Chasing Light in Bhutan: Ascent to the Tiger’s Nest
The mountains of the Himalaya have long been a source of wonder and fascination for me. Even before my first visit to the region in 2006, the soaring, majestic peaks held a promise of adventure and mystery; the call of the remote wilderness. Equal parts majestic beauty and icy danger, repeat visits to the region have only reinforced its hold on my imagination and my longing to return to the rarified air and distant cultures of the “roof of the world.”
The thin, sharp air of the higher altitudes recalls the words of the renowned American mountaineer and forester Finis Mitchell (1901–95), which convey the same sense of longing and poignancy I feel whenever I have the privilege of retreating from the bustle and noise of city life to seek refuge in the mountains:
A mountain is the best medicine for a troubled mind. Seldom does man ponder his own insignificance. He thinks he is master of all things. He thinks the world is his without bonds. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Only when he tramps the mountains alone, communing with nature, observing other insignificant creatures about him, to come and go as he will, does he awaken to his own short-lived presence on Earth.
Few places in the Himalayan mountain range are as rich with mystery, myth, and legend as the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan—the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Nestled in the foothills of the eastern Himalaya, and sandwiched uneasily between the political and economic behemoths India and China, Bhutan is the world’s last remaining Vajrayana Buddhist nation. The ancient spiritual tradition is embedded deep in the very consciousness and culture of this remote land, where it has flourished with an unbroken history that dates back to its introduction in the 8th century by the legendary Indian Buddhist master Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche.
Taktsang Palphug Monastery, better known as the Tiger’s Nest, first built in 1692, is probably the most iconic and immediately recognisable landmark in Bhutan. Clinging precariously to a sheer cliff wall, at an altitude of about 3,120 meters, and some 900 meters above the floor of the Paro Valley, the Tiger’s Nest is one of Bhutan’s most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites associated with Padmasambhava—built around a cave in which the venerable master is said to have meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours.
Our ascent to the Tiger’s Nest began with an early start, enabling us to avoid the stream of pilgrims and visitors who would flock to the sacred site later in the day, and allowing us the privilege of making our climb in the cool, quiet stillness of the early morning air.
After waiting so long for an opportunity to visit this fabled land, the anticipation of finally arriving at this mystic monument to an ancient spiritual tradition was almost overwhelming. My first fleeting glimpses of the distant temple from the base of the mountains, waiting hundreds of meters above us in the dim morning light behind a veil of shifting cloud, took my breath away. It was real! I was here!
We started up the well-trod trail without hesitation, following the footsteps of countless pilgrims and travellers before us as we made our way steadily up the mountainside. The trail twisted and turned with the contours of the terrain, carrying us around shrines and prayer wheels, and beneath endless fluttering garlands of prayer flags strung between the verdant trees, upward into the serpentine clouds that held the mountain in silent embrace.
Of course—out of respect for the sanctity of this historic site—cameras are forbidden inside the monastery complex itself, but the climb upwards offers a richness of opportunities for photography: the sheer, impenetrable walls of the mountain, spectacular views across the valley, and the vision of the mythical Tiger’s Nest itself, wreathed in cloud, as it draws steadily closer, one step at a time.
They say that life is a journey, not a destination, and the same can be said for traveling in the mountains. We visit the mountains to experience our journey through them and to learn what they can teach us. In the case of the Tiger’s Nest, it was both the journey and the destination—experience and arrival.
If we’re very lucky, we might have an opportunity to visit such wonderful places on many occasions over the course of a single lifetime, but we can only experience the magic of visiting the Tiger’s Nest for the first time once. It’s an experience to cherish and a memory to treasure.