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Traveling on the Back of a Flying Tigress

Updated: May 27, 2020

Paro Taktsang (Tiger's Nest Monastery) is perched on the side of a cliff at 10,240 ft overlooking the Paro valley in Bhutan. Looking up from the valley near my hotel, I found it difficult to imagine its size. It certainly wasn't apparent that the building I saw was a monastery complex built around 8 caves. This is what it looks like from the Paro valley.

Like many wonders rooted in religion, the Tiger's Nest has a legend with a holy man, Guru Rinpoche, at its center. The story begins in the 8th century when the 8-year-old child Rinpoche appeared floating on a lotus blossom in the middle of a lake in ancient India. The King at the time came upon the boy and immediately recognized his specialness. He tried to make the boy heir of the kingdom but the boy would have nothing of it. Instead, Guru Rinpoche followed a path of spirituality which led him to bring Buddhism to Bhutan.

Guru Rinpoche transformed one of his consorts into a flying tigress and had her fly him to the caves that were later to become the site for the Tiger's Nest. There, he meditated and was incarnated into 8 different forms. In 1692 Tiger's Nest was built and became a place for Tibetan saints and other holy people to meditate.

The trail to the Tiger's Nest is well worn, being traveled by pilgrims seeking spirituality and others seeking beauty and inspiration from this marvel built in an impossible location. The trail is mostly uphill, giving glimpses of the monastery along the way. Being a path for a spiritual quest, the trail has many prayer wheels, some water powered, some people powered, some small, and some very large. At each people-powered wheel, I performed the ritual turning, alway clockwise. I walked three times around the large wheels, pushing strongly all the way around. The small ones, I swiped as I walked by.

 Parts of the trail are filled with multicolored prayer flags, unraveling threads of good wishes for the wind to carry across the land. On the way, I stopped at a tea house and sipped refreshment as I gazed across a sheer drop off to see Paro Taktsang perched on the next cliff. I understand that the trail used to be treacherous from this point on until the stairs with railings were built. There are so many people hiking, that without this improvement it would be easy to be accidentally jostled off the side of the cliff.

From the tea house, the trail goes up, has another great viewpoint, then goes down, affording more spectacular views of the the monastery. After passing a waterfall, the stairs head up through a portal, and then on to the main entrance of Tiger's Nest. Cameras aren't allowed inside, which is fine with me. It is, after all, an active monastery. I viewed several temples, some older than others. Each had a door to one of the caves in which Guru Rinpoche meditated during his stay.

One of the temples looked much newer than the rest. That's because the complex suffered from a fire in 1998. It's easy to spot the restored parts because they don't show signs of smoke residue from the butter lamps commonly used in the temples of Bhutan.

The Tiger's Nest is a must see if you go to Bhutan. For most, it will require the ability to hike uphill and to tolerate the altitude. For some, the determination to make a pilgrimage to this holy site will compensate for less athletic abilities.

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