When Tshongpa Sonam of Rangkhar bought his first truck, he stuck pictures of elaborately drawn phalluses on the number plates.
Farmer Dorji Gyeltshen quickly carved a small wooden phallus when he noticed that his Ba-min had given birth to a calf.
Singay of Paro inaugurated his new house by hanging four phalluses on the eaves of his house (see box for the ritual). In eastern Bhutan farmers hang a wooden phallus in the field when the crops begin to sprout. During Tshechus, the Atsara wear a cloth phallus as part of their head gear.
The phallic symbol is as popular as it has ever been.
It comes in different shapes and sizes, carved in wood, metal, stone and cloth. It is painted on walls and hung from the eaves of houses and displayed in various forms during some traditional ceremonies.
In Bhutan the phallus is an integral part of ceremonies observed by communities, commonly used to ward off evil spirits and counter evil.
Inauguration of a new house is a sort of phallic ritual whereby the house owner consecrates the house. The ritual is an elaborate one. The ritual constitutes placing of four phalluses on the four eaves of the house facing the four directions and one inside the house. The five giant phalluses carved out from pieces of wood are tied together in a bundle and then put in a bamboo basket. Usually, a young and virgin girl dressed elaborately and leading a dancing and singing troupe carries the basket and circumambulates the house thrice.
Then groups of men and women are formed. The women’s group stands under the eave of the house facing the east while the male group climbs up on the roof. The basket is tied on the middle of the rope and a tug of war ensues. While men pull the basket roof-ward, the women pretend to pull it to the ground. But the common understanding is that the basket will have to reach the roof at the end so that the phalluses can be hung from the eaves. The pulling begins and continues as typical phallic songs are sung. After every verse of the song the people watching the ritual echo the word laso.
The men pretend to lose the battle and the basket is pulled down. At this, the owner of the house serves ara (home brewed spirit) to the men who pretend to be tired. The ara is supposed to energize the men and the ‘pulling’ battle continues.
Finally when the basket reaches the roof the men place the phalluses on the eaves. These special phalluses also have a dagger (redi) each tied to them which are painted in five different colours.
The five daggers signify the five different manifestations of Lord Jambayang according to Dasho Lam Sanga. “On the east eave is placed a white dagger representing peace, purity, and harmony, a red coloured dagger representing wealth and power is placed on the west, the yellow dagger representing prosperity is placed on the south, and on the north is placed the green dagger representing protection. The fifth dagger placed inside the house is usually blue in colour and symbolizes wisdom.”
It is sometimes called Kharam shing or Mikha, meaning a piece of wood to counter the evil tongue and eye, Gulang or Wangchu Chenpo, a reference to Lord Shiva, Wangchu Chenpo pho taag, meaning the male symbol of Lord Shiva, or simply Zur shing, meaning a piece of wood that hangs from the eaves.
But contrary to the popular perception, the phallus has a world of meaning beyond its obvious symbolism to ward off evil influences.
Speaking to Kuensel, a Bhutanese scholar said that the real significance of the phallus has been perverted by popular belief.
“The phallus is nothing but an artistic folk device by which human beings confront the issue of male ego,” he said. “In plain terms it is an attempt to do away with the male ego since the phallus in its warped form reminds of problems of male ego.”
He explained that the phallus, in essence represented a centre of male ego, and did not symbolize celebration of sex.
“The idea of a phallus as a symbol is an elemental driving force in a society,” he said. “The common choice of visibility reminds the onlookers that if this force can be harnessed properly and diverted to productivity and creativity it can result in wonders.
“But if this force is let loose and uncontrolled it accumulates as wanton lust making man behave wildly and undesirably. Thus the phallus reminds men to control that force and act desirably in a civilized and cultured way.”
This explanation coincides with the Hindu belief that Shivalingam (representation of Lord Shiva’s phallus) denotes the primeval energy of the creator and that the lingam is also a representation of the infinite cosmic column of fire, whose origins, Vishnu (sustainer) and Bhrama (creator) were unable to trace.
The Hindu myth has it that by controlling the mundane desires, even the most bestial of beings can rise and conquer the world. Whereas misutilization of this thinking power leads one to corrupt actions leading to degeneration in the thinking process as a whole.
According to a researcher at the Center of Bhutan Studies (CBS) the phallic symbol in the Bhutanese context does not denote domination of womanhood by man as does the Hindu mythology. “In Bhutanese belief the phallus rather represents a worldly illusion of desires.”
For example the phallus hung from the eaves have a dagger tied to the phallus representing two opposite impulses. “The phallus stands for an illusion and the dagger represents wisdom whereby the two negate each other leading to the sublimation of the human mind,” he said.
But the key question often asked by scholars is how did this almost-universal phallic culture seep into Bhutanese society?
According to Dasho Lam Sanga, former principal of the Institute of Language and Culture Studies (ILCS), there are no written documents on it.
“But the worship of the phallus was believed to be in practice even before the arrival of Guru Rimpoche and Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal,” he said. “What we know about it is what we heard from our forefathers.”
Some Bhutanese schools say the phallus was a part of Bon tradition.
“The phallus is an integral part of Bon tradition,” said a researcher at the CBS. “Before Buddhism, Bonism was the major practice in Bhutan. The phallus was in the centre of and played a primary role in all Bon rituals. What we have today might possibly be a remnant of Bonism.”
A lot of Bhutanese people attribute the phallic symbolism to the legacies of the popular Bhutanese saint, Lam Drukpa Kinley (commonly called the Divine Madman for his unrestrained sexual practices and rebellion against the dogmatic religious institutions).
Bhutanese scholars strongly opposed this ‘common misconception’. “No phallic symbol was ever directly ascribed to the saint, though there were some associations,” said Sonam Kinga of the CBS. “Although the association enriches and enhances the fascination of the phallus, Drukpa Kinley used the phallus as a ‘medium’ to tame the demons and demonesses and other malevolent spirits, and in his sexual practices to overcome the social inhibitions set by the socially established values.”
In fact, a popular story illustrates how the saint tamed a demoness in Helela. Drukpa Kinley is believed to have copulated with the demoness and overwhelmed her with his sizeable organ. Today Chimmi Lhakhang in Lobesa, Thimphu, is dedicated to the saint and the people visiting the temple are blessed with a phallus, symbolising fertility.
The use of the phallus by the saint to subdue and tame malevolent spirits is linked to the popular Bhutanese belief that phallic symbols ward-off evil spirits.
“Human prosperity is supposed to arouse ill feelings,” said a ILCS lecturer, Kinzang Dorji. “People’s method of defense was to strike back through a human agency represented by the phallus. Thus the belief of protection against the evil eye.”
Dasho Lam Sanga also added that even to this day some communities in eastern Bhutan invoked the phallus annually basically to seek its protection from the evil spirits. “They make offerings of flowers and milk and ara to please the phallus. But the colour of the ara will have to be red corresponding to the natural colour of human organ.”
Another phallic ritual in central Bhutan is dipping of a wooden phallus in the cups before offering drinks to guests.
A Thimphu resident remembers a weird experience as a teacher at Yallang community school in Trashigang. “I was invited to a village ritual. Suddenly a group of stark naked men came out of nowhere and started chasing women around the house. They caught hold of the women and rubbed their organs on them to chase the evil spirits.”
Although Bhutanese happily venerate symbols of the male organ, less venerated is the female organ, the pudenda or yoni or baga, the Latin, Hindu, and Tibetan names.
There are some representations of the female organ in Bhutan and these are usually pudenda-like symbols on rocks. One can be seen in Singye Dzong area, one in Aja Nye, and one on the rocky cliff opposite Jamkhar village in Trashigang, popularly referred to as Jamkhar ama baga (literally meaning Jamkhar Mother’s pudenda).
The Jamkhar ama baga is believed to water, which people considered as Drupchu or holy water, just before the Gomkora Tshechu which celebrates fertility.
But phallus symbolism is losing its vibrance in urban Bhutan. A Thimphu house owner who had a giant phallus painted on the wall of his building decided to erase it after people hinted time and again that it looked offensive and indecent. Phallus symbols are ‘informally’ discouraged in the urban areas by the ‘concerned authorities.’
A Thimphu resident who spoke to Kuensel said that in the long run what actually will matter is whether people will accept the symbol or not. “What would a phallus represent to the modern Bhutanese society?” he asked.
Further reading : Bhutanese penis fascinates westerners.