One morning, sitting in the back of the car, gazing at the beautiful rural farmhouses we were passing, I noticed these ropes, with hanging objects from the eaves at the corners. “Jigme,” I asked, “what are these thingies hanging at the corners of the houses?” “Phalluses,” Jigme replied. “Beg your pardon?” “Yes, phalluses.” and he told us the story of Drukpa Kunley, the Divine Madman.
Drukpa Kunley (1455-1529) was a Buddhist monk born in Tibet. He is the one who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan. He distinguished himself by his outrageous behaviour and teaching style. He is one of Bhutan’s favourite saints.
Kunley felt that the stiffness of the clergy and social conventions were keeping people from learning the true teachings of Buddha. His often obscene actions were a deliberate method of provoking people to discard their preconception. His sexual exploits are legendary. He seduced many women, wives of his hosts included.
On one occasion when he received a blessing thread to hang around his neck, he wound it around his penis instead, saying he hoped it would bring him luck with the ladies. Kunley’s organ, as painted, is called the “Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom” as it unnerved demons and subdued them.
Therefore, it was Drukpa Kunley who propagated the legend of painting phalluses on walls and flying hanging phalluses from roof tops of houses to drive away evil spirits and subdue demons.
House painting has to follow strict patterns but, in phallic paintings, painters can reveal their imagination in the phalluses’ size, colour and variety. Some phalluses are even endowed with a pair of benign and comic eyes. For villagers, these sights come to be like that of any other household wares, nothing shocking. This art form, which is both beautiful and banal, is unusual in the rest of the world. At a popular level, the beholders of phallic images consider them as banal but fundamental aspects of life. In educational terms, the images are also about acceptance, without shame or guilt. A child growing up understanding such images probably gains earlier and more realistic adaptations. A common view is that when slanderous people, or those who bear us ill will, see a phallus, they are overcome by shame and embarrassment, and are unable to cause us harm. This view led people to pin wooden phalluses in such highly visible places.
Now my attention was drawn. The more I looked, the more phalluses I saw. Hanging on eaves, murals and many drawings. In Punakha we visited various shops with a pretty display of phalluses in the window. Now there was a difficult thing for me to decide. Should I buy four of them and hang them on the eaves of my house? To protect me against evil? Or perhaps one big phallus for in my windowsill?… Then I thought of my neighbours, what would the neighbours say… Finally I decided not to. In Bude it would be perhaps a bit out of context. I bought some postcards instead.