Why would you build in such an impractical spot? Of all the places in this valley, why the sheer cliff? There are plenty of suitable sites in the Paro Valley on which to build a temple, plenty of flat ground, plenty of accessible locations. But no, it was the vertical cliff-face that the creators of Takstang Monastery went for.
Why did they build on a cliff?
Were they mad? Perhaps.
Fond of challenge? Without question.
Were they making rash, insensible decisions out of religious fervour? There’s a good chance that was part of it.
Or were they just visionary? Did the creators of Takstang Monastery instantly intuit the sense of awe and wonder that a temple in this location would instil in the pilgrim? Did they visualise their goal, that of a fairy-tale temple clinging to a sheer cliff, and work backwards from there?
Legend has it Guru Padmasambhava – a mythical figure said to have introduced Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th Century CE – flew here on the back of his magical tiger. Padmasambhava ended up meditating in this location for three years, three months, three weeks, three days, and three hours. Over the centuries various illustrious religious figures came to meditate in Takstang (which means: the Tiger’s Nest). The temple you see today was built in 1692 CE.
Takstang Monastery is located in Paro Valley in western Bhutan, just ten kilometres from the city of Paro – home to Bhutan’s one and only international airport. The temple, as you can see, is built on a slim, uneven ledge; should a monk or visitor make a misstep, there is a 900-metre drop into the valley below to contend with.
Although Takstang Monastery looks like it was designed with inaccessibility in mind – unless you own some sturdy rock-climbing gear, or are in possession of a helicopter (or, perhaps, a magical flying tiger) – there are actually several paths leading to the temple, from above and below.
To reach the monastery you’ll need to walk for about 1.5 hours if you’re fit, and about 3 hours if you aren’t. The trek is uphill the whole way, and there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of stairs to be tackled before reaching the temple. There is an option to ride a horse part of the way, but hiking is the way to do it if you are after the full pilgrimage experience. And the hard work you put in makes the reward at the top all the sweeter.
As you climb you pass glades in the forest filled with coppices of three-metre high purple prayer flags. You also cross and re-cross a small mountain stream, alongside which are a series of small chortens. Each chorten contains a waterwheel, which, in turn, is rotating a small prayer wheel. A chime is struck with each rotation of the prayer wheel, releasing a karma point into the universe. The forest resounds with their chimes.
Pilgrims make their way to Takstang Monastery from across Bhutan. At the time of my visit (December 2006), tourists were few and far between, with just 17,000 arrivals. As of 2016 those numbers have shot up to over 50,000. How the increase of tourists affects your experience of the site, I couldn’t say.
When you finally attain an elevation equal to that of Takstang Monastery you begin to see how the seemingly impossible feat of erecting a temple halfway up a sheer cliff was pulled off.
But there is some bad news for camera lovers: photography is not permitted inside. Don’t think of this as downside though. Just focus on the moment. Record it in your memory.
Did I enter Takstang Monastery? Yes, of course.
What’s inside? Well, I could tell you, but that would ruin the surprise.
Why don’t you go see for yourself?
Practical information and how to reach Takstang Monastery:
TAKE NOTE: Bhutan takes a Low Volume High Value Low Impact approach to tourism. All tourists who wish to visit Bhutan – apart from Indian nationals – must enter the country on a package tour, with overnight accommodation only permitted at government-approved hotels. The tours include food, transport, vehicle hire and driver, full time guide, accommodation costs, and entry to all sights and attractions. Tour prices are fixed by the government, and include a tourist tax. The tour costs US$250 a day.