Penises painted on houses or suspended from rooftops in Bhutan are larger than humans.
Penises come in various sizes, color schemes and embellishments. Some have ribbons tied around them like jovial holiday presents. Others are coiled by daunting dragons. A few even have eyes. They typically feature hairy testicles, from the neatly trimmed to full-on Yeti-style. And, of course, all are fully erect.
“Oh, golly,” said an elderly woman visiting from Seattle, when she stepped off the bus in the Punakha valley and found herself surrounded by an alarming concentration of penis imagery, set against a magnificent Himalayan backdrop.
She was one of just 30,000 “outsiders” in 2010 who visited this isolated country wedged between China and India. While Bhutan tops many travel wish lists — thanks to its almost utopic reputation as “the last Shangri La” and a place where the government measures success in “Gross National Happiness” instead of gross domestic product — only a fraction can afford such a trip.
Bhutan, famously wary of mass tourism, has been trying to prevent an influx of “volume tourists” who might create demand for Western-style culture. So the country of just 700,000 keeps those numbers low by charging visitors a daily minimum fee of up to $250.
But there’s a tension here.
Since tourism is a major source of income for Bhutan, Prime Minister Jigme Thinley announced earlier this year that Bhutan aims to triple the number of tourists by 2012.
That’s potentially bad news for penis worship. That’s because some here worry the influx of tourists to this isolated Buddhist oasis is already weakening the essence of Bhutan — namely its relationship with the omnipresent phallus.
The decline of the phallus is especially evident in “urban Bhutan,” a term locals insist is not an oxymoron.
“Phallus paintings and wood carvings were ubiquitous, like red chilies, all over Bhutan. But now they are fading as Bhutan undergoes prudish self-censorship,” said Dasho Karma Ura, president of the Centre for Bhutan Studies in Thimphu, the nation’s picturesque capital.
According to Ura, penis depictions diminished in towns where the architecture took new styles as urban dwellers disassociated themselves from earthy symbols. “There was a tendency to shy away from the need to confront sexuality in its most transcendent aspiration and practice,” he said.
And, truth to be told, Western tourists, as liberal and open-minded as they believe they are, tend to be stunned by all the penis images in this conservative society where people seldom show affection in public.
According to Ura, that’s because Westerners are accustomed to nudity and sexuality on the female form – flaunting nudes, torsos and breasts – whereas the Bhutanese traditionally shy away from reducing females to sex symbols.
“Representation of female nudity is conventionally a blatant sign of reduction of the female to sexuality,” Ura said. “Phallic imagery that reminds men of their self-centeredness is a counterculture, not a celebration of the male.”
More broadly, Bhutanese paint phalluses on their homes to protect their families from evil spirits and to promote fertility. Flying phalluses are also tributes to the adored religious teacher and master of mahamudra Buddhism, Drukpa Kunley, colloquially known as “The Divine Madman” or “The Saint of 5,000 Women.”
Born in the year of the wood-pig, in the eighth cycle, or as Westerners prefer – 1455, Kunley pioneered an unorthodox branch of Buddhism based on enlightening the common folk, mostly women. He also offered blessings in the form of sex.
Kunley traveled through Tibet and Bhutan, urging followers to reject the hypocrisy and greed of the world and to lead honest and spiritual lives. He spent his days singing and drinking with the ladies and deflowering virgins. His sexual escapades are legendary, so much so that a monastery in the Punakha valley was built in his honor after he subdued the cannibal demon goddess of the area with his “magic thunderbolt of wisdom.”
But the goddess wasn’t the only female Kunley apparently subdued, enlightened or impregnanted. “He was a great womanizer,” said Karma Letho, a tourist guide, as he points proudly to a wooden effigy of Kunley’s thunderbolt, today preserved in the monastery.
Today hundreds of childless Bhutanese couples make pilgrimages to the “fertility temple,” Chimi Lhakhang, where a Buddhist monk blesses them with a wooden phallus.
In Buddhist astrology, infertility is explained as an incompatibility of the combination of elements between couples.
According to Lopen Tshewang Gyeltshen, a Buddhist monk from Thimphu, at least two of the five elements of each person (life energy, physical health, finances, social success and mental confidence, which correspond to the five universal elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water) must be compatible. The rest can be corrected by prayers, ceremonies and blessings.
“Sixty to 70 percent of all problems can be worked out,” said the monk, sitting on the floor of a monastery in Thimphu, between reading his text messages on the phone and checking his email on the computer.
Infertility is apparently a problem of the “physical health,” or “fire” element within the couple.
Nothing that a bit of enlightenment by the “magic thunderbolt of flaming wisdom” can’t fix.