Literarily, nyikelm in English means either double rank or double entitlement. With the confererment of red scarf by the King, one becomes nyikelm, which is also associated with the title of Dasho. A nyikelm in the midieval Bhutan was entitled to two riding ponies whereas other senior officials like chhip-zhoenpa was entitled to only one riding pony. With regard to the title of Dasho, the biography (namthar) of Hungrel Drung Drung, Paro, mentioned that “some Dashos from Paro invited Phajo Drugom years before the arrival of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in Bhutan in 1616 CE”, says Dasho Karma Ura (pers commun. March 2023). Dr. John Ardussi in his article on “Observations on the Political Organzation  of Western Bhutan in the 14th Century as Revealed by ‘BA’ RA BA Sect” says that he came acros for the first time the use of  Dasho like Dasho Jangsapa in Paro (one of patrons of Choeje Barawa) meaning the ‘most powerful’.

There is no research done on the title of nyikem and its honorific title ‘dasho’. Here, I attempt to glean information from the limited literature and personal interactions with some retired public servants as well as in-service civil servants.

Gyalzim Dasho Dorji Gyaltshen in his book on drig lam nam zhag  (1999, pp: 55-68), mentions that, during the compilation and construction of the Vinaya, the Buddha introduced the need for wearing kabne by four catergories of monks or retinue called khor-nam-pa-zhi, which I believe refer to gaylong (monk), gaylong-ma (nuns), gaynyen-pho (male lay-devotees) and gaynyen-mo (female lay-devotees). They were required to wear different colors and types of robes or scarves. One of the main reasons for wearing kabne was for the display of respects.

According to Gyalzim, while giving oral transmission to monks for full ordination, Guru Rinpoche (eighth century) introduced the wearing of kabne (white colour for general public or lay people ) and colours of kabne for monks as prescribed in the Vinaya with the aim to inclucate the value of respect. This appeared to have become the tradition in the country.

During the reign of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, senior officials who were selected from the pool of lay people (non-monks), for the different positions and titles, the tradition and culture of wearing different colours for different positions and titles like cabinet ministers and nyi-kyel-ma (red scarf officers) was introduced as reflected in the book cited above. Gyalzim added that the current colour of kabne worn by gups used to be donned by the tong-den-garp.

Lopon Nado (1986, p: 116) briefly describes the composition of cabinet ministers under the supreme leader of Zhabdrung, and Desi and Je Khenpo of the day. As regards the temporal or administrative affairs, the nine cabinet members: Zhung Droenyer, Zhung Kaleon, Pungthang Dzongpon, Wangdiphodrang Dzongpon, Thimphu Dzongpon, Gongsai Zimpon and Chila Namsum (Trongsa Ponlop, Paro Ponlop and Darkar Ponlop), would discuss and decide the governance affairs and then report decisions to Desi and Zhabdrung. These cabinet members would wear the orange (li-wang) colour scarf. And, according to Lopon Nado (op cit p: 229)  the rest of Dzongpons and other senior officials depending upon the hierarchical positions would generally wear red scarves.

John Ardussi and Karma Ura in the article on ‘Population and Governance in mid-Century Bhutan’ in the Journal of Bhutan Studies (2000, pp: 39-84), corroborate not only what Lopon Nado said about the Cabinet comprising of nine state ministers but also about the entitlement of nyikelma:

“Chief among the civil servants were nine state ministers (bKa’- blon), at the highest level17, and high ranking officials of the two governing centers of Punakha and Tashichhodzong (Gzhung phan- tshun gyi nyis-skal). Again, there exist no early written descriptions outlining the roles, responsibilities or method of selection of these officials. However, by general interpretation it is accepted that the ministers included the six principal Dzongpön (of Tashichho dzong, … Punakha, Wangdiphodrang, Paro, Dagana, and Trongsa), together with the gZhung mgron-gnyer and two others who were likely to have been the Sde-pa’i gZims-dpon and gZhung bKa’-blon. Red-scarf officials, called “Double Rank” gNyis-skal) included the Dzongpön (Dzong Master), gNyer-chen, gZims-dpon and mGron-gnyer of each Dzong. …The tradition is that Chipzhön were entitled to half the perquisites of the Red-scarf officials (hence the latter’s status as “double rank”). They wore a white scarf, swords and, like the Nyikem they were entitled to be addressed as Dasho (Drag-shos), a peculiarly Bhutanese term of address found in writings as early as the 16th century (but not in this census record).

In Gongsa Mipham Wangpo’s (Xth Desi -1709-1738) ‘Discourse on Legal Decree’ translated by Dasho Karma Ura and Jigme Thinley (2020), the section 93 states that “There shall be two boeds (servants) and a horseman for every two-fold official (red scarf rank) as well as for those holding the joint office of lama and nyerpa. All other representative shall get a boed and a horseman.” Here, in choeked, nyikelma is referred as kutshab tsho nyima.

The Privy Council (2012) has published a book on “Origin and Significance of Wearing of Kabne in Bhutan. But, the book is silent on the origin of nyikelm wearing red scarf.

Wangcha Sangay, a popular blogger initiated the discussion on the title of Dasho and ‘nyikelm’ in his blog dated 19th of Decmber 2020. His aim was to share with his readers the historical background of nyikem and dasho. There were about 120 comments on this topic – some shallow, some derogative and some positive indicating that the title of dasho has become a social status. And some people address senior civil servants as Dashos to get their jobs done (an ethical corruption?). The debate in this blog was somewhat similar to what Avran Dave (2020) argues in his article quoted below.

According to Dave in his article “Five easy steps to get a Datukship in Malaysia (2020 google) “… Malaysia society today has become  very status-conscious, prompting some people to look for shortcuts to be acknowledged as somebody important minus any outstanding contributing to community, society or country or being a leader in their area of expertise or profession. … Gone are the days when only senior civil servants, distinguished personalities and the affluent were worthy of titles. The Datukship has become a status symbol in today’s culture of instant gratification… This rings especially true given that Malaysians are also obssessed with buying the most expensive and fancy car vanity number plates.”.

Driving Prado/Land Cruiser and othe fancy cars in Bhutan also has become a symbol of scoial status.

Karma Phuntsho in his book “History of Bhutan” (2013, p: 569) opines: “The introduction of the civil service in 1973 was an important social and administrative milestone. Not only did it modernize the state bureaucracy and social services, it became the main employer of the growing number of the educated people who passed out from schools and colleges. The formation of this new administrative organ also broadened the set of career choices for Bhutanese youth and initiated a new work culture and social group. It led to the rise of a new middle class of administrators and professionals, who performed white colour jobs sitting at office desks in contrast to the manual work of the farmers… The school educated youth of the twentieth century looked down on any work involving a tool heavier than a pen and the post of a dasho or a high ranking official became a much desired ambition in life.”

Nyiklems and therefore dashos like Datuk in Mayasia are stated to be akin to knighood in Europe, particularly the United Kingdom. Knights in England and also in Europe “were warriors trained to fight in armour, generally horse back. And they stood out above other warriors because, crucially, they’d been ‘knighted’ in a special ceremony” (Google). Knights and Dames, their female equavalents are still prevalent in the United Kingdom. However, unlike in the past, the people are honoured by the Queen or the King for some great achievements; writers, like Sir Terry Pratchet; stage and screen stars like Dame Judi Dench; or sporting celebrities like Sir Andy Murry or Dame Jessica ennis-Hill; Or they may have done outstanding service in the forces, for the community, or for the government.

These days our Boddhisattva Kings confer red scarves mainly on the public servants, who have served tsa-wa-sum with loyalty, dedication and patriotism and professionalism. In other words, the title of nyikelm and therefore dasho is given to those public servants who have displayed extraordinary leadership and professional qualities in the performance of their functions.

In Bhutan, the Nyikem Gongzhu Tshogpa (NGT) was established in May 2013 under the Command of His Majety The King. As regards the rationale behind its establishment, Lyonpo C. Dorji, Chairman of the Privy Council in his Foreword to the Article for NGT dated 7th of October, 2013 sums up as follows:

“In recognition of the outstanding services rendered to the Tsa-wa-sum by the former Nyikem officers and the wealth of knowledge and experience that they possess, His Majesty the Druk Gyalpo, on 26th May 2013, was pleased to Command that a Nyikem Gongzhu Tshogpa (Association of Red Scarf Officers) be established.”

“His Majesty the Druk Gyalpo also Commanded that members of the Nyikem Gongzhu Tshogpa (NGT) should volunteer and informally share their experience and knowledge at schools and other institutions of learning.”


Contributed by

Dasho Zangley Dukpa