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Nabji, Part Two: Stone Age Mysteries

Dakini script, possibly a Stone Age marking, on the Yab Yum (male-female)
Stones in Nabji, 2005. Photo by Gerard Houghton for Core of Culture

Nabji, a remote Himalayan village in Bhutan, is a place where folklore, Stone Age megaliths, phallic worship, early agriculture, Buddhism, and dancing meet. These have integrated over thousands of years in relative isolation. Our dance research and documentation team first visited Nabji in 2005—the only foreigners ever to witness their rare winter solstice dance festival, which included a naked dance associated with the seventh century tantric master Padmasambhava. There was a bit of scholarship on Nabji at the time, mostly repeating folklore accounts and referring to a missing chronology taken by Bhutan’s first king from Chakar Lhakhang.

The main story was that Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, the primary transmitter of tantric Buddhism to Tibet and Bhutan, settled a land dispute between local warring kings by making them take an oath on an “oath-swearing pillar.” Padmasambhava also performed and taught a naked dance that distracted the demons and allowed the Buddhist temple to be built at Nabji. Locals say Padmasambhava watched the naked dance seated upon a stone. Some say he sat on the Yab Yum Stones. It is noteworthy that some of the oldest lore concerning Padmasambhava says that he taught a naked dance, as it is not a practice commonly associated with him.

In fact, the naked dance may be more closely associated with a place, Nabji, than with a person. The more we learn about Padmasambhava’s actual dance behavior, we see he was a skillful choreographer, assimilating styles of movement, techniques of mind and ritual patterns with ease, transforming them into new formal and repeatable yogic dances. Something like that happened at Nabji, perhaps more than once, if treasure revealer Dorje Lingpa added to the dances at Nabji in the 13th century, 600 years after Padmasambhava and the naked dance appeared and were connected in the story.

Oath-swearing pillar inside Nabji Lhakhang, a seventh century Buddhist
temple. Lore has it that Padmasmabhava resolved a land dispute here
by having the two warring kings swear an oath on this pillar. The pillar
is likely a paleolithic phallus. Image courtesy of Core of Culture

We were keen to see the oath-swearing pillar and, to our astonishment, as my colleague Gerard Houghton and I turned to each other, we couldn’t help but see the obvious: it is a Paleolithic phallus. There are others on the Himalayan plateau, and in India and elsewhere in Asia, although they are somewhat rare. More generally, the phallus is a manmade megalith, not a natural phenomenon: the manipulation by humans is clear. Stone Age monuments are characterized by human manipulation. The phallus at Nabji is not the only object of archeological interest there.

Just out from the village, toward the paddies, are two large stones known as the Yab Yum Stones, or male and female stones. The carvings in the stone are made with great precision. Of great interest at the base of one is that it is cut into a corner stone, a sign of human manipulation and possible structure. More remarkable is an obviously manmade inscription of some sort that the locals call “dakini script,” or the language of mystical communication in tantric Buddhism. Visions, for example, may be recorded in dakini script that only an adept can read. The style of the script is archaic, harking back to the earliest inscribing/drawing/writing systems, when numbers were recorded by knots. There are parallel carved inscriptions to this dakini script in the worldwide archeological record. The script seems as much a measure as a language. The Bhutanese believe one of their lamas, Dudjom Rinpoche, can read it, and that it tells the story of Padmasambhava in Bhutan.

Several examples of phallic raised stones, structural pillars, and monolithic arrays
from the expeditionary findings of John Vincent Belezza, 2001–02. Antiquities of
Northern Tibet, and Antiquities of Upper Tibet, Adroit Publishers, Delhi. A raised
stone almost never exists in isolation and often indicates a greater structure. 
Images courtesy of Core of Culture

There has lately been some wonderful scholarship on Nabji. Two areas of research need to be included and increased: the archeology of Nabji, and dance research on Nabji. The stones and the dances are the oldest artifacts at Nabji, and can only be properly understood by specialists. There has been almost no archeological research in Bhutan. In 2021, a wonderful article about important sites to be studied, including the Nabji phallus, was published by Dorje Penjore: “Digging the Past: The State of Archeological Study in Bhutan”. 

Throughout the Tibetan plateau, prehistoric megaliths and monuments bear drawings and inscriptions from Bon and Buddhist culture, appearing like petroglyphs of chortens or lotus flowers or mantras. Just as meditating Buddhist monks inhabited caves used by much earlier populations and decorated over them, so many prehistoric monuments are marked by Buddhist graffiti of sorts. Is Nabji a place where the Paleolithic and the Buddhist meet? There are other examples of raised phallic stones in India, Iran, Siberia, and Turkey.

The Yab Yum Stones (male-female stones). Stone Age megaliths erected at Nabji
showing signs of human workmanship, including an enigmatic script, 2005.
Photo by Gerard Houghton for Core of Culture

The unexplored archeological significance of the Nabji phallus, the Yab Yum Stones, and the inscribed dakini script is enigmatic until future study and excavation can reveal more context and data. The presence of a naked phallic danced ritual attached to all of these Stone Age megaliths is intriguing to say the least. That this naked prehistoric dance transforms into a Buddhist dance ritual is the true miracle at Nabji, whose agricultural new year or Winter Solstice festival includes an ithyphallic naked dance as old as collective memory. It is enmeshed in a pageant of phallic fertility rites contextualized by a seventh century tantric master’s dances, and again by a 13th century Buddhist saint and his dances. What a story for a naked dance!

Core of Culture commissioned a monastic thangka painter to paint the dance story of Nabji according to orthodox Buddhist canonical and aesthetic treatment. The monk artist was associated with Trongsa Dzong and related to the director of Bhutan’s Royal Academy of Performing Arts. Nabji is a village in Trongsa District. A line drawing of the thangka shows clearly on the left side Padmasambhava teaching the naked dance as the temple at Nabji is constructed; swearing oaths on the phallic oath pillar; and a dakini writing in dakini script on the Stone Age megalith. It is unequivocal that dances and dancers are associated with the stones. A dakini is by nature a dancer. She can be seen dancing toward the top-left side of the drawing.

There are two naked dances at the bottom: on the left is the Nabji naked dance; on the right is its derivative performed at Jambay Lhakhang in Bumthang, associated with Nabji through treasure revealer Dorje Lingpa, who sits center of the thangka and whose story is told mostly on the right side, along with the hereditary Chakar Lam, who even today, 700 years later, is responsible for the dances at Nabji. What is of great interest here is how a tradition of painting preserves a tradition of dancing and its complex story.

The Chakar Lam can be seen in the drawing inside a small temple holding the relic of the dakini footprint in stone, featured in Nabji, Part One: Bearing Relics.

Dorje Lingpa thangka telling story of the naked dance at Nabji, pencil drawing.
Trongsa monastic painter, commissioned by Core of Culture, 2005.
Photo by Gerard Houghton

Does this stone phallus, the male-female stones, archaic script, and ithyphallic dance indicate something much older at Nabji? To begin to speculate on that question, archeology and dance research must be brought to bear on the inquiry. 

Coming next: Nabji, Part Three: Tercham, the Naked Dance

A Bhutanese girl uses a stone mill wheel, an example of Stone Age technology, 2005 A stone adze, or axe, is one of the relics maintained by the Chakar Lam, who oversees the dance practices at Nabji. Photo by Gerard Houghton for Core of Culture

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Core of Culture

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