To discover a new hero is always a good thing; to find one in a remote Himalayan valley is even better.

His spirit first touched me on a misty mountain pass at Dochula, the 3,140-metre crest where you stop climbing through blue pine forests and come upon a clump of chortens spread over a hillock. A chorten is a Bhutanese Buddhist stupa, square and whitewashed. At this pass, Bhutan's queen erected 108 of them, an auspicious number, to atone for the loss of life in a military operation in 2003.

This impressive memorial no doubt disturbs the local demons, a great horde of which are believed to hang around at this strategic point. Here, where the Thimphu Valley, home and namesake of Bhutan's capital, passes into the Punakha Valley, where the capital was located until 1961, there once lived a cannibal demoness. Until, that is, Drukpa Kunley, the Divine Madman, subdued her and her demonic companions back in the 15th century.

"He used his flaming thunderbolt of wisdom," says Tshitim "Tim" Jamtsho, my guide. While that sounds impressive it's only later, that I learn the exact nature of this mystic tool.

As our SUV switchbacks down the mountain road, the high-altitude pines, oaks and maples give way to alders, cypresses and the beginnings of spring's great rhododendron flowering. As we reach the valley floor, at about 1,300 metres above sea level, bamboo and cacti appear, and a sculpted landscape of rice terraces lies before us, dry and brown in winter.

At a roadside hamlet we pull up and step out into this rustic scene, with its houses painted in yellow ochre and white, with gaily decorated wooden window frames and carved gables. And big brown phalluses painted on the walls.

These are jolly phalluses, with big eyes, merrily spurting, some flying or diving, others standing proudly erect, all with pretty ribbons tied around them.

As I gape at this priapic display, Tim knows it is time to tell the story.

"A great guru called the Divine Madman came to this valley from Tibet more than five centuries ago. He was very fond of women and taught them with what he called his 'flaming thunderbolt of wisdom'. That's where the paintings come from, people remember him well."

A very physical kind of enlightenment, then. It seems he was a wild and provocative fellow, a Tantric sage who went round jolting people into rethinking their beliefs with humour and obscene antics. More likely to drop his pants than recite the scriptures, he felt the orthodox clergy were keeping people from learning the true teachings of Buddha and wielded his weapon of mass seduction to spread the true gospel.

"Everybody knows Drukpa Kunley in Bhutan, not just here in Lobesa," says Tim. "He's a kind of patron saint. He wrote many poems and other things to pass on his teachings."

We walk down through rice terraces and alongside a gushing water channel, passing women carrying huge bundles of straw on their backs. In a field of rice stubble, a phalanx of white prayer flags, printed with wishes and tied to tall poles, flutters in the breeze. We climb a hill to the Divine Madman's temple, Chimi Lhakhang.

Here the plot thickens. According to legend, the cannibal demoness of Dochula, fleeing Drukpa Kunley, ran down to Lobesa and turned herself into a dog to avoid detection. But the sage saw through the ruse and walloped the demonic dog with his divine penis, turning it into a protective deity. He then buried the mutt atop a breast-shaped hill. Triumphantly crying " Chi med!" - "No dog!" - Drukpa Kunley built a chorten on the spot, which was soon joined by a temple named Chimi Lhakhang - No Dog Temple.

The glee the Bhutanese take in this story is evident in the number of people who have the name Chimi, a corruption of Chi med. It may seem strange to be called "Nodog", but it's worn with pride, and a sense of humour, because all things Drukpa Kunley are cherished. Most of all in the hilltop monastery.

Inside the prayer hall, the altar is adorned with a statue of the mad saint and murals depict his colourful life. Amid the riot of religious paraphernalia, a monk offers some well-worn dice to throw. I get a five and a two, and he tells me that's good, then he blesses me with a foot-long wooden phallus said to have belonged to the Divine Madman himself. He then pours holy water into my cupped hand and - instructed by Tim - I sip it, then sprinkle it over my head by smoothing my hair back. Blessed am I, and a small donation settles the account.

"Many women come here to ask for fertility. People think the phalluses bring good luck, too, and ward off evil, so that's why they paint them everywhere around here," says Tim.

"Now we're going to a nunnery," he announces.

"Do you know Shakespeare?" I ask.

"Yes," says Tim.

Embarrassed, I press on. "Well," I say, "there's a play with a young couple where the man rejects the woman, snapping: 'Get thee to a nunnery!' I forget which play it is."

Tim: " Hamlet."

My jaw drops. It turns out he knows several Shakespeare plays, having studied the Bard at college in India. I resolve to assume he knows everything from here on in.

We drive up to a high ridge, where a Buddhist convent seems entirely innocent, its young shaven-headed nuns passing beneath the all-seeing eyes of a whitewashed Nepalese stupa. In a prayer hall garishly decorated with the wild fantasies of Tibetan-style Buddhism, they sit cross-legged on the floor in two facing rows, chanting the scriptures with concentrated devotion.

At Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup nunnery, the mountain views are heavenly, drawing your gaze along three steep valleys with densely wooded sides, slowly turning purple in the gathering dusk. On a grass verge sit two maroon-robed nuns enjoying the sight, lost in reverie. Consecrated only in 2010, this site seems to have been calling for spiritual pursuits since time immemorial.

Had it been here in the 15th century, something tells me Drukpa Kunley would have dropped by for a little Tantric persuasion.

 

Getting there: Cathay Pacific and Thai Airways fly from Hong Kong to Bangkok, from where Drukair provides flights to Bhutan. All tourists must use an authorised Bhutanese tour agent. The Bridge To Bhutan agency (www.bridgetobhutan.com) is recommended and its website explains all the requirements for visiting the country.