Buddhism often has an air of rarefied austerity surrounding its practices, where monks draped in saffron live in archetypal quiet reverential reserve, a highly ordered and celibate world of calm reflection in renunciation of the material world.

Bhutan, intrinsically governed by these principles, is likewise a simple, peaceable and socially conservative country, with Buddhist values everywhere present and the customary culture of not overtly showing affection in public widely practiced, the very epitome of modest behaviour.

The visitor to Bhutan will therefore be surprised, perhaps even shocked, to find the often very large and strikingly bold depictions of penises adorning the walls of countless Bhutanese religious buildings and dwellings as they travel through the country.

Only a little less obviously, it is also common to find carved wooden phalluses above Bhutanese doorways, the corner eaves of houses and sometimes also in the fields of farmers, bestowing fertility to the land.

Although worship of the Phallus existed in Bhutan prior to the arrival of Buddhism, its use as an everyday religious symbol owes the pervasiveness of its presence to the so-called 'Divine Madman', Drukpa Kunley, a Buddhist tantric master and poet, now regarded in Bhutan as a saint, born in 1455 to a Tibetan noble family.

He underwent yogic training at Ralung Monastery in western Tibet, the very same monastery from which Ngawang Namgyal, also known as Zhabdrung Rimpoche, later fled in 1616, to become Bhutan’s first truly cohesive political leader, guiding the land into the nationhood which it has inherited today.

Travelling to Bhutan, in 1499, Drukpa Kunley blessed the site at Chimi Lhakhang, close to Punakha, where a Buddhist monastery was founded, and remains to this day, in dedication to the unusual Lama, who, according to legend, is said to have subdued a demoness here by means of his profound penis.

Early Bhutanese history is a blurred, opaque blending of fantasy and reality, and the accounts of Drukpa Kunley are no exception, with all manner of miraculous occurrences attributed to him.  

What he is most famous for, however, is his drunken singing and womanising, freely expressed in the name of Buddhism, liberating women into Nirvana through the copious application of his ‘Flaming Thunderbolt of Wisdom’, after which he is now known as ‘the saint of 5,000 women’.

He was also famous for his free-thinking ridicule of conventional moralistic teachings and religious orthodoxy, even urinating upon ‘sacred’ artefacts, believing, in echoes of Chinese Taoism, that celibacy is unnatural and that enlightenment is not gained through ritual and doctrine, regarding even virtue to be an illusory vice, and describing women and wine as his meditation.

As a symbol, the phallus is obviously linked to fertility, and it is a common practise for Bhutanese women, and even some hopeful childless foreign visitors, to visit Chimi Lhakhang Monastery in pursuit of the blessing, which consists of a monk tapping the supplicant pilgrims upon the head with a wooden phallus.

The Divine Madman’s attributed power over demons also ensured the widespread use of phallic symbols as a means of protection from such beings in Bhutanese society.

As paradoxical and unusual as it seems to modern perceptions of religious thinking, the use of sex in Tantric Yoga and religious phallic imagery predates Buddhism and has its roots in Hinduism, where it also has affinitive association with the similarly shaped 'sacred mushroom' or 'Soma' extolled in the world's earliest religious text, the Rig Veda, as the means by by which the revelatory experience is gained.

Sexual imagery abounds in ancient Hindu sculpture, most notably at the Khajuraho temples in Madhya Pradesh in India, which are richly carved with highly detailed orgiastic tantric scenes.

In western culture, sex and religion are like oil and water, and scantly mentioned in religious thinking, and even then often only as a source of shame and thereby a tool for manipulation. In the east however, although celibacy is also widely adhered to by some sects, other religious schools of thought regard sex as a vital component of the human experience and even an indispensable yoga towards the attainment of spiritual goals.