I truly believed my eyes would never see a man-made item that could rival the Taj Mahal. The feeling of sheer awe that washes over a person setting eyes on it for the first simply cannot be replicated… or so I thought. I had seen pictures of Taktshang Dzong but the photographs never did it justice. It was originally constructed in 1692 as a gift to Guru Riponoche symbolizing his success in subduing a local demon who was wreaking havoc in Bhutan. The folklore would have one believe he flew to this spot on the back of a tigress (a manifestation of Yeshe Tsogyal). The tigress then left impressions of her body marking the spot a holy site. Many saints have come to this spot to meditate for months in caves or on seemingly impossible overhangs. (Parts of the monastery were destroyed in a fire in 1998 and renovations were completed in 2005).
It looks as though it is literally carved out of the mountainside and the many temples seem to be never-ending. After 2 grueling hours of hiking up what feels like a constantly vertical trail, all visitors come to a main viewing point. Just across a ravine (about 10300 ft high) you see the Buddhist masterpiece. The view and glimpses one gets when the clouds part every now and then on the journey up do nothing to prepare you for it. Only here can one see the monastery alive with life as red-robed monks move about thanking and blessing the visitors, hear the hundreds of prayer flags clapping in the wind, and smell the lavender water being brewed for the days meditations. The waterfall gushes water over a thousand feet down and if the expression “getting a second wind” ever applied, it is now.
A quick glance down the cliff and the trail becomes noticeable. No longer a dirt path, but hundreds of stairs zigzag down one side of the mountain and up the next, only connected by a short bridge directly in from of the waterfall. It seemed like every 5 steps a new picture had to be taken. The prayer flags framed the dzong differently or the angle of the sun made the roof tiles sparkle or for a few moments a monk was stopping to feel the presence of the place he called home.
There are many rooms and shrines housed in the monastery. Cameras, bags, and shoes are all checked at the main entrance and admittance is only granted if you are a Bhutanese native or if a special has been issued by the government (yes we had them!) Each room is different but all house a bronze or gold Buddha, at least four feet tall. The tradition is to walk around the room clockwise, an odd number of times, and follow the stories painted on the rugs hanging from the walls. Incense, butter wax for lamps, snacks or monetary donations are made in each room. Followers if Buddhism can be seen doing traditional bowing that involves a mantra, touching of the forehead, mouth and chest, and concluding with a bow where one puts their forehead to the floor. This is typically done three times and all the Bhutanese are in their traditional dress.
Truly a cultural overload and a site that cannot be missed, the hike up only makes the place more magical and surreal.