From a distance, Bhutan’s most iconic building seems to float, weightless, halfway up a sheer cliff-face, 900 meters (3,000 feet) above the floor of the Paro Valley. As you wind your way breathlessly up the long, steep path towards Taktsang Lhakhang, the monastery periodically reveals itself, rising out of the forest, closer and more solid with each reappearance.
While modern visitors approach Taktsang Lhakhang on foot or astride one of the sure-footed ponies guided by local villagers, the first person to recognize the holiness of this inaccessible spot, Guru Rinpoche, arrived here with considerably greater ease – on the back of a flying tigress. After defeating a troublesome local demon here in the eighth century, the Guru spent months in meditation, and the lhakhang – its name meaning “Tiger’s Nest” – has been a place of pilgrimage ever since.
The Bhutanese believe that the original construction of Taktsang in 1692 was assisted by dakinis – angels – who transported building materials up the cliff on their backs and lent their hair to hold the structure in place. Sadly the dakini were unable to help when Taktsang was razed in a major fire in April 1998, and the temple took five years to reconstruct with the help of a rudimentary cableway that has since been removed.
Inside the lhakhang, the Dubkhang – the cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated, now sealed behind a shining golden door – sits at the heart of the main shrine, surrounded by richly decorated chapels and side chapels that fill every inch of the narrow ledge, and offer phenomenal views of the forested valleys far below.
Visitors should note that the final approach to the lhakhang must be made on foot – horses must turn around at the busy canteen roughly halfway up the mountain.