Definition of governance

The word governance derives from the Greek verb κυερνάω [kubernáo] (meaning to steer, the metaphorical sense first being attested in Plato).  Economists and political scientists in the 1990s applied the word in describing of system essentially meaning arrangements of governing and the usage gained much momentum, when important institutions such as the UN, IMF and the World Bank adopted the term or etymology. History recorded that the Cakravarti Kings in North India gave effect to centralised system of governance under Buddhist precepts. “Buddhism further declares that the ownership of land, powers of judiciary and legislature should be centralised.” Cakravarti King following the Buddhist edicts centralised various small kingdoms of Northern India under one governance.

Governance during Zhabdrung Rimpochhe

Governance in Bhutan existed from ancient times. Sindhu Raja and Gyalpo Nawachhe and other minor rulers before Zhabdrung demonstrated the existence of governance. The reception and acceptance of Zhabdrung Rimpochhe’s tutelage without much resistance are the evidences of governance system in Bhutan. Moreover, attraction of saints and scholars by Bhutan starting from the sixth century is self-evident of prevalence of some form of governance in Bhutan.  John Adrussi wrote:

“Before the 17th century, western Bhutan consisted of a small number of agricultural communities, basically independent of any higher civil authority but given to ever-changing factional alliances and feuds over various issues, including sectarian allegiance. With some variation, the social patterns were similar in central and eastern Bhutan. However the predominant religion there was Nyingmapa Buddhism, with the exception of Merak in the Far East which was allied to the Gelugpa monasteries of Tibet. The ‘Brug-pa were predominant in western Bhutan, where more than a dozen branch monasteries of Ralung predated 1600, and strong marital alliances between the rGya family of Ra-lung and local valley chiefs had been forged during the 14th century.”

Governance in Bhutan or Gyalzin as recorded in the 1907 legal document encompasses three great attributes with Zin Chong Pal Sum.

The origin of the State, sovereignty of Bhutan

Prof. Oliver Abeynayake said: “contrary to the common culture that the State is an institution created by the omnipotent God to eradicate social vices, Buddha claimed that man made the State. With the change of primitive society, the distinct character of the common property of social vices erupted among the individuals. The society became violent and undisciplined. The result of these changes was the establishment of a new social order based on the system of private property. A necessity of a new system of governance arose to establish law and order and to safeguard the private property. At this juncture of unprecedented changes, man decided to establish the State, the head of which was the King. The State came into operation on a contract reached upon between the electors and the elect. Therefore, Buddhism reiterates that the State originated from a social contract.”

Independent status and sovereignty of Bhutan had been chronicled inter alia in the excerpt of the biography of Guru Padma Sambhava wherein it was recorded that Bhutan had defined territorial boundary with distinct people, culture, traditions and language. Today the sovereignty of Bhutan is absolute with defined and recognized international territorial boundaries. It has an established form of government having the power of law making, and the power to enter into treaties and maintains a standing army. She is today a member of the United Nations with a national flag denoting national symbolism, issues national currencies and postage stamps.  All of these sovereign characteristics and rights have been historically inherent to Bhutan.

Governance Structure prior to Monarchy

The structure of the governance from time of Zhabdrung till 1953 were similar with few variations mentioned in slate carving in front of Punakha Dzong, Mipham Wangpo, Lhoyig Chhoenjung, Desi Sherub Wangchhuk, Gongsar Jigme Namgyel’s prohibition issued on 1855, Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck’s edict and Gongsar Jigme Wangchuck’s proclamation. These charters and edicts had many common but a few designations with separate structures similar to ministries, hierarchy, selection, appointment criteria and code of conduct.

Zhabdrung’s Kathrim mentioned sDe-srid Phyag-mdzod the rdor-‘dzin of Gangs-ri, the rdzong-dpon and the mgron-gnyer… the rgya-drung and those of the rank of phyi-mgron”. The records of history carved in the slate of the Chhorten facing the Punakha Dzong were very comprehensive. The designations of Desi Chhangzoed, Deb Zimpon (Deb’s Chamberlain), Lam Zimpon, Goonglyon (Supreme Minister), Nanglyon (Minister of Internal Affairs), Kalyon (Chief Minister), Lay-zin, Makpon (General), Nyen-pon, Thrug-pon, Dingpon, Drangpon (Judge), Sherpon, Gaenpon and many others which were mentioned in the Desi or Palace officials.

Signatory to Oath of Allegiance

The officials, who signed the Oath of Allegiance to the election of Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck as the first elected Monarch of Bhutan in 1907, were virtual from records, historical charters and laws. They were:

Chooe-ste, Zhung Dronyer, Thimdzong, Wangdzong, Rinpung Chila, Darkar Chila and Gongzim (Senior Chamberlain).

Nyikyelm Chungshoe – Zhung Donsepa (Protocol Officer), Tapon (Cavalry In-Charge), Ziminam (Royal Quarter Master), Japon (Tea Master), Pungzim, Pungnyer, Gardzong, Thimzim, Thimnyer, Lingzhi, Wangzim, Wangnyer, Rindroen, Rin Nyer, Drudzong, Haa Drung, Darzim, Nyerchhen (Collectors), Chhoezim, Jadzong, Zhondzong, Trashigangpa, Lhundzong and Zhemgang. 

Chhibzhons – All Chhibzhons from Pungthang, Tashichhoedzong, Wangdzong, Trongsa and Rinpung.

People – Tshochhen Gyed (Eight Major Communities), Thed Dargay Chusum (Thirteen Communities), Shar Dar Gyed (Eight Communities of Wangdue), Barkor Tshodru (Six Communities of Paro), Haa Guyed Zhi (Four Communities of Haa), Tsentong Lingdrug (Six Communities), Sharchok Khorlo Tshibgye (Eighteen Communities of Eastern regions) and Darkar Lingsum (Three main centers of Dagana).

Rank structure in the Desi or Palace structure 

Designations or  official credentials of staff under Desi or palace structure included:  Chang-gap Bomsho (Senior butler), Chang-gap (Butler), Kadrep (Conservationist),  Dronyer (Chief of Protocol), Zimpon (Chamberlain), Solpon, (Lord of Food Master), Darpon (Chief of Zing-gap), Dayok (Assistant to Darpon), Chha-zhumi (Personal aide to the King), Chhandap, (Royal Archers), Chandap, (Royal Company of Security), Ziminam, Soel Yok (Chef) gong-wog.

Zing-gap (Royal Steward) and Pankola garpa worked on royal estates. Zing-gaps or Boe were deputed for different assignments like meeting the British Envoys. Tax collections were entrusted to Troethag Boe or Gaap, Basti Boe,etc..  Besides Ta-pon, Chhip-pon (Riding Stable Master), Adrung (Master of the Horse), Drey-pon (Caravan master),  Norpon, (Royal Master of Cattles), Noryog (cow boy) Banyer, (Royal Keeper of Cattle) also formed part of the palace workforce. Kutshab/Buendrib (representative or Ambassador), Tsang-sung (Fortier Guarding Officer), Ja drung (Sub-division officers at the Frontier), Pasa Kutsap, etc. represented the Desi at various frontline positions. In the Palace, there was a system of Nangzhip (Inner circle) and Chhizhip (Outer circle).

Regional Officers

The Ponlops/Chilas/Governors of the region were powerful and independent till 1907. The Ponlops were addressed as Kushos. They had similar rank structure as that of the central except they did not have Lam Zimpon, Zhung Dronyer, Gongzim and Kalyon.


Dzongkhag officials included: Dzongpon (Divisional Commissioner), Nyerchhen (Collectors), Dzongtshab (Officiating Dzongpon), Rabjam (Deputy Dzongdag), Dungpa (Sub Divisional Officer), Shanyer (Meat master), Dungyig (Clerk), Gorap (Gate keeper), Nyerpa, Shing-nyer, Chhu-nyer, Tsa nyer and Lapon (Labour officer).


Dungpa (Sub division officer) was the administrative in charge of Dungkhag that comprised of group of Gewogs (county). Gup was the head of a Gewog. Other officials were Yuesungpa, Tsorgyan, Mangmi, Chipon, Tsopla, Perpon and To-sopa. Desi Sherub Wangchuck, the thirteenth Desi recorded the system of administration elaborately and that system continued till 1968. Informal positions in the society included Lam Chhojay, Khochhey Ponchhen and etc..

To be continued…

Contributed by

Justice Sonam Tobgye (Retired)