PUNAKHA: PHALLUSES AND FOOD by RJ Furth
When people speak of the Punakha, Bhutan, as a fertile valley there are two meanings. Punakha, lower in altitude than the capital of Thimpu and blessed with two rivers that run through it, grows much of Bhutan’s food. This valley is also home to the temple of Lama Drukpa Kunley, the divine mad monk. People visit this temple because of its reputation for bestowing fertility on those who come seeking the blessing of healthy children. The success of the temple has led occupants of the Punakha valley to decorate their houses with large, explicit drawings of phalluses.
The divine mad monk defeated the black dog demon by using a bow and arrow, and a phallus. (I have not learned how he used the phallus, nor am I bold enough to ask.) Lama Drukpa Kunley was so popular for his achievement that a temple was built in his honor. The exterior of houses all over Bhutan are decorated with symbols that ward off evil. Only in Punakha do these symbols include phalluses, large ones with hairy testicles and large knobs that have semen spurting out. There are also large wooden phalluses attached to buildings. Couples travel from all over Bhutan, and the world, to ask the monks to bless their quest for children if they are unable to conceive, healthy ones if previous children failed to survive, and boys because, of course, they are highly valued in Asia. There is an album that contains letters of thanks and photos of healthy children who, supposedly, owe their existence to a visit to the temple. I have never seen anything like the phallus-decorated buildings, a testament to faith.
The Punakha valley is blessed with rich soil, abundant rain, and a mild climate. Rice paddies flow down the mountain-sides, producing both white and red (actually pink) rice that is sold throughout the country. As well, fields produce carrot, potatoes, peas, cabbage and other staple crops of Bhutan. Avocados and citrus have recently been introduced. The crops are all organic, a great source of pride for Bhutanese. As I wrote in an early essay, one thing lacking in Bhutan is fruit, for which the Bhutanese apparently have no fondness. On our drive from Thimpu to Punakha we passed young apple orchards, which have been recently introduced to Bhutan. Roadside stands sell different types of apples including dark red, light red and yellow ones. Most apples are exported to India. We have only been served small amounts of fruit for desert including watermelon and bananas. As a fruit lover I am surprised, but most people on the planet only eat those foods that their ancestors ate, foods that are vital to their cuisine and national identity.
During our two days in Punakha we enjoyed the warmth (highs of 75 compared to 40 in Thimpu) and did long walks up mountain paths to temples. The pine forests resemble those in Colorado. The extensive rice paddies, chorten (stupas), prayer wheels (including water and wind-driven) , Bhutanese in national dress, and prayer flags are a constant reminder that Bhutan is a Buddhist kingdom nestled in the Himalayas. Bhutan is a long journey from the U.S., and worth the time and jetlag.