Saturday, August 24, 2013

An Antidote for Malicious Gossip, Bhutanese-Style.

*****This post is not for everyone! Photos of artistic representations of male anatomy follow. If this would bother you please don't scroll down!******

From the moment you arrive in Paro and start the journey towards Thimphu, travellers are entranced by the most beautiful sight of Bhutanese villages clustered near rivers and clinging to mountainsides. The architecture of Bhutanese homes differs by region across the country and no doubt takes into account the climate and materials available in each place. Homes are large and often house extended families under the one roof, with ample space underneath for animals and storage.  Houses are painted white and there are many times when we drive particularly the familiar road to Chamkar, when I gaze at the scenery and I have that rare glimmer of being in the moment - aware without a doubt - that we are living in Bhutan and what a beautiful place it is to live.

Of great fascination for us foreigners is the practise of decorating homes with various images. Not a shop or house or school across the country misses out on some form of elaborate painting around windows and doors, and in fact it is mandatory that homes be built in Bhutanese style. The most common images one sees are the 8 auspicious symbols of Bhutan, and the ubiquitous phallus.

Yes, that's correct - Bhutanese decorate their homes with larger than life phalluses, in all their glory! It is quite wonderful to see that Bhutanese who are deeply religious and reverent with impeccable manners, humility and deference to elders and those in positions of power, also have a side of their personality that is a little bit harder to pin down!

Why? Is the question most foreigners want to ask. It seems such an unlikely image for us to paint on our house. I have a feeling a large phallus wouldn't go down so well with Gold Coast City Council if we decided that we wanted to bring a bit of Bhutanese culture to the suburbs! 

When we first arrived in Bhutan I remember the sniggers and giggles and pointing as we passed through villages en route to Thimphu from the airport. Since then, we are well adapted to seeing phalluses wherever we go, and yet the sight of a staircase bannister skillfully crafted into a penis, or a water tap whose spout bears an uncanny resemblance to a you-know-what can't help but make me smile!

Its hard to give a definitive reason as to why this body-part of all has become so popular  because I have recieved different answers from all the different people I've asked.

One from a reliable source says that they are painted on homes to ward off malicious gossip. I'm happy to say that we have two rather small phalluses on our house, so I'm confident noone is saying awful things about me behind my back. And size doesn't matter, right?!

Others point to the 'Divine Madman', Drukpa Kunley, a colourful figure in Bhutanese history known for his exploits with women while also being revered as an enlightened saint. He travelled the country sharing Buddhist teachings in an unusual manner - displaying his naked body on the street, and sleeping with his host's wives, while also teaching the profound philosophies of the Buddha. Apparently he could shoot fire from his penis!

A friend at school declared that Bhutanese have a very relaxed attitude to sexuality and I have seen many examples of this in my time here. Unlike other countries in the region with strict and even draconian attitudes to sexuality, Bhutan almost veers in the other direction. Here liaisons between teenagers are discussed openly, and to be married a couple only needs to 'spend a night together' and in the morning they are seen as married if that's the way they want it.

I have wrote already of how at gatherings of women here I have been shocked that as soon as the tea is poured the colourful and lewd conversation begins! All generations of women are involved and it seems nothing is off limits. Things that may be discussed in hushed tones at home, or once plenty of alcohol has been enjoyed are openly discussed with hilarity here! I just wish I knew more Dzongkha!

Similarly Tsechus (religious festivals) are eye-opening as while age-old sacred dances are performed by monks in elaborate costumes, a team of atsaras (clowns) roam the stage and interact with the audience, lightening the mood with their suggestive antics. They carry large wooden phalluses and poke them at teenage girls, old grandmothers and anyone in between, and use them to thrust at the monks who are performing!

In one year, we'll never get to the bottom of the fascinating country that is Bhutan - full of contradictions and hidden meaning in everyday rituals. But as foreigners having the privilege to live here, there has been much to keep our minds interested. Thank you!





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