One evening, seven of my former fifth graders surprised me at the nunnery with their overnight bags and pillows. As their ride drove off in the distance, they explained, “Miss, we got a two day holiday from school so we came to stay with you.” Shocked at the unexpected visit, all I could do was giggle, “I’m so happy to see you all!”
The next morning, I decided to walk them to Membartsho since most of them had never been to it and they were beyond thrilled. Membartsho, or Burning Lake, is one of the most important sacred sites in Bhutan; a famous treasure finder, Pema Lingpa, dove into its ferocious icy waters with a burning lamp and returned from the water with the lamp still burning along with sacred treasures, hence the name, Burning Lake. The treasure was hidden by the second Buddha who prophesized that a great master would find his hidden treasure.
A second well known story about Membartsho and worth mentioning is of a farmer who went looking for his cow near the lake when he heard beautiful chants coming from a magnificent temple standing where the lake was supposed to be. He entered the temple for some time enjoying the sereneness of heavenly monks praying and then realizing that he had been there for several hours, he finally went home to tell his family about the new temple. However, when he reached home, he discovered that he had been missing for twenty-one days and that his funeral had already taken place by his family who thought that he must had drowned in the water since they found his hat next to the water. Everyone was in shock to see him alive and when he went back to visit the temple, it was gone.
Other strange occurrences have happened at the lake, such as tales of people who saw a hideous naked women lying in the lake without a trace of water in it. Hours later when they returned to the lake, it was back to normal and the frightening lady was nowhere to be found. Unfortunately, those who looked into her black socket eyes mysteriously died a few days later. Whether all these stories are true or not, most Bhutanese people believe them and make long pilgrimages to pay great respect to the sacred spot.
So on a mundane Sunday morning, like the people in the tales, we too innocently sought out to visit the magical site, not realizing that we would also add to the mythical stories of the Burning Lake. When we reached the lake, we stood on a boulder looking down at the rushing river that collected in a small swirling deep pool (referred to as the lake), which pushed on to continue as a river for miles and miles.
While we looked around at the spectacular scenery, a lama who was in meditation came out of hermit to point out to us areas in the water where some pure people can see images of temples, prayer flags and other revered Buddhist items. Just then one of my students faces turned white and she hid behind another student while some of the other girls followed her in extreme fear shouting, “There’s a mermaid in the water!”
At first, the girls were incredibly frightened and a few were on the verge of crying. The lama dismissed their fears telling them that it was wonderful to be able to see a mermaid. They screamed at me, “Miss, look, can’t you see her tail swishing around… I can see her hands…” I strained my eyes, but I couldn’t see “the little mermaid.” All I could see was the refraction of the sunrays on the surface of the water that could possibly have a shape of a mermaid if one extended their imagination. I thought that maybe they were mistaking the refracting light as a mermaid or maybe it was a big fish they were seeing, but they all swore they could see her body perfectly clear while some reported seeing the mermaid’s face and long black hair.
The students were in a trance fixated on the mermaid and they made offerings to her by throwing money into the water while the lama threw her a handful of packaged candy. I gasped as I saw the plastic wrappers floating into the sacred water and seeing my disapproving frown, he unwrapped the rest of the candy and threw in the remaining sweets without the wrappers.
The students drew a crowd of tourist who must have thought we were a crazy sight and they flashed their cameras at the girls prostrating to an “invisible” mermaid. Nobody seemed to be able to see the mermaid except the seven little girls. By the look of fear, excitement and disbelief all mixed upon their faces, I truly believed that they were seeing a mermaid. The lama explained that the innocent children must have had the right Karma to see it unlike some adults who have a lack of faith or accumulated sins.
It took me a long time to nudge the girls away from Membartsho. The entire day, all the girls could talk about was the mermaid and that night several had intriguing dreams about her. They became obsessed with the mermaid and they asked every spiritual person we came into contact with about her. Some told the girls it was a good omen while others shook in fear saying that it was the local deity who protected the rest of the hidden treasures in the lake. Some cautioned the girls to be careful because the deity had the power to take the souls of people, especially if did anything bad around the lake, such as smoking.
Then a few weeks later, I thought the story of the mermaid was over, but the mermaid talk resurfaced when a young foreign couple on their honeymoon fell into the dangerous lake and drowned without a single witness. Everyone was horrified by the news and after a search team couldn’t find one of the bodies for three days, the nunnery held a special puja at the lake for the body to be discovered. Minutes after the puja, the body was recovered. Afterwards, a few of my Bhutanese friends told me that they believed the mermaid caused the couple to perish and that she kept the body until they did the puja for her to release it from the water similar to how she had done in the past.
The next day, when some of the nuns and I went to Membartsho to say a prayer for the deceased couple, I overheard the meditating lama residing at the lake telling some tourists and their guides about how seven little girls saw the mermaid; I realized that the day my students saw the mermaid had turned into a new tale in Bhutan as the tourists squinted looking for a mermaid. I felt chills run down my spine wondering if there was really a powerful mermaid lurking somewhere deep in the pool or under a bolder. I can’t say with any certainty that the mermaid is real or not, but that mundane day we sought out to visit Membartsho has left me with a deep respect for the sites potential for death and magical occurrences.