The story behind the establishment of the Zhung Dratshang

This year marks 400 years since the establishment of the Zhung Dratshang or the Central Monastic Body. The construction of the Chari Monastery was started in 1620 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (1594-1651), and completed it, in two years in 1622. Before the completion of the monastery, Zhabdrung instituted his first sangha by enrolling 30 novice monks in 1621. Hence, the establishment of Zhung Dratshang was formally started in 1621 with the induction of monks and finally completed with the consecration of the Chari Monastery in 1622.


Three years after Zhabdrung Rinpoche arrived in Bhutan, in 1619, his father Mipham Tenpa Nyima (1567-1619) passed away in Tibet. He secretly smuggled the mortal remains of his father and performed the cremation at Tango monastery in Thimphu. At the time, He was staying in Tango monastery with its Choeje, Mipham Tshewang Tenzin who was considered the incarnation of the great 13th century Drukpa master Phajo Drugom Zhigpo.

After the elaborate funerary services at Tango, Zhabdrung performed the divination before the sacred Ranjung Kharasapani (self-created image of Avalokiteshvara) for a suitable site to construct the kudung chorten or the reliquary stupa that would house the remains of his father.

Zhabdrung Rinpoche also sought the auguries of the protective deity, Yeshey Goenpo.  Both the divinations pointed to the site of the Chagri Dorjeden monastery, now popularly known as Chari monastery.

While notable scholars accept the year 1620 as the year of the construction, they differ concerning the year of completion. For example, Lopen Pemala states in his book, “History of Bhutan” (1995) that Zhabdrung laid the foundation for the Chari monastery in 1620 and that construction work was finished three and half years later, in 1623.

But the biography of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal Pal Drukpa Rinpoche (2008), author Dasho Sangay Dorji, states that Zhabdrung instituted his first sangha at Chari, consisting of 30 novices between 1621 and 1622 in the newly constructed monastery and made it the center for his administration.

Another notable scholar, Dr Yonten Dargye in his book, “History of the Drukpa Kagyud School in Bhutan” (2001) states, that “on the 21st day of the fifth month of the Iron Monkey Year corresponding to 1620, Zhabdrung laid the foundation of the three-storied Chari monastery which was to become his first settled residence.”

All the three sources agree that the objective for the construction of the monastery was to enshrine the ashes of Zhabdrung’s father.  But later we find out that the construction of the kudung chorten materialized only after the arrival of Zhabdrung’s teacher who cleared doubts concerning the proportions (thigtshed) it should have.

Before the foundation of the monastery was laid, Darchug Gyeltshen one of Zhabdrung’s patrons, a wealthy merchant invited him to Chapcha. Before the arrival of Zhabdrung, the patron had written to the Raja of Cooch Bihar about the visit. The Raja sent an emissary bearing gifts of gold coins, silver, an ivory tusk amongst many other gifts.

While in Chapcha, history records that Zhabdrung Rinpoche conducted many initiations and religious discourses. Like the Raja of Bihar, the people of Chapcha also offered generously but mostly butter and some silver coins which were put to good use during the construction of the Chari monastery. The Raja could have been either Lakshmi Narayan (r.1626-65) or Bir Narayan (r. 1621-26)

The Construction 

Dasho Sangay Dorji wrote about the construction of the Chari Monastery. He said that it was carried out mainly by Zhabdrung’s monk-attendants, his patrons from Kabisa and devotees which included the local populace.

The Tango Choeje Mipham Tshewang Tenzin was appointed as the site supervisor. In addition to the Bhutanese volunteers, he also had five Nepali Newari craftsmen who were hired to sculpt the reliquary stupa.

The newly built monastery with its 12 sides was an architectural marvel. Big enough to accommodate the increasing numbers of monks, nuns and devotees, the principal aim was to establish the monastery as the seat of the Southern Drukpa Kagyud or the Lho Drukpa Kagyud.

One of the jewels of the Chari monastery is its goenkhang or chapel dedicated to the protective deities. In it, Zhabdrung offered numerous sacred and exquisite relics including sculptures that he himself crafted. Stories are told of how Zhabdrung personally painted the murals on the walls of the chapel. Zhabdrung and his Yongzin, Khedrup Lhawang Lodroe presided over the consecration ceremony of the monastery.

According to Dasho Sangay Dorji, the first head abbot of the Chari monastery was Choeje Chogdra. The Umze was Druk Namgyal and the Kudrung was Pekar Jungney with Tenzing Drugyal as the first Chagzo.

In addition to the appointment of the first officials, Zhabdrung had invited his esteemed tutor, Yongzin Khedrup Lhawang Lodroe (b.16thc) from Tibet to teach at the monastery. The Yongzin was not only a great Drukpa scholar but a brilliant astrologer. At the newly established monastery, he presided over the performance of the prayer ceremonies and rituals.

The Yongzin is credited for the composition of the astrological commentaries. It is based on the interpretations of the accomplished Drukpa Kagyu master, Kunkhyen Pema Karpo (1527-1591).  The great scholar’s writings on astrology are the main source of the unique Bhutanese calendrical system.

At Chari, Zhabdrung is supposed to have composed some of his foremost commentaries and ritual manuals used to this day by the Zhung Dratshang. He and his Yongzin imparted regular teachings to the first batch of monks at the Chari monastery.

The monks at the monastery were regulated by the constitutional and procedural framework Zhabdrung had drawn up for his first monastic community in Ralung in Tibet.  They followed a set of religious curricula and the strict code of conduct known as Chayig Chenmo.

The establishment of Chari began a new chapter in the history of the Drukpa Kagyu School. It was the start of the organized religious tradition of Lho Druk or Southern Drukpa order.

The origin of the Zhung Dratshang dates back to 1621 when Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel inducted the first batch of monks consisting of 30 monks and consecrated the Chari monastery four hundred years ago in 1622.

After  building the Chari monastery and operationalizing the monastic institution, in 1623, Zhabdrung entered into a three-year retreat in a cave just above the main structure. As a firm believer in prophesies, dreams, and the workings of karma, Zhabdrung wanted to use the time in retreat to contemplate his next step.

Historical evidence suggest that Zhabdrung’s original intent was to return to Tibet. The grand plan was to contest his legitimacy with his rival Tsang Desi Phuntsho Namgyel in the regional court of Tsang. However, with the dispute being drawn-out which was followed by several intense battles, Zhabdrung was left with no choice but to devise plan B.

To be continued

Contributed by 

Tshering Tashi