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The Phallus: an arcane symbol

It’s said that TshongpaSonam of Rangkhar stuck pictures of elaborately drawn phalluses on the number plates when he bought his first truck.

A small phallus was curved on a wooden piece by farmer Dorji Gyeltshen when he noticed that his Ba-min had given birth to a calf.

The inauguration of Singay of Paro’s new house was done by hanging four phalluses on the eaves of his house (see box for the ritual). Also, in eastern Bhutan farmers hang a wooden phallus in the field when the crops begin to sprout and at the time of Tshechus, the Atsara wear a cloth phallus as part of their headgear.

The phallic symbol was, is and will be as popular as it has ever been.

As apples in a basket vary in size and shape, the phallus also comes in different shapes and sizes carved either in wood, metal, stone or cloth. Most often, it is painted on walls, hung at the eaves of houses and displayed in various forms during some traditional ceremonies.

In Bhutan the phallus plays a vital role, as it is an integral part of ceremonies observed by communities, commonly used to drive away evil spirits and counter evil.

When inauguration ceremony of a new house is done, a sort of phallic ritual is performed whereby the house owner consecrates the house. The ritual is an elaborate form of phallic ritual. At the time of ritual, phalluses are placed on the four eaves of the house facing the four directions and one inside the house. The five giant phalluses carved out from pieces of wood are tied together in a bundle and then put in a bamboo basket. Then a young and virgin girl well dressed; leading a dancing and singing troupe carries the basket and makes three rounds around the house.

After that groups of men and women are formed. The male group climbs up on the roof while the women’s group stands under the eave of the house facing towards the east direction. The basket is tied on the middle of the rope and a tug of war begins. Here, men pull the basket roof-ward whereas the women pretend to pull it to the ground. Still then we should know that a common understanding is made between the groups that finally the basket will have to reach the roof so that the phalluses can be hung from the eaves. The typical phallic songs are sung as the tug of war starts and proceeds. After every verse of the song the common people watching the ritual repeats the word laso.

At the middle of the game, the men’s group pretend to lose the battle and the basket is pulled down. At this moment, the owner of the house energizes the men by serving them with ara (home brewed spirit) so that they can win the game.

The game continues until the basket reaches the roof and the men place the phalluses on the eaves. These special phalluses are tied with a dagger (redi) each that are painted in five different colors.

It’s believed that the five daggers signify the five different manifestations of Lord Jambayang. According to Dasho Lam Sanga, “The white dagger placed on the east eave symbolizes peace, purity, and harmony; a red colored dagger on the west represents wealth and power; the yellow dagger situated on the south signifies prosperity and the green dagger placed in north represents protection. The final fifth dagger placed inside the house symbolizes wisdom and is usually blue in colour.”

Moreover it’s sometimes called Kharamshing or Mikha(a piece of wood to counter the evil tongue and eye), Gulang or WangchuChenpo(reference to Lord Shiva) and WangchuChenpo pho tag(the male symbol of Lord Shiva), or simply Zurshing(a piece of wood that hangs from the eaves).

Aside from its popular perception, the phallus has a significant meaning beyond its obvious symbolism to drive away evil dominations.

According to Kuensel, a Bhutanese scholar shared that the true significance of the phallus has been perverted by popular belief.

He said that the phallus is an artistic folk device to suppress the human male issue of ego or in one line; it is an attempt to kick out the male ego since the phallus in its warped form reminds of problems of male ego.

He detailed that the phallus, in particular represents a Centre of male ego, and is not to symbolize celebration of sex.

He also said, “The idea of a phallus as a symbol is an elemental driving force in a society; if this force is harnessed judiciously and diverted to productivity and creativity it can result in wonders.”

“If incase, this force is not utilized properly, it leads to accumulation of lust and makes a man to act like an animal in undesirable way. Therefore, the phallus reminds men to control that force and act desirably in a civilized manner.”

This explanation given by one of the Bhutanese scholars coincides with the Hindu belief that Shivalingam (representation of Lord Shiva’s phallus) denotes the primeval energy of the creator and that the lingam (a representation of the infinite cosmic column of fire); whose origins, Vishnu (sustainer) and Bhrama (creator) were unable to explain.

It’s a Hindu myth that if the mundane desires are controlled, even the most bestial of beings can rise and rule the world. On the other hand, if this thinking power is misused, it can allow one to corrupt actions, which leads to entire degeneration in the thinking process.

With regard to a researcher at the Center of Bhutan Studies (CBS) the Bhutanese phallic symbol is not a symbol to denote domination of womanhood by man. Rather it symbolizes a worldly illusion of desires.

For an example, the phallus hung from the eaves has a dagger tied to it representing two opposite impulses. “The phallus denotes an illusion and the dagger represents wisdom to suppress the above consequences thus leading to the sublimation of human mind,” he said.

But the authentic question in the minds and speeches of Bhutanese scholars is how did this almost-universal phallic culture exist into Bhutanese society?

According to the former principal of the Institute of Language and Culture Studies (ILCS) Dasho Lam Sanga, he said that as such there are no written documents on it. But it’s said that the worship of the phallus existed in the country before the arrival of Guru Rimpoche and Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. He also expressed that our forefathers narrated all what we know today.

Some of the Bhutanese scholars say that the phallus was a part of Bon tradition.

A researcher at the CBS said, “The phallus is an integral part of Bon tradition”. “Before Buddhism flourished into the land of Drukyul, majority of the Bhutanese people practiced Bonism. At that time, phallus occupied the central position in all Bon rituals. So there is a possibility that what we have today might be a remnant of Bonism.”

Almost all Bhutanese people believe that the phallic symbolism has a connection to the legacies of the popular Bhutanese saint, Lam DrukpaKinley (commonly called the Divine Madman for his unrestrained sexual practices and rebellion against the dogmatic religious institutions).

However, Bhutanese scholars strongly disagree with this ‘common misconception’. Sonam Kinga of the CBS said, “No phallic symbol was ever directly ascribed to the saint, though there were some associations.”  “Although the association enriches and enhances the fascination of the phallus, DrukpaKinley used the phallus as a ‘medium’ to the subdue demons and demonesses and other evil spirits, and in fact he make use of it in his sexual practices to overcome the social inhibitions set by the socially established values.”

Nevertheless, there is a popular story, which illustrates how the saint tamed a demoness in Helela. It’s believed that DrukpaKinley have copulated with the demoness and tamed her with his sizeable organ. Today ChimmiLhakhang in Lobesa, Thimphu, is dedicated to the saint and the people visiting the temple are blessed with a phallus, therwiseg fertility.

The saint subdued and tamed evil spirits by means of his phallus and thus, the popular Bhutanese belief that phallic symbols ward-off evil spirits has a link with it.

An ILCS lecturer KinzangDorji said, “Human prosperity is supposed to ride of ill feelings.”  “People’s method of defense was to strike back through a human agency represented by the phallus. Thus the belief of protection against the evil eye.”

On addition to the above fact, Dasho Lam Sanga also said that the phallus rituals are conducted in some parts of eastern Bhutan to protect themselves from evil spirits. People of these communities make offerings of mainly flowers, milk and ara to please the phallus. In fact the color of the ara is made red corresponding to the natural color of human organ.

Some other sort of phallic ritual is being performed in central Bhutan where they dip a wooden phallus in the cups before giving drinks to their guests.

A resident of Thimphu had shared a vivid experience when he was a teacher at Yallang community school in Trashigang. He said that he had been invited to a village ritual where he saw a mop of naked men who had come out of nowhere and started chasing women around the house. They then caught hold of the women and amazingly they rubbed their organs on them signifying that they are chasing away the evil spirits.

Though Bhutanese people celebrate the symbols of male organ, there is less celebration comprising of female organ (the pudenda or yoni or baga, the Latin, Hindu, and Tibetan names) in the country.

Nonetheless, there are some representations of the female organ like symbols on rocks, which are usually pudenda. Among them; one can be seen in SingyeDzong area, one in Aja Nye, and one on the rocky cliff opposite to Jamkhar village in Trashigang, popularly referred to as Jamkharamabaga (literally meaning Jamkhar Mother’s pudenda).

The Jamkharamabaga is believed to pour water that people considered as Drupchu (holy water), just before the GomkoraTshechu that celebrates fertility.

Despite its significance, phallus symbolism is losing its vibrancies in the urban area. For an example, a house owner in Thimphu who had a giant phallus painted on the wall of his building erased it after getting lots of compliments from people that it looked offensive and indecent. Moreover, drawing of Phallus symbols on the buildings in urban areas are discouraged by the concerned authorities.

A resident in Thimphu expressed to Kuensel that as time goes on what will matter is whether people will accept the symbol or not. He even asked, “What is the representation of phallus in the modern Bhutanese society?”