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Bhutan’s Tiger’s Nest Monastery: Hallowed Sanctum in the Himalayan Paradise

Tiger Nest Monastery, officially known as Paro Taktsang,  is the most surreal and holy Buddhist temple complex in the “Land of the Thunder Dragon”. A short drive from Paro through magnificent emerald hills and gurgling streams takes you to the base of the monastery. This divine monastery is perched precariously on a  sheer cliff at a dizzying 10,000 feet  above sea level . Local legends state that Guru Rinpoche popularly known as Padmasambhava flew to the site on the back of a tigress to slay a demon and thus the name.  

Guru Padmasambhava is believed to have spent 3 years, 3 months and 3 days meditating in a cave which still exists inside the monastery and can be accessed through a narrow hole by visitors. Though the site has existed as a cave for meditation for hundreds of years, the temple complex cum monastery as it exists in its present form was built in the year 1692. A fire devastated the monastery in the year 1998 and it was painstakingly rebuilt by devoted volunteers who had to carry material on ponies and their backs as there is no other way to take things up.  Tigers Nest monastery has a mystical aura more suited to the realms of fantasy, partly due to its legendary status and picturesque location.

A trip to Bhutan is incomplete without a trek to this fascinating place and Tigers Nest monastery has become synonymous with the country like the Taj Mahal is to India. The trek to this awe inspiring monastery takes you through densely forested hills full of mesmerizing wild flowers and provides breath taking views of the valley below. Rock hew steps, both descending and ascending numbering almost 1000 need to be tackled before you reach this sanguine monastery that is considered the birth place of Buddhism in Bhutan. Words cannot capture the mystical and sublime sensation that one experiences at this place. While it is pilgrimage site for followers of the Buddhist faith, most tourists enjoy the trek through lush pine and rhododendron covered hills and consider it as an endurance test. Whatever the reason maybe, this trek is indeed a memorable one and for many it is a once in a lifetime opportunity so enjoy every step of it.

Tiger Monastery Bhutan

A view of Tiger Nest Monastery. Photography by Keith Clark

Tiger Nest Monastery: An Overview

Location Near Paro, Kingdom of Bhutan
Alternate Name Taktsang Paro
Accessibility All year round though winters can be harsh.
Nearby places to visit Kichu Lakhang, Chele la Pass, Rinpung Dzong, National Museum of Bhutan.
Currency Bhutanese Ngultrum (Indian rupees are also accepted). 1 Ngultrum= 1 Indian rupee.
Visa requirements Mandatory for all nationalities except citizens of SAARC nations. SAARC nations need a passport if travelling by air or any valid government issued ID card if entering through land.
Individual travel Booking with government recognised tour operator mandatory for all nationalities except citizens of SAARC nations.
Minimum daily spending 250 US$ + Surcharge for all nationalities except citizens of SAARC nations. 65 Ngultrum = 1USD
Tiger Nest Monastery

Lush green landscape along the road leading to Chele La Pass. Photography by Saurabh

Tiger Nest Monastery

Prayer flags at Chele La Pass. Photography by Nishkarsh Singh

Tiger Nest Monastery

The premises of Rinpung Dzong. Photography by David

Tiger Nest Monastery

The premises of Kyichu Lhakhang. Photography by P. Vigneshwaran

Tiger Nest Monastery

The National Museum of Bhutan. Photography by P. Vigneshwaran

How to reach Tiger Nest Monastery ?

Tiger’s Nest monastery is a short drive from Paro, the only city which has an airport in Bhutan. Entry through land is possible only for citizens of SAARC nations with valid government issued ID cards. Druk Air, the national airline of Bhutan has sole rights to operate flights and is connected to Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Guwahati,Bagdogra,Bangkok, Singapore, Bodh Gaya, Kathmandu and Dhaka.

Points of entry:

By air  : Paro

By land : Phuentsholing, Gelephu, Samdrup and Jongkhar

 Preparing for the Trek up to Tiger Nest Monastery

The trek can be qualified as moderately challenging and can take anywhere from 4 hours to 6 depending on fitness levels and climatic conditions. Weather can change from sunny to rainy in a matter of minutes so a light waterproof jacket with a hoody is advisable. The uneven path can be hard on the knees so carrying Nordic walking sticks or any other support is a good idea.

Wooden sticks are available for hire at the base of the trek for less than 1 USD.  Except for  a cafeteria at the mid-way point which serves coffee(a very big cup), biscuits and few other refreshments, no other eatables or drinks are unavailable enroute save for the welcoming waterfall near the monastery whose water is very much drinkable. The cafeteria serves a decent lunch buffet in the afternoons. Hotels generally provide a packed lunch and snack for the trek on prior notice. Carry a bottle of water and some light snacks in a backpack. Rest whenever needed and savour the trek in an unhurried manner.

Tiger Nest Monastery

Prayer wheels and flags on the way to Tiger Nest Monastery. Photography by Megha Ransaria

At the Tiger Nest Monastery

Full sleeved clothing is a must and photography is not allowed inside the monastery to maintain its sanctity. There are many temples within the monastery each with its own legend and significance. As the temples are cut from mountainous rock, they are located at different heights within the complex.Iconography resplendent in colour, artistic skill and execution abounds everywhere.

The narrow cave where the Guru Padmasambhava is supposed to have meditated can be reached by climbing down wooden ladders and is the most important spot in the monastery. Offerings in the form of eatables and money can be made. Watch the butter lamps being made to thank the gods for their divine blessings. You will be encouraged to meditate and doing so, high up in the clouds in such an ethereal place is indeed a blissful experience. Vantage views of the valley can be had from several places in the monastery. The cool mountain breeze that blows continuously exhilarates the senses and induces a sense of spiritual high.



After the Trek to Tiger Nest Monastery is Over

You are likely to be tired by the end of this trek and some people find the return trek trickier especially if it rains as the slopes get slippery and harder on the knees. Reward yourself with a Bhutanese hot stone massage which is very different from the Balinese one. Ask your tour guide to fix an appointment for this massage which is usually done by locals in their farm houses amidst the peach orchards. Unlike regular massages your body is not kneaded by hands.

Stones from the Paro river are heated up and placed inside wooden tubs filled with water in which you lie down and relax while the minerals from the heated stones seep into the water and work their magic on your tired limbs. If the water cools down more heated stones are added. Have water to avoid dehydration. The strong home brewed wheat wine that is provided at the end of the hot stone dip(which is more appropriate word than massage) is like the icing on the cake. A bonus is that you get to see what a traditional Bhutanese home looks like.

Tiger Nest Monastery

A monk’s hut at Tiger Nest Monastery. Photography by Noiyo

Accommodation Options 

Until recently Bhutan’s hospitality industry catered to the discerning high end traveller but things have changed and several budget options from 3 star, 2 star to home stays are available. Wi – fi is available though not easily.The Bhutanese as expected are a friendly, happy and welcoming bunch and speak English(except in the elderly) as education in English uto the 10th grade is mandatory and free so communication is hassle free.

Suggested budget accommodation in the 50USD – 70USD range. The hospitality industry in Bhutan is in its nascent stages with demand far exceeding supply so extremely low priced accommodation would be severely lacking in amenities and is sure to ruin your experience.

 Staying option 1  Olathang Hotel
 Staying Option 2  City Hotel
 Staying option 3  Namsay Chholing Resort
 Staying option 4  Kichu Resort Paro
 Staying option 5  Tertoen Sharab Heritage Farmstay
 Staying option 6  Nivvana Lodge and Homestay
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A room in Olathang Hotel. Photography by Sonam

Tiger Nest Monastery

Sitting arrangement at Nivvana Lodge. Photography by Bonnie

Tiger Nest Monastery

Kichu Resort. Photography by Suhail

What and Where to Eat ?

Bhutanese do not slaughter animals for food or fish in their numerous streams. Meat and fish is imported from India and is not fresh so it is wise to stick to local vegetarian options. The cooking methods are simple and the spices do not overwhelm your senses in a manner that the intrinsic taste of the food is lost. Ema datse the national dish of Bhutan made of cheese and chillies is ubiquitous on every restaurant menu. Matsutake mushrooms in season, wriggly head ferns, buckwheat pancakes, wild red rice and the various locally produced peach and white wines provide for a uniquely Bhutanese culinary experience.

Sugar was virtually unknown to the Bhutanese until recently and rasgollas from India come closest to qualifying as Bhutanese dessert.

Several western style cafes exist on Paro’s main thoroughfare and provide free wi- fi.

Mountain café serves very good European style meals and the milk pound cake is a must try. The other cakes and meals are also top notch too.

Champaca café whips up a mean cappuccino amongst other equally good offerings like tea, cake, sandwiches and salads.

Brioche café is well known for its natural ice creams in extremely interesting flavours.

Tiger Nest Monastery

Champaca Cafe. Photography by Kazuya Ohashi

Feeling Adventurous in Bhutan ?

Archery is the national sport of Bhutan and there are several place where you can hit the bull’s eye.

In season rafting is done in Paro and Punakha.

Bhutan’s best kept SECRET is the mushroom cum fungus but looks like a worm thing called the Cordyceps sinensis. Served regularly to the royal family, the cordyceps has several beneficial properties like anti- ageing, immunity building, virility boosting, anti- oxidant and other myriad properties. All this is not folklore but scientifically proven. No wonder the locals call it “The gold of the Himalayas” This magic-medicine does not come cheap and is available in departmental stores as well as in the airport. Surprisingly most travelogues on Bhutan fail to mention this interesting mushroom.

Try on the local dress known as Gho (men) and Kira(women) at a place near the Rinpung Dzhong.

 Bhutan is a country that values harmony and happiness more than material accumulations. The essence of its religious philosophy percolates to the daily lives of the Bhutanese and touches all aspects from food, occupation to thoughts and interpersonal relations. In this country one can see the concept of simple living and high thinking in action. The Tiger’s Nest monastery has come to symbolize all this and more.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Avid reader by nature Niharika Reddy, loves science  fiction and thrillers and a myriad other things. She is working on her first novel and dreams of winning the Man Booker some day. Her love for travel transcends the Earthly realm and she harbours a desire to travel at least within the Solar System if not the Milky Way. With rare clairvoyance as if aware of her fascination with the worlds beyond her parents chose to name her Niharika which means The Milky Way.Her chief regret is that she may not live long enough to have a home on Mars, visit her relatives on Earth for the weekend and holiday in the nearby galaxy that has a planet with an amazing diamond spewing waterfall amongst other wonders. Right now she keeps herself busy by travelling to offbeat locations especially mountainous ones.

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