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The art of phallicgraphy


DIRTY SECRET? It is believed that the icons keep ghosts and evil spirits from entering the house

Explicit drawings of the phallus are a common sight on traditional Bhutanese homes. This is a tradition that goes back centuries but is not popular among the young today.

The first thing that strikes you on entering Gelephu, a town in Sarpang district of Bhutan, which borders Assam, is that it is steeped in tradition. Boys and girls walk around attired in the traditional gho (men), tego and kiru (women). There are motley Buddhist prayer flags atop buildings, on roadsides and even in the middle of road. All buildings - houses, restaurants, hotels, offices and even entry gates - look identical sporting Buddhist architecture. A few of these buildings sport large drawings of phalluses - long erect phalluses with semen spurting out of them - on their doors, windows and even on outer walls facing the road. The explicit phallic graphics hardly leave anything to the imagination.

On the door of a middle class house on a road, a large phallus is painted in explicit detail, including pubic hair, circled by a colourful ribbon. When you knock a middle-aged lady peers out inquiringly. Ask her about the phallus painting and she replies with a shy smile: "This is our God. " Try to quiz her further and she simply slams the door on you. You also spot phalluses made of wood hanging from roofs of some Bhutanese homes.

Choki Dorji and Pema are students of Kuendrup Higher Secondary School in Gelephu and they are happy to talk about Bhutanese culture, food and traditions. They have no problems with being asked to meditate in school or asked to wear the national dress at all public functions. Pema says that in Bhutan it is mandatory for people to follow Buddhist architecture in the construction of their houses. "The windows must be made of wood, " she says pointing to a building to make her point. But broach the subject of the phallus drawings and Choki and Pema make a hurried exit. They are late for class, they say, embarrassment writ large on their faces. Raju, another school student, looks uncomfortable answering my question but says the tradition is rooted in a belief. "It does not let ghosts and spirits enter the house, " he says. This is a tradition that the Bhutanese have followed for over three centuries but it embarrasses the young. "It's definitely an embarrassment for young families, " admits Ugyen

Rabten, general secretary of the Bhutan-India Friendship Association in Gelephu. The members of the association maintain close ties with the Bodos in Assam. Rabten adds that Nepalis and Hindus who own many new buildings in Bhutanese cities and towns also do not follow the tradition.

The tradition of phallus painting started after the 15th century when a lama from Tibet, Drukpa Kunley, established Chimi Lhakhang monastery in Bhutan. Kunley, who was responsible for spread of Buddhism in Bhutan, was known for his antics. Mythology says that he could slay evil spirits with his large penis which came to be known as the "Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom". Kunley is also remembered as a mad saint and revered as an icon of fertility. Childless couples turn up at the Lhakhang monastery in Punakha district to seek his blessings. A lingam made of wood is placed in the monastery. Rabten claims a lot of people from West Bengal visit the monastery. "That is why you hear names like Kunley or Kinley and Chimi in the state, " he says.

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