When you select a postcard to send home you don't expect to find one of a smiling man next to a painted penis, and on the reverse 'Perfectly posing with phallus painting', but this is Bhutan and here the phallus is sacred; it is a symbol of fertility, good luck, and protection from harm.
The traveller seeking an original momento of their visit to Bhutan is not restricted to postcards; gift shops are also stocked with a range of wooden phalluses.
But what is the cultural origin of such overt eroticism?
The divine madman
These phallic images are the legacy of the Divine Madman.
Drukpa Kunley (1455–1529), the 'Divine Madman', is one of Bhutan's most interesting religious saints. He was unconventional, outrageous, provocative, bawdy, promiscuous; adjectives more suitable to modern day pop stars than a 15th Century Buddhist lama!
He was known for his unorthodox methods of Buddhist teaching, through song, humour and outrageous behaviour. These were bizarre, shocking and often executed with sexual overtones.
He advocated the use of phallic symbols on homes, painted on walls and inserted at the four corners of the eves, to drive away the evil eye and malicious gossip and to thus confer good luck.
An unorthodox blessing
Legend has it that Lama Kunley subdued a demon of Dochu La with his “magic thunderbolt of wisdom” (the thunderbolt lay between his legs!). A chorten and monastery now stands close to where this fateful event was said to occur.
The Chimi Lhakhang, in Punakha Valley, stands on a hillock and was built in 1499 after the site was blessed by the Divine Madman.
Visit this monastery at the right time and you can receive an unusual blessing.
The tradition at the monastery is to strike pilgrims on the head with a 10 inch (25 cm) wooden phallus. Not just any old phallus, but the original wooden symbol (decorated with a silver handle) that Kunley brought from Tibet.
The monastery is a special pilgrimage site for women seeking blessings to fall pregnant. Locals report that international visitors have also (successfully) received this blessing.
Karma Choden released her book 'Phallus: Crazy wisdom from Bhutan' earlier this year. The book contains various stories and images of phallus culture from all over Bhutan.