Tiger’s Nest – Taktsang Monastery in Paro, Bhutan

If you’re looking for James Hilton’s elusive Lost Horizon, Tiger’s Nest Monastery, still somewhat isolated from the modern world, might momentarily transport you to a mystical Shangri-La.

Located in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, Tiger’s Nest is a truly awe-inspiring place that awakens legends and even the greatest skeptic’s sense of wonder.  Perched in the lush green mountains of the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, the Tiger’s Nest Monastery is a place of striking beauty and cultural significance.  The monastery is surrounded by the stunningly green, fertile Paro valley, which is a site to see in itself for its pristine environmental conservation.

According to Bhutan’s tour operators website, 72% of Bhutan still remains under forest cover, and is home to unusual and endangered flora and fauna, such as blue pine and the fabled blue poppy.

The temple sits precariously on the edge of a vertical rock cliff, and can be reached only by foot or mule, at an elevation of 3120 meters, about 700 meters (2000) above the Paro valley.

Once geographically isolated from the rest of world, Tiger’s Nest is regarded as a unique spiritual place, and is the site of many Buddhist pilgrimages.  According to Bhutan’s tourism counsel website, Taktsang Palphug Monastery locally referred to as Paro Taktsang, or in the Tibetan language, stag tshang “tiger’s lair”, is a scared Himalayan Buddhist site.

The history of Bhutan is largely intertwined with that of the figure, Guru Padmasambhava, as he is venerated as Bhutan’s tutelary or protective deity.  He is said to have meditated in the thirteen caves surrounding the temple for three months.  In 1692, a temple was completed under the direction of a monk near the scared caves to honor Padmasambhava, also known locally as Guru Rinpoche. Rinpoche was responsible for bringing Buddhism from India to Tibet, Bhutan and surrounding countries in the 8th century.

Taktshang Monastery, Bhutan
Photo by Douglas J. McLaughlin (Photograph edited by Vassil) from Wikipedia commons.

According to legend, the great Guru Rinpoche flew from Tibet to these Cliffs on a flying tigress to subdue the demons and evil deities.  These local deities were said to oppose Buddhism.  Guru Rinpoche is known as Padum in Tibet, and followers of the Nyringma school, refer to him as the second Buddha.

The guru transformed himself into a tiger to fight the demons and emerged in 8 incarnations representing eight forms of his being to bless the sacred place.  More about the symbolism of each incarnation can be learned from a visit to Tiger’s Nest, as you will find several frescos dedicated to this story.  A Buddhist monk later built the temple, an act that united Bhutan and spread Buddhism to the valley.   It is a bit reminiscent of a Catholic counterpart in Europe, a cathedral located in the mountains of Asturias, Spain dedicated to where the protective Virgin Covadonga was said to have appeared in local caves to Don Pelayo in the battles of the Crusades.

Statue of Padmasambhava

Statue of Padmasambhava 123 ft. (37.5 m) high in mist overlooking Rewalsar Lake, Himachal Pradesh, India.

Image by John Hill from Wikipedia Commons

According to the National Geographic Book, 500 Most Scared Places of a Lifetime, Tiger’s Nest is one of the most powerful places you will ever visit. You may find the complete silence of nature positively haunting or meditate with the tantric chanting of Mahayana monks, who practice in solitude for up to seven years.

According to travelers, seeing the site in person is more moving than they had anticipated, perhaps due to the cliff’s sheer danger and high altitude. The temple, perched in a seemingly impossible location, seems to achieve unity with nature. It may awaken spirituality or a profound admiration of the majesty of nature, appreciation of culture, or splendor of art and architecture.

Once at the monastery, you might explore the surrounding forest trails or quietly mediate inside the temple.  On the way, you will find prayer wheels, which are said to spread blessings.

In a secular manner, Tiger’s nest stands a firm testament to the power of human ingenuity and is a worthwhile study of the greatness of nature.  In fact, according to Artists for Conversation, in “An Artist’s Journey through the Land of the Thunderdragon”, Bhutan, which is the most remote of Himalayan countries, is revered for the preservation of biodiversity, with 26% of the country as protected wilderness and accounts for 50% of the earth’s terrestrial diversity.

Paro Taktsang, Taktsang Palphug Monastery


Painting of Paro Taktsang, Taktsang Palphug Monastery, The Tiger’s Nest

Lama G’s Cafe, Fremont, Seattle, Washington, USA   Image by Wonderlane

If you plan on visiting Tiger’s Nest be sure to arrange a special permit through a guide with the National Commission for Cultural Affairs.  On your trek, you may notice uniform local dress: Bhutanese women must wear Kira, and men, the Gho dress.  The national attire is required under law in government buildings.   Bhutan’s Prime Minister proposed a measure to value Gross National Happiness or GNH, which surpasses the nation’s GDP in importance and places an emphasis on spiritual development and cultural preservation, such as through dress.   GNH is taken seriously, for example, environmental conservation is central to the country’s philosophy.  In 1998, a fire nearly destroyed the main monastery but it was later restored completely in 2005 by the Bhutan government.  Bhutan’s leadership has recently opened its doors to investments and democracy.

Here a few tips if you decide to arrange a holiday to Bhutan:

•       The official tourism board of Bhutan is the best source of information.

•       Travel must be arranged by a local tour operator or international partner.  You may visit the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators.

•       Druk Air is the only airline operating into Bhutan.  However, plans are to add one additional airline in 2012.  Bhutan is accessible by connecting flights from Bangkok (Thailand), New Delhi, Kolkata, Gaya, Mumbai, (India) Kathmandu (Nepal), Singapore, and Bangladesh.

•       There is a government policy that all visitors pay a daily fee of approximately USD $200-$250.  The daily fee includes all internal transportation, accommodations, organized meals, camping gear for treks, all taxes and fees, and a licensed tour guide.  Full payment via wire transfer is required before obtaining visas.

•       Individuals and couples pay an additional surcharge of $30-$40.

•       Bhutan was once only accessible via foot through the high passes of Tibet and Plains of Indian.  Travel to Bhutan opened in the 1970’s, largely due to the construction of a road on the Indian border and an international airport in Paro.

•       A guide is required and independent travel is not permitted through Bhutan.  However, tourism is largely supported by the government and visas are easy to obtain.

Whatever you reason for visiting, you will surely find a once in a lifetime experience at Tiger’s Nest.  While attending Cornell University, I explored Eastern religions, particularly Tibetan Buddhism.  I attended a traditional Tibetan meditation, which awakened my interest in the history of Buddhism.  Tiger’s Nest is a place that I would love to visit, as it is central to the history of the proliferation of Buddhism.  I believe Buddhism provides a distinct door into understanding many of life’s mysteries.  One experience I remember vividly was Tibetan monks creating a large, intricate sand painting, to later (to my complete disarray) completely destroy it.  I asked why they had done this and they explained it was to show the transient nature of life and inability to achieve permanence.  Similarly, this remarkable place will probably pose many questions and perhaps provide some answers for you too.

 About the Author

Miriam Clifford holds a Masters in Teaching with Honors from City University of Seattle.  She completed her Bachelor in Science at Cornell University and majored in Human Biology, Health, and Society. She loves to travel and is passionate about education.  She is a foodie and on her time off enjoys cooking and gardening.