Phurpa Lhamo | Punakha

Heads well-shaved, new maroon robes, a walking staff in one hand and two rosaries made of ivory and wooden beads in another, the Kudrungs or the discipline masters stand out among the sea of red robes.

Two weeks ago, on the first day of the 12th Bhutanese month, the Dorji Lopon appointed the three new Kudrungs of the central monastic body. The Kudrungs will serve for a year before they pass on the beads to another three next Traditional Day of Offering.

For decades, the monk body appoints three Kudrungs, the Tshogchhen Kudrung, Shar Kudrung and the Paro Kudrung. The Kudrungs represent the monks in the monastic body as most monks in the central monk body then were from these three regions.

As they are the discipline masters, the Kudrungs are the most feared, if not revered in the monk body. Their main responsibility is maintaining discipline, administering most of the religious activities, and overlooking teaching and learning practices.

Like the Kudrung jingcha (the whip they carry) signifies, Kudrungs are ready and some even generous in using the whip to maintain discipline. They have the authority and the liberty to whip a misbehaving monk or someone missing the evening prayer or sleeping during prayer sessions into line.

Every monk would have a story of how they “tasted” or escaped the Kudrung jingcha. Many have evidence either on their shaved heads or on the body under the robes.

The walking stick, ivory beads, and the leather whip carried by a kudrung symbolises the rigsum gonpo Photo: Kudrung Sangay Khandu

The walking stick, ivory beads, and the leather whip carried by a kudrung symbolises the rigsum gonpo
Photo: Kudrung Sangay Khandu

However, while the roles has remained the same, a lot has changed in maintaining discipline in the monk body. This includes Kudrungs not resorting to the whip unlike in the past.

Newly appointed Tshogchhen Kudrung, Sangay Khandu, says that today’s Kudrungs are different from those when he grew up studying as a child. “In the past, Kudrungs would beat people and there won’t be much consequence. But now things are changing and we are leaving behind practices which aren’t healthy while also preserving the tradition and culture.”

One practice the Tshogchhen Kudrung referred to was the use of corporal punishment.

Kudrep (former Kudrung) Namgay recalls how Kudrungs of the past were notorious. The 81-year-old remembers how senior monks would gang up and wait to beat up the Kudrung after his tenure completes. “One Paro Kudrung was badly beaten up while attending a lochoe by monks who held grudges for his merciless beating,” he said.  “It was common to plan revenge, but many forget after the Kudrung retires and leave the monk body.”

The octogenarian said he had no issue although he was known for his strength on the jingcha. “I think I was not partial and monks knew it,” he said. “If the three Kudrungs got along, the monks could have a btter life. If not, each Kudrung would target monks of the other regions.”

When asked why Kudrungs had to resort to beatings, Kudrep Namgay said discipline was of utmost importance in the monk body. “Now there is no beating and no discipline too,” he said. The Kudrep who has retired to a life of prayers said a lot has changed in the monk body and certain things practiced before are not relevant, even by law today. “I didn’t imagine monks would eat in plates and cups instead of tora (cloth). But from the health point of view, it is important.”

A former monk said that stories of severe punishment were common in the monastic institutions. “There would be stories about serious bruises on the head inflicted by teachers and Kudrungs,” she said.

The monk feels that the changes were brought in to encourage more monks to continue monastic education. “Maybe that’s why there are more monks in the rabdeys and shedras now.”

Her analysis holds water. Many former monks reason the strict discipline and the beatings from Kudrungs and teachers as the reason for bunking from the monk body.

To depict the seriousness and the strict business of the discipline master, the tradition is still kept alive.

After their appointment on the first day of the 12th month of the Bhutanese calendar, the Kudrungs go into a 7-day retreat. On the seventh day, the Kudrungs equipped with a whip, exit their rooms—they are then on their mission to discipline.

Kudrung Sangay Khandu said that the seven-day retreat was often compared to a tigress during the time of birth. “It is said that tigress after birth wouldn’t eat and would stay in its den for seven days guarding the cubs. When they do come out, after seven days, they would hunt every animal.”

The Kudrungs’ ferocious exit and their chanting ‘mejoga, mejoga’  (go away) is also said to ward off evils and ills-bodings.

Known as Kudrung leaving Tam Tsang (tigress’s den), Kudrungs would not hesitate to whip common people visiting the dzong if they are not in proper gear or misbehaving. Locals would also avoid visiting the Punakha dzong in fear of encountering the Kudrungs.

On the issue of corporal punishment, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Bhutan’s annual report 2019 states that corporal punishment was used by teachers in monastic institutions. “Two key concerns are parents’ and teachers’ acceptance of violence as a method to discipline and their lack of knowledge of the harm it has on the cognitive and emotional development of children.”

The report states that there are 78 child protection focal points (an adult and a child) in 39 monastic institutions and nunneries for children today.

While the beating part has changed, the tradition of appointing  Kudrungs on the first day of the 12th month of the Bhutanese calendar still continues.

“It has been the tradition since Zhabdrung Rinpoche’s time,” Sangay Khandu said. “This change every year could also be to avoid abuse of power and corruption, although it isn’t likely to happen.”

While fear for Kudrungs may have waned over years, the respect remains.

Kudrungs are appointed through a rigorous selection process. They are highly experienced, well disciplined and learned.

Bajo Lhakhang principal Lhatu said that the walking stick, the rosaries and the whip carried by a kudrung symbolised the rigsum gonpo.

The ivory beads represented Chenresig, the walking stick Chana Dorji, and the leather whip Jampelyang.

“That’s why if you are sick, it is believed that it would help to get a blessing from a Kudrung,” Lhatu said.

Kudrep Namgay said that during his time, even the fur lopons would have to bow to the Kudrung when they pass by.