Zhabdrung’s “palm will have a khorlo to denote his extensive activities.” In Jamyang Palden Gyamtsho’s (1610-1684) biography, Gyepa Choeki Tinchenpoi Yang, this lungten is cited.
As prophesied, the 251-year-old statue of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (1594-1651) has this dharma wheel engraved on the left palm. The khorlo is also engraved on the right sole of the brass statue. On December 26, the sacred image was flown in from Kolkata. The Government of India graciously loaned it to us as our nation marks and celebrates the 400 years of Zhabdrung’s arrival in Bhutan.
In 1642, the Sakyapa master, Jamyang had to flee Tibet. After seeking permission from Zhabdrung to come to Bhutan as a spiritual master, he relinquished his post as the chief abbot of Serdogchen monastery. Popularly known as Tsang Khenchen, he served in the court of Zhabdrung and was held in high esteem. Zhabdrung entrusted him to write his biography. In 1681, Tsang Khenchen finished this biography, The Melody of the Great Dharma Cloud.
As cited in the namthar, over a period of 35 years, Zhabdrung laid the foundations and created a powerful legacy for Bhutan. He is singularly accredited for the unification of the country under one territorial and political authority under the banner of Palden Drukpa and giving Bhutan the unique identity and rich culture. Due to his extensive activities, Zhabdrung is highly revered.
According to all the six biographies, Zhabdrung is considered the physical embodiment of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion.
In Buddhism, the dharma wheel with the eight spokes is one of the symbols of the Bodhisattva. Zhabdrung codified the laws and wrote the Chayig Chenmo. It is the founding text of governance. The conceptual foundation of Druk Zhung or the Bhutan Government is based on it and closely followed to this day. The code states, “The head of the state should be a Bodhisattva,” or a “compassionate leader taking human embodiment.”
Until recently, the sacred statue of Zhabdrung was kept at the landing of the staircase of the building of the Asiatic Society in Kolkata, India.
“From Capt. Hidayat Alli, a brass image of the Dharmraja of Bhotan.” According to the proceedings of the society, the chair, A. Grote, esq., made this announcement of the donation at their monthly meeting. The general meeting was held on December 6, 1865. The British officer wrote a letter to the Asiatic Society. “I have the honor to inform you that I have sent an image of one of the Dharma Rajaha, found at Buxa when the place was captured, on the 7th of December, 1864. It is said to be 100 years old, and was worshipped by the Bhooteas. I, thinking it of some interest, have preserved it from destruction, and beg to present it to the Asiatic Society.”
In Tibet, Zhabdrung was a title conferred on illustrious beings of noble birth. In the khon lineage of the Sakya school of Buddhism the title is given to holders of dignified position. In Bhutan, the title literally means, “at whose feet one submits.”
Zhabdrung was a great statesman. Unlike the Dalai Lamas of Tibet, Zhabdrung viewed himself as the spiritual saviour, and the defender of religion. He created a subordinate administrative position called the Desi, which was originally quasi-monastic. From all records, Zhabdrung kept himself clearly above the Desis and his successors always had the theoretical (though seldom exercised) right to simultaneously fill both positions.
This political formulation justified Zhabdrung’s status as head of state. He saw no need for an external military commander like in Tibet.
The British referred to Zhabdrung as the Dharma Raja and the Desis as the Deb Raja. The wooden plaque below the statue reads, “Brass Image of Dhurm Raja. Found at the capture of the Buxa Duar on 7 December 1864.” In bold letters, it is printed, SAID TO BE HUNDRED YEARS OLD.
In 1864, Bhutan fought a war against the British. The small Bhutanese army, equipped with stones, swords and matchlocks, were no match for the well- armed British army. On November 12, 1864, the Governor General of India issued a proclamation of war against Bhutan. By the end of November, preparation of all military operations had been completed. By December 19 the British had annexed the Bengal Duars, which included the Buxa Duar.
Buxa Duar is one of the 18 flood plains. Bhutanese know it as Pasakha; part of which is still in Bhutan’s possession. This Duar is one of the oldest towns in West Bengal. According to Dr John Ardussi, Buxa was truly the most ancient trade mart between India and Bhutan, going back centuries
Late Nicholas Rhodes, who had compiled the Duar war documents, had raised some doubts about the size of the fort in Buxa capable of housing such a statue. Paintings and written records of that time do not show or mention any large monastery.
But records maintained by Captain Warren, a British officer, who served during the Duar war, says that Buxa itself consisted of a large two-storey house, substantially built, with carved verandas on the upper storey – this was used for a hospital and as officers quarters.
So where could such a statue have come from? Before the Anglo-Bhutan War, in addition to the Buxa fort, Bhutan had three other hill forts. The Bhutanese guarded the Duars with a belt of dzongs, border check posts and defence arrangements called stockades. The first fort is the Yongla goempa and the only one in present Bhutan.
The second fort hill is between Kalimpong and Sikkim, India. Damsang Dzong is on a hill above Pedong in Sikkim, on the road from Kalimpong up to Tibet. Desi Tenzing Rabgye is supposed to have built this during his reign in 1690.
The third and the most likely place for the origin of the statue is the fort hill of Dalimkote. It is 45 miles west from Buxa, and much closer to Kalimpong. According to Dr Ardussi, Buxa and Dalimkha did have a monastery during the 18th century. The British annexed Kalimpong district after the war, along with 18 Duars that had previously been part of Bhutan. It is supposed to have been built around the same time as Damsang Dzong. In various sources, these dzongs have been described with comprehensive complexes. Today, both these dzongs are in ruins.
Dasho Zepon Wangchuk supports Ardussi. He knows that the Paro monk body appointed the chief abbot of that monastery. Oral history records Lam Sangay Dali Jamtsho as the last abbot of the fortress. Stories are also commonly told in Haa, of how Lam Sangay built a replacement monastery in Haa after the fortress of Dalimkot was razed to the ground.
Written British records describe the attack on the fort of Dalimkot, “detachment of 400 infantry with the artillery, went up against Dalimkote, on the 6th of December…”
After ten hours of bombing the fort, the British took possession of it. The British suffered, eight of their men killed and fifty-six wounded.”
Ardussi explores another option. “When this war broke out, or at the threat of war, could the monk body transport this large statue to the frontier, for the purpose of imposing a kind of protective guardianship?
According to the librarian of the Asiatic Society, Ms Mitali Chatterjee, scrolls of paper were found with the chant of Aditya inside the statue. The zungs make the statues sacred and objects of worship.
Zhabdrung is a Bodhisattva, but worshipped as a Buddha. His symbolic representations are placed with Lord Buddha, and Guru Padmasambhava in the altars.
Tsang Khenchen served Zhabdrung at close quarters. As the biographer, it is most likely that he knew about his master’s death and the activities following it. Sworn to secrecy, he leaves no trace of it in his writings although he completes the biography 30 years after Zhabdrung’s demise. The prophesy of Zhabdrung’s palm having a khorlo to denote his extensive activities is intriguing. While they can be many theories about it one such goes to say that Tsang Khenchen was aware or involved in the making of this brass statue.
Over the years, Bhutanese have built thousands of statues of Zhabdrung. Most of them are symbolic representations. But the one from the Asiatic Society is probably the most authentic depiction of the founder of Bhutan. For India, it is a museum piece but for us it is not only historical but also sacred and part of our national heritage.