Zhabdrung’s first glimpse of Bhutan

Addressed in his life as Kuzhab Rinpoche, Gyalsey Zhonu, Palden Drukpa Rinpoche, Thuchen Ngawang Namgyel, Ngawang Dudjom Dorji, Ngawang Tenzin Nampar Gyalwa Jigme Dragpa, Ngagi Wangpo Nampar Gyelbai De, Naropai Gyetshab Gyurmed Ngawang Norbu Wangpoi De and many other titles, he was the incarnation of Kuenkhen Padma Karpo (1527-92), a philosopher and statesman, who was at the same time charismatic, highly ascetic, artistic, literary, and an absolutely self-assured leader. He was born as a prince of Ralung on 11 of the first lunar month in the wood male horse year corresponding to 1594.  He lived 57 years, passing away in 1551.  His biography by one of his tutors, Tsang Khenchen Jamgyangpal Gyatsho under his Sanskrit pen name Manjushri Mundra, invokes prophecies of Guru, Kuenkhen Pema Karpo and Guru Choewang (1212-70) for him to come to Lhorong. Zhabdrung staunchly believed in himself being one of the series of 84 emanations of Avalokitevara that was foretold to be born among the descendants of Tshangpa Gyarey, who was himself an emanation of Naropa.

Here in this article dedicated to the 400th anniversary of the entry of Zhabdrung into Bhutan to build a larger state of Bhutan, I translate a minute part of the 680 folios pages of Tsang Khenchen’s colossal biography. I translated his text very closely so that the readers can get a sense of the orginal in choskad. I hope the faithfully translated narrative from various parts of the biography resonates another linguistic system. But the last two sections of this article is drawn from multiple sources including Zhabdrung’s biography.

His entrance into Bhutan ascending high mountains was accompanied figuratively by dakinis and protector deities and awareness-holding monks. He entourage was received along the beautiful and sunny roads by faithfuls, local deities and supernaturals who delighted in virtues. But it was the haunting nature of Bhutan  that impressed Zhabdrung deeply as he travelled into the northern borders of Gasa district. The mixed forests with an abundance of flowers and fruits conjured up images of the divine garden of Nagarjunakota, the classical apogee of floral parks, in the mind of Zhabdrung. Zhabdrung saw billows of clouds float on the breeze made fragrant by herbs and flowers. He again compared this to the cool wind of lush Malaya (Mt Sri Prada in Sri Lanka, where Vajrapani delivered teachings on secret tantras to five holy sages), held as poetic reference in the classical literature. He heard the melody of the thunder dragon rumble loudly. He described this land as an abode of demi-gods, driza spirits who live on odours and scents, nagas, human beings and lake-spirits and dakinis. It is more holistic to view any environment as habitat of both visible and invisible beings. Zhabdrung is struck by the  spectacular land forms he came across as he enterred Bhutan. To his perception, Zhabdrung could behold the mountains exhibiting different shapes like crystal stupa, croaching elephants and leaping lions soaring into heavens, beneath clouds shaped like silk canopies and parasols. Enchanted by these geophysical forms, he attributed figuratively the formation to a divine carpenter. The faces of rocks and cliffs were of such fantastic appearances as though they would give birth to vajras and various kinds of weapons. He observed that the mountains and cliffs were fully shrouded in forests.  After he climbed trails resembling stairways rising towards heaven, just like the sun overhead was pulled upwards by a chariot to the zenith of sky, ascending an exceptionally high pass, Zhabdrung finally reached the summit of the mountain. From this vantage point affording a panoramic view, for the first time Zhabdrung saw this great southern land extending from beneath his feet till the mountains next to India.

The first village that Zhabdrung found significant to mention in Tsang Khenchen’s biography is Goen Mentsendup (sMan bTsan drup), a place bounded by snowy mountains.  Zhabdrung spent some time relaxing in this village while the faithful people thronged to pay their homage to him. For many of the faithful people, it was a fortunate occasion to hear and see him. The chief lamas and patrons of Thed, Thim and Patro came to pay their respects, make offerings and extend invitations to Zhabdrung. Zhabdrung’s next significant place on his journey was Druk Thrinleygang, which he described as a place south of the profuse and productive rice fields of Thed that were designed and decorated as if in a painting, he added, at the confluence of two rivers. This could be reference to the vivid rice terraces of Punakha and Lobesa that chequered the valley floors. Zhabdrung thought of Druk Thrinleygang highly auspicious in its geophysical formation and also by its very meaning. Zhabdrung was welcomed at the place in the midst of music of cymbals and other instruments, and aroma of herb smoke. Zhabdrung thought that all his actions would be accomplished (thrinley drup). From there, all along the way he made feasts and aroma offerings to his deity, Yeshey Gonpo, who guided him on the way and reached Thimphu Pangrey Zampa. Uncannily, it was the place, to which Jarong Dongchen had guided him in a clear vision he had while he was in Tibet. The landscape of Pangrey Zampa was exactly the one he saw in his trance-state.

Zhabdrung lived for a while relaxing in Pangrey Zampa being received generously by the local population. Mipham Tshewang Tandin, also known as Dorden (Dordena below Tango) Rinpoche, who was the grandson of Drukpa Kuenley and son of Ngawang Tenzin, put his monastic estate, belongings and house at the disposal of Zhabdrung. Pleased by this Zhabdrung remarked that Tshewang Tandin, the descendant of Druk Kuenley, would be of great service to him. The biography further records that Tshewang Tandin, having the title of Dorden Rinpoche, went around the valley as the representative of Zhabdrung to collect grain tithes. Tshewang Tandin was known to Zhabdrung since the time he went to attend the investiture ceremony of Zhabdrung as the Throne-holder of Ralung.

From Pangrey Zampa, Zhabdrung moved to Paro crossing the high Drela pass (now known as Jelela). The panoramic view from this high pass delighted him, with its sights of far flung forested-ranges, cliffs, nomadic villages, pastures, pools, marshy spring heads, and many picturesque lakes that spread over like offerings to gods. He first saw from Drela many gem-like holy places of Paro such as Ragoed, Chumophug, Dzongdra,  and Dragkarpo. Above all, he saw in distance the vajra-shaped Taktshang cliff, the site of Guru Dorji Droeloed where dakas and dakinis congregated. Then he saw the rice fields, flowers and fruits trees beautifying the villages of Paro, before he finally reached the centre of the valley, Druk Choeding, which was sanctified by numerous meditations in search of enlightenment. Zhabdrung recalled that various sons of Buddhas had visited Druk Choeding. And so, he added, that support to dharma, shrines or hall to the awareness-holders, and wheel of feast offering were realized spontaneously in that place. Zhabdrung noted that around that place, goods and textiles from both Tibet and India were displayed in the manner of a mandala-offering. Zhabdrung recalled in his biography that people gathered in huge numbers around him and his entourage creating an illusory spectacle in Druk Choeding.

While he lived in Druk Choeding, he was informed about the confiscation of his monastic estate of Ralung by Tsnagpa authorities. Zhabdrung sent a chilling written threat to Tsangpa ruler Karma Phuntshok Namgyal. He warned that “I will bring an end to the name of Tsangpa. If this does not happen, Drukpas do not have any protector deities”.  For the first time after he came to Bhutan, a sizeable Tibetan force came to attack him soon after he sent this defiant letter. The year this happened is estimated to be 1618. This was to be one of many Tsangpa campaigns that came to dislodge him, though they were unsuccessful. Zhabdrung decribed how the first Tibetan force was led to defeat by supernatural occurrences. One of the occurrences involved Tibetan soldiers seeing an illusion of Zhabdrung in bone ornaments, rather like Naropa’s six ornaments. They camped in Tshepothang for a while building a dzong, and then retreated. While the battle was on, Zhabdrung himself went back to Drela, where he was safer. There at Drela, Zhabdrung had the vision of Yeshey Gonpo who showed many signs and symbols of offering the entire southern land as Zhabdrung’s country and people. From Drela, Zhabdrung returned to Pangrey Zampa. There the owner of Dorden Rinpoche Tshewang Tandin  invited Zhabdrung most respectfully to Dorden Tango hermitage. Zhabdrung stayed in Tango until the construction of Chagri was completed most probably in 1623 when he went into a three year rigorous solitary retreat there.

Preciousness of Bhutan in Zhabdrung’s mind

Zhabdrung viewed this country in almost divine terms and liberating to those who came to live in it. He noted that for hundreds of years, Bhutan had been a place of meditation and concentration for the benefit of sentient beings for numerous boddhisattvas including ancient kings like Dondup, Thamchedroel and Drimed Kunden. Zhabdrung said in his biography that  for the benefits of sentient beings boddhisattvas emanated in this country not only in human beings but also in the form of wild animals such as monkeys, bears, rhinoceroses and so forth. He noted that even in his day, such animals existed in large numbers in Bhutan.

In his biography Zhabdrung quoted that Lord Buddha was delivering discourses or sutras of Nyimai Nyingpo in the midst of tathagatas, boddhisattvas and arhats dwelling in deep concentration. Intensive rays of light emitted from their hearts, and beamed onto the mountains of this country, and thereby it was sanctified as a place for the emergence of many hermits, monks and nuns. Zhabdrung recalled Guru’s prophecy that the effectiveness of seven nights of contemplation and concentration  towards enlightenment in Bhutan will be equal to seven years in Tibet.

Zhabdrung  described the Bhutanese communities then as  enjoying the same general prosperity as in U and Tsang in Tibet and China. Zhabdrung described repeatedly this country in terms of an ecological wonder possessing more than 10 qualities. Zhabdrung noted that it was a land which had an active trading relationship with Nepal and India.

Right at the beginning of the part of his biography dealing with his time in Bhutan, Zhabdrung introduces the extent of this country which consisted of: the main triad of Thed (Wangdi and Punakha), Thim and Patro; the eastern triad of Lawogyul (now known as Dakpa Tshogyad in Tawang); Bumthang; Kurilung; Khampajong (Khenpajong); southern borderlands of Khen (Kheng); Dungtsham (Dungsam); Naji (Nabi); Darkar; Gyata (Gyeta); Gyaldung; Drokyul; Khambu; Tshendong; Lingzhi; and Goen Lungnag. Zhabdrung specifically noted that he had patrons in Ja Gatakha (Koch Bihar). Lawogyul sum seems to have been culturally and politically connected to Bhutan much earlier. Pemalingpa’s younger brother Ugyen Zangpo married a woman from Tawang and went to live there. It is generally believed that Tawang got its name after Pema Lingpa gave empowerment (wang) of Tandin there. Zhabdrung referred to the territorial extent of this country also in terms of Khazhi. Zhabdrung’s territorial limits were defined by Lho-khazhi and Ja Gatakha, according to Montheng Trengwa by 10th Je Khenpo Penchen Tenzin Chogyal written in 1755. His book concentrates on the national life of Zhabdrung.

The four cardinal outposts of Bhutan during Zhabdrung’s time seems to have been:

• Dungsamkha in the East. Penchen Tenzin Chogyal describes its boundary as extending from Khaling Dungtshang to the Indian border.

• Taktsekha in the North.

• Dalimkha in West, referred variously in medieval times as Dalimkota, Dalikha, Dhalingkha. According to Montheng Trengwa, the western boundary stretched from Phari to Dalikha during Zhabdrung’s time. Tenzin Rabgye’s (1637-1697) biography, written much earlier in 1720s, by Je Ngawang Lhundrup also alludes to Phari as part of Bhutan.

• Pasamkha in South, referred in medieval times to Buxa Duars under Pasa Katham, and later Pasa Kutshab. Penchen describes the southern boundary as marked by sandy land of India and Indian river Baraza.

Tenzin Rabgye’s biography written much earlier than Montheng Trengwa, gives a clearer notion of Gatakha as Koch Bihar. Gatakha had a Bhutanese envoy since Zhadrung’s time. In addition, since the reign of Pran Narayan, whose princess attended the coronation of Tenzing Rabgye in 1680, Bhutan had been granted permission to receive the annual taxes collected in Koch Bihar territory between Buxa and Gnyar-tshang.  This seems to be the basis for mentioning Ja Gatakha as his patron. For this and the fact that Koch King’s repeated gifts to Zhabdrung, Koch Bihar was militarily supported by Bhutan in 1682 against a Mughal attack, with Desi Tenzin Rabgye sending Bhutanese forces to Koch Bihar.

The neighborhood in 1616

While Zhabdrung marched peacefully into the southern land in 1616, aged just 22, convinced of his destiny he read in the predictions of Guru Rinpoche and Tshang Jarey, the war drums rattled in the lower Assam valley: the Mughal Emperor Jahangir was pressing against Assam. Then the paramount power in India, the Mughals invaded Assam, so close to Bhutanese borders. The Ahoms repulsed and held out against the Mughals. But the Mughal’s repeated invasions were to wear out the Ahoms and gradually reshape Bengal and Assam, along with the British East India Company’s steady encroachments. At the time Zhabdrung came and organized Bhutan into a larger state, Assam was under the Ahom King Pratap Singha (1603-1641). In course of time, Bhutanese state and Ahom Kings’ courts faced off each other over territories, although the Ahoms were far more preoccupied with the Mughal’s expansion. One document found in royal chronicles of Ahom kings show that a Bhutanese envoy became resident in Jorhat, the capital of Ahoms, by 1805.

The Kamata kingdom ruled by Koch kings surrounded the southern part of Bhutan in ancient times. The biography of Pema Lingpa (1451-1520) records his very successful visits to the King of Kamata and Dirang at their  invitation. But by 1581, some four decades before the Zhabdrung reached Bhutan and began unifying it as a new and bigger state, Kamata had split into Koch Hajo kingdom in the east and Koch Bihar kingdom in the west. At the time Zhabdrung reached Bhutan in 1616, the kingdom of Koch Bihar, earlier part of a larger Kamata (Kamatapur) kingdom, was ruled by King Lakshmi Narayan (1587–1621). King Lakshmi Narayan was succeeded by the short reign of Bir Narayan (1621-26) followed by the longer reign of Pran Narayan (1626-1665). Zhabdrung’s court had close relations with King Pran Narayan. At the end of his three year retreat in Tango’s cave sometime in 1626, Zhabdrung received felicitations from Kamata as well as U, Tsang, Ngari and Dokham.

On the eve of Zhabdrung’s unification process in 1616, the south eastern part of Bhutan was bordered by the Darrang kingdom which included Dirang area. It was ruled by Bilinarayan, who became a vassal to Ahoms. The Darranga kingdom felt the expansionist pressure of Bhutan as well as of the Ahoms. Zhabdrung’s biography claims that his rule spread peace till eastern Bengal and Koch Hajo.

In the north, in Tibet in 1617, ie., a year after Zhabdrung entered Bhutan, the Mongolian born 4th Dalai Lama died and immediately, the 5th Dalai Lama was born. Politically and militarily however, the Tsangpa dynasty rose and dominated Tibet from 1564 to 1642 against the earlier power centres of Phagmodrupas, Rinpungpas, and, later, the Gelugpas. This is exactly the period when the Zhabdrung as an heir of the the Ralung throne, like others power centres within Tibet, defended himself against conquest of power by the three successive rulers of Tsangpas. Tsangpa Karma Phuntsok Namgyal (rule 1611–1620) overcame the whole of central Tibet and marched aggressively on others.

The conflict between Tsangpa and Zhabdrung carried over three generations of Tsangpa. Tsangpa Karma Phuntshok Namgyel and his queen died of small pox in 1621 and was succeeded by his son Karma Tenkyong (rule 1621–1642). Both Tshangpa ruler Karma Phuntshok Namgyel and  Karma Tenkyong clashed with Zhabdrung, and Zhabdrung remained a drain on their military and political energies.

Zhabdrung’s biography notes that he went into retreat in a Tango cave to take up wrathful or forceful ritual activity of annihilating enemies and obstructing spirits after deliberately sending someone to fetch ritual equipment such as a black skull and ritual slaughter box (linga) from Tibet. Signs and symbols of his wrathful rituals’ impact on Tsang ruler Karma Phuntshok Namgyal and other Drukpas who opposed him was experienced widely. News appeared later that the Tsang ruler Karma Phuntshok Namgyal and his queen had died of small pox. Encouraged by his demonstrated success of various rituals, miracles and favourable vision of protector dieties after he embraced powerful ritual practices in the cave of Tango, which he named Thimphu Dudulphug, he issued “Kasho Ngachudrukma” or the Edict of 16th Is. Thus the date of the declaration of Kasho Ngachudrukma could be around 1621, when he was about 27. The next important event was the bringing of the embalmed body of his later father and lama, Yab Tenpai Nima, who had died some years ago. Zhabdrung was about 27 when his father’s remains reached Tango for cremation in the cave. His holy remains were later moved to a memorial stupa built in Chagri. When Zhabdrung was around 29 in 1623, he went into rigorous meditation in Chagri in the manner, he qualified, of Milarepa and Loreypa. He lived not on normal food but strictly on choedlen, (herbal and flower essence) during his three-year retreat at Chagri.

But the conflict between Zhabdrung and Tsangpa continued for many years further. Karma Tenkyong who succeeded his father sent a large force of six columns through various passes from Bumthang to Paro to attack Bhutan in 1634. Eventually, in 1642, Tsangpa  Karma Tenkyong and his allies were militarily routed by the leader of the Mongol Khoshut tribe, Gushi Khan, in alliance with the 5th Dalai Lama, and power handed over to 5th Dalai Lama’s government. Gushi Khan had Karma Tenkyong executed. At the end Gushi Khan brought an end to Tsangpa Karma Tenkyong.

Zhabdrung established Bhutan as a new and larger country by 1626. When we look back across 400 years since Zhabdrung began building the larger state of Bhutan, a sobering picture emerges. Almost all the states which existed at the time of Zhabdrung and with whom Zhabdrung interacted in the neighbourhood such as the Kingdoms of Darrang, Koch Hajo and Koch Bihar, Ahoms, and Tibetan theocracy have not survived. His blessings have enabled all virtuous rulers and institutions of Bhutan to keep the people and nation flourishing as an exception in Himalayan history. May the present and future generations submit at his feet in order to manifest formidable love and loyalty to the country that he did. May the Gyalsey who assumes his name on this anniversary of Zhabdrung Kochoe manifest the same level of glory, success and strength of the founder of this great nation.

Contributed by 

Dasho Karma Ura