Tiger’s Nest, Bhutan: Happiness at the Roof of the World

Bhutan Tiger's Nest

This week’s blog is from a guest blogger, the wonderful Joshua Liberman, world travel photographer and lover of all things Bhutanese.  The photos in this story are his. Josh is leading our upcoming tour to the Land of the Thunder Dragon. You can see more of his photographs at Tao of Photography.com

Step on to the path climbing 3000 vertical feet to Taktsang Palphug (known commonly as “Tiger’s Nest”) and you will begin a trek that the people of Bhutan have been making for over 300 years.  The way isn’t easy, but it’s also not hard, and, thankfully, the path is clearly marked.  But to get to one of the world’s highest and most beautiful Buddhist monasteries, you must commit yourself to the path, and steadfast, keep climbing.

Since the building of the temple in 1692, Mahayana Buddhist monks and practitioners have been climbing to Bhutan happiness: the spot where, legend holds, Guru Rinpoche brought Buddhism to the country in the 8th Century BC on the back of a winged tiger.  There he vanquished the Evil Demoness to the Bhutan mountain.   He then confined himself to a cave on the spot and sat in meditation for three months.  When he emerged (in 8 incarnations), the cave became holy and the land became a Buddhist nation.  Nine hundred years later, monks climbed to this spot and built the temple known today as Tiger’s Nest, one of the most sacred sites in the entire country.

As I begin my winded walk to Bhutan happiness, up the Himalayan path up the mountain, I can’t help but begin to contemplate how the ascension to Tiger’s Nest is much like the ascent toward happiness itself; Bhutan is making that clearer for me.  In a way, the desire to find something beautiful and precious must start with a subtle mixture of risk and dedication, and then persist with complete dedication to the goal.  The payoff, however, is well worth the effort, and usually comes with a few good stories along the way.

And what more perfect place to set out on a search for Bhutan happiness?  For over a hundred years, the country has been considered a modern-day Shangri-la; the birthplace of a contentment so profound, it has evolved into a codified political system known as the Gross National Happiness of Bhutan.

The climb to Tiger’s Nest is roughly two hours (don’t even ask me how long the climb to happiness takes).  Once you’ve reached the overlook, your goal is in full view, the four main buildings of Tiger’s Nest impossibly clinging to the side of a cliff, perched atop a nearly 2000ft sheer drop to the valley floor below.  And just when you think your Bhutan happiness journey is nearly complete, there are still 700 hand hewn stone steps to traverse to finally reach “the top.”

If you are willing to make the climb, and stand at the door of the great Bhutan temple of Tiger’s Nest, and you will know in the core of your being that it was well worth the effort.

Bhutan Happiness Boys PlayingAt the entrance to Tiger’s Nest, sits a giant gold prayer wheel, over 15 feet tall and 6 feet across.  That prayer wheel is said to contain over a billion hand-written blessings.  With each turn of the wheel, a (Bhutan happiness?) bell is rung and the devout believe that with that chime, the billion blessings ring out into the world, carrying with them peace and harmony to all.

Once you are within the walls of Bhutan’s Tiger’s Nest, there are literally dozens of small temples, alters and catacombs to explore.  Brightly colored frescos depict the stories of the Sutra, Buddhist legends of guru, demons, madmen, and heroes.  Monks wrapped in their traditional purple robes chant the Sutra in constant harmonious contemplation.  The smoke from a thousand sticks of incense fills the air with the pungent aromas of amber, beeswax, and flowers: a fragrant reminder that Bhutan happiness is tangible and visceral, and available to your with all your senses.

Like an afternoon climbing a mountain to reach a remote and sacred place that few ever travel to, in Bhutan or anywhere else, I am reminded that there are places we can travel within, that with a little effort and an amount of perseverance, are definitely worth the journey.