During the search for the arrow, he met a young woman who believed in his cause. He spent the night with the woman and ‘blessed’ her with his offspring. The location of the Chimi Lhakhang is perceived as sacred and now houses an ancient bow and arrow as well as a 10-inch ivory and wood phallic emblem.

Upon his arrival in Bhutan, Lama Drukpa Kunley traveled across the kingdom.  The trip exposed him to the rigid ways of Bhutan’s clergy and adherence to orthodox societal norms. Dedicated to ridding the people of their conventional ways, he set out to spread Buddha’s true teachings. His philandering methods and frequent bizarre behaviors earned him the nickname “The Divine Madman”. He purposefully startled people into challenging the establishment and overturning traditions with his filthy poetry, titillating humor, and wine-induced preaching.

Chimi Lakhang - temple of fertility Bhutan
The Chimi Lakhang - the temple of fertility Bhutan

The spiritual significance

As an iconoclast, Saint Drukpa Kunley set out to simplify the complexities of Tantric Buddhism for easier comprehension. He used the phallus and its divine power, now referred to as “ the Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom, to subdue evil spirits transforming them into protective deities. During his time, he popularised the phallus iconography and turned the taboo into a protector. The phallus protects, aids fertility, and challenges the human ego. It is capable to ward off evil spirits and the more human sin of slander. 

The Divine Madman, Lama Drukpa Kunley also came to be known as the “fertility saint,” The Chimi Lhakhang, built in 1499 in his honor, became known as the “fertility temple”.
The temple houses several wooden phalluses, including the silver-handled brown bamboo phallus who is believed to have been brought by the Divine Madman from Tibet and to possess divine powers. Newly married women and childless couples increasingly seek blessings at this monastery, and now couples from all over the world are flocking to it. The wooden phalluses are caressed on the heads of the women by the temple’s presiding monk, to bless the couples with healthy children.

Present-day practices

The phallic symbols are commonly seen in the walls of many rural houses and commerce. However, such phallic symbols are not portrayed in community temples and dzongs where lamas and Buddhist monks practice Buddhism.

Phalluses are however sacred in Bhutan and are used on many religious occasions The most common being for ritual in the animist Bon rituals, and during certain festivals held throughout the country. In festivals, phalluses are worshiped to bless women with fertility (at the Jambay Lhakang in Bumthang), to appease the rain gods (in Tokshingmang village), or to ward off the evil spirits and make them powerless (in Trongsa and Eastern Bhutan).

Thimphu-Tshechu-Mask-Festival-Bhutan_1200x

A symbol of good luck

The concept that drawing these phalluses on newly constructed dwellings would bring good luck and ward off evil spirits is deeply established in the Bhutanese psyche. As a result, these phalluses are even painted on truck number plates. They are painted on the walls of both traditional houses and modern buildings. Phalluses are also carved out of wood to be hung above doorways and under eaves. Additionally, people even wear them as part of their necklaces. Doing so is said to ward off evil and keep one protected from the negativity around.

During the Tshechus or annual religious Bhutanese festivals, which are conducted every year in different monasteries around Bhutan, the Atsaras (masked clowns) also dress their headwear in phallus colored fabric. With their holy whips and wooden phalluses, these masked clowns dance around the dzong entertaining the crowd and making the most use of the phalluses. When crops are about to grow, farmers in eastern Bhutan hang a wooden willy in the fields to keep pests away, and in the central part of the nation, residents dip a replica member in cups before serving drinks to guests.

Phallus of Bhutan on House

House warming ritual

During the housewarming celebration in Bhutan, phallus symbols are placed at the four corners of the eaves and one inside the house. It entails hoisting a basket full of wood-carved phalluses to the roof of the home and securing them in the four cardinal corners. The owner of the house hires groups of men and women to help raise the basket to the roof.

Women try to drag the basket down as the men draw it up with a rope tied firmly to the ceiling; during this procedure, ribald phallic songs are sung, and everyone witnesses the fun with each pull. The men act out a scenario in which they are unable to raise the basket and the basket falls to the ground. The goal is to receive free hooch (spirit) from the house owner to energize them to raise the basket. Following their free-for-all drinking spree, the men finally hoist the basket to the ceiling and secure the phalluses at the eve ends.

The phalluses are also tied with a dagger and painted in five different colors, which are said to represent five divine expressions: “A white dagger representing peace, purity, and harmony is placed on the west, a red-colored dagger representing wealth and power is placed on the south, and a green dagger representing protection is placed on the north.” The fifth dagger, which is usually blue and represents knowledge, is placed within the house. Fixing these symbols is thought to fend against evil spirits rather than serve as a fertility symbol.

Reality or myth, Phallus is a pleasant product to purchase from Bhutan. After all, don’t we all need a little reminder to break free from preconceptions and norms and find our routes to enlightenment? The phallic symbols and idols on poles, rooftops, and even in temples will remind you that to genuinely examine your understanding and question our set of beliefs, you must let go of everything you know and feel. The phallus of Bhutan has an important spiritual and historical significance that will change the way you view things.

In our pursuit of bringing the Bhutanese products to the world, Taste of Bhutan has in store, yet again, another authentic and uniquely Bhutanese product of value for you. The handcrafted phalluses are carved carefully and painted with sincerity by Bhutanese artisans belonging to Lama Drukpa Kunley’s land, Punakha.

References:
Phallus – Crazy Wisdom from Bhutan by Karma Choden
https://theculturetrip.com/asia/bhutan/articles/how-and-why-bhutan-came-to-worship-the-phallus/https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/24/world/asia/bhutan-phallus-commercialization-tourism.html

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