Bhutan and the Buddhist Himalayan world has a rich tradition of life writing in the form of histories, biographies, travelogues, memoirs, catalogues, narratives and other types of life accounts. Among them, the genre of biography is the most well known form of life writing. Bhutanese hierarchs, who were capable of writing, took great interest in writing accounts of their lives or the lives of their masters.
The most common form of biographical writing in Bhutan is namthar (རྣམ་ཐར་), which literally means absolute liberation. In its original context, the term namthar, vimokṣa in Sanskrit, refers to the state of liberation and the traits of enlightenment, which a spiritually enlightened person is said to have attained. As accounts of holy persons contain the enlightened qualities or aspects of liberation as the main content, the accounts came to be known as namthar. Because it deals with facets of liberation, namthar biography is believed to have a liberative soteriological power to free the listener or reader from the bondage of ordinary existence. It is attributed a spiritual power to liberate a listener or auditor from suffering and the cycle of existence. The namthar biography as a story of a holy or enlightened personage is said to inspire the reader and auditor and lead the person on the path to enlightenment and freedom.
Most namthar books, as holy biographies written to instill religious devotion and longing for enlightenment, are hagiographies generally giving a very positive and glorified account of the subject. The namthar hagiographies, in general, neither give a critical account of the subject nor details of the worldly and profane aspects of the life of the subject. It usually focuses on the positive qualities and highlight the spiritual achievements. In this regard, one can find namthar which mainly deals with the outer social and religious life of the person, which is called a chiyi namthar (ཕྱི་ཡི་རྣམ་ཐར་) or outer biography. The outer namthar records the public and social life of the figure and often contains a great deal of historical information on the cultural, social, genealogical, historical, political aspects of the person’s life.
In addition, one can find nangi namthar (ནང་གི་རྣམ་ཐར་) or inner biography which would elaborate on the inner education, training, religious devotion and practice of spirituality by the person. It would extol the inner qualities such as compassion, erudition, wisdom, etc. The sangwai namthar (གསང་བའི་རྣམ་ཐར་) or secret biography is an account of the life of some religious figures giving the visions, dreams, esoteric practices and private matters. It narrates the mystical experiences and acts of miracle making, supernatural powers and ultimate spiritual status of the subject. Although most biographies of religious figures combine all three aspects of outer, inner and secret biographies, one can find three separate biographies written for some lamas.
While most namthar biographies are about historical figures, there are some biographies about legendary figures which are believed by the local people to be historical persons. These include the biographies such as the stories of Khandro Drowa Zangmo, Nangsa Odbum, Yuna Ralpa and Pema Obar. These legendary biographies contain religious messages of the futility of worldly endeavours, vagaries of life, religious devotion, karmic retribution, rebirth, enlightenment, etc.
The biographies of historical persons often contain opening chapters giving cosmological, geographic and contextual information. In case of some lamas, this would include also their genealogy and the accounts of their previous incarnations. The biography would then discuss their birth, upbringing, religious vocation, education, spiritual training, and go on to narrate the achievements, often interspersed with praises in verse. It would list the institutions the subject founded, books composed and the students and followers of the subject. The biography may also contain some writings by the subject. Most biographies are written by another person such as student or a follower but it is not rare to find autobiographies authored by the subject himself or herself. If it is an autobiography, the book is generally not given the title namthar as it would be self-aggrandizing to call one’s life writing a liberative piece. The book may have a more modest title such as rangtshul jodpa (རང་ཚུལ་བརྗོད་པ་) or accounts of oneself. However, other people would call the autobiography a namthar.
Some namthar biographical writings are given the title togjod (རྟོགས་བརྗོད་), or accounts of realization modeled on the Indian avadana literature. These accounts give the description of a person’s spiritual realization and achievements. Some namthar and togjod biographies are full accounts of a person’s life even containing pre-birth information and post-humuous and funerary details but others contain only accounts of a part of the subject’s life.
The namthar biographies are written, published, distributed, owned, read and listened as a religious practice of merit making and spiritual edification. Bhutanese families would sponsor the reading of certain biographies such as that of Padmasambhava as a ritual to overcome misfortunes and bring about prosperity and good health. Namthar biographies are often read in the evening in traditional Bhutan as a way of spiritual entertainment. A literate person would read the book to a group of listeners who would follow the story, ask questions and pass comments. The story is supposed to inspire the audience in their moral and spiritual pursuits. The namthar culture helps the ordinary people forget the drudgeries of their ordinary life and aspire for higher ideals.