My understanding of Shabdrung by Rongthong Kunley
The unexpected sad demise of H.H Shabdrung Jigme Ngwang Namgyel
Rimpoche on 5th April 2003 made shocking news , with
the media propounding a conspiracy theory of his death.
Let me bring to your knowledge the history of Shabdrung and his
reincarnations in brief. The first Shabdrung Ngwang Namgyel was
born in 1593 at Ralung in Tibet. He came to Bhutan in 1616. At
that time Bhutan was known as “Lho-Mon” as it lies in south of
Tibet . Buddhism spread to Bhutan from Tibet. “Bhutan” came to
be known as such during British India
By 1637, H. H. Shabdrung Ngwang
Namgyel Rimpoche had unified the country and named it Druk
Gyalkhap and hence its people came to be known as the Drukpas.
He also established Drukpa Kargyupa as the state religion.
During his time, the Nyingmapa tradition was equally respected
and his root guru was from the Nyingmapa sect. He instituted the
“Choe-Sid system” or the dual system of governance, where the Je
Khenpo was in-charge of religious matters as the head of the
Drukpa Kargyupa sect of Mahayana Buddhism in Bhutan, while the
Desid (Deb Raja) was in-charge of state affairs. The Desid was
nominated by the Punakha Dzongpon, the Thimphu Dzongpon, the
Wangdi Phodrang Dzongpon, the Zhung Droneyer, the Zhung Kalyeon,
the Zhung Dongsapa, the Tongsa Penlop, the Paro Penlop, the Daga
Penlop and the Zhung Draktshang. The Je Khenpo on the other
hand, was appointed from amongst the Dorji Lopen, the Yangbi
Lopen, the Drabi Lopen, the Tshenyi Lopen and the Dratshang
Umzey. The Dorji Lopen was usually considered the first choice
for the post of the Je Khenpo, since he usually was the most
learned among the group. Both these positions had a fixed tenure
of three years, but it wasn’t uncommon for their tenures to be
extended. Desid Umzey Tenzin Drugyel (1651-1655) was the first
Desid. Pekar Jungney was the first Je Khenpo.
Until the 7th Desid,
normally someone from amongst the religious clergy was chosen
for the post. Sometimes the heart and the speech reincarnate of
the Shabdrung have also been selected as the Desid.
Occasionally, capable people from outside the clergy were also
chosen. Sometimes powerful people occupied the post by
manipulation or force.
In 1661, Ngwang Jigme Drakpa, the
heart reincarnate (Thugtrul) of the Shabdrung was recognized as
the first reincarnate of the Shabdrung by the Lhengey Zhungtshok
(Central cabinet). The speech reincarnate (Sungtrul) was also
recognized but the throne of First Shabdrung is
instituted to Thugtrul (Heart Incarnate).
In 1907, Ugyen Wangchuck became
Bhutan’s first king. The 7th reincarnate of the
Shabdrung, Jigme Dorji had been born in 1905 at Shar Dirang,
Bomdala, Tawang District, of present day Arunanchal Pradesh.
Incidentally, the second king, Jigme Wangchuck, was also born in
1905. Ugyen Wangchuck and central Monastic body invited the
Shabdrung to Punakha when he was six years old (1911) and
ceremoniously enthroned him. The Shabdrung’s family also
accompanied him to the Talo Palace and the Punakha Dzong. His
first cousin Ashi Dorji Wangmo married Lopen Sangay Tenzin. Four
boys and three girls were born out of this matrimony, App Ugyen
Dorji being the eldest son (present four Queen’s father).
The Sungtrul Chogley held the post of
the 63rd Deb Raja (last Deb Raja) from 1903-1906.
During his tenure as Deb Raja, since some of his activities
violated the monastic code of conduct, the government and
central monastic body passed a resolution that the Sungtrul
(speech incarnate) would not be acknowledged in future. Sungtrul
Chogyel expired after few years and was born as a reincarnate to
Ashi Dorji Wangmo‘s son. Ashi Dorji Wangmo and her family
requested the then Shabdrung to recognize the Sungtrul but the
Shabdrung declined to do so as the institution of Sungtrul had
been abolished by the government and the central monastic body.
This rejection by the Shabdrung created a rift in the family.
The Shabdrung’s brother, Chhoki
Gyeltshen went to India for the pilgrimage in 1929-30. The
rumours of Chhoki Gyeltshen meeting with Mahatma Gandhi during
his pilgrimage with the intention of garnering support for the
Shabdrung from British India and influential Indians politician
in order to challenge the Monarchy spread over the country.
We don’t now if he met Mahatma Gandhi, but when he arrived back,
the then Paro Penlop Tshering Penjore, Gangtey Tulku reported
these rumours as the truth to king Jigme Wangchuck. He promptly
ordered Lame Gonpa Dasho Phuentsho Wangdi to investigate the
matter and dispatched him to Talo with a five-hundred-strong
army. Even thought they found out that Shabdrung was unaware of
the Choki Gyeltshen’s story, the king asked the central monastic
body and senior government officials to vouch for the Shabdung
in writing. The central monastic body convened a meeting to sign
the statement, but the Dorji Lopen Samten Jamtsho (alias Dung
Bava) walked away from the meeting and hence sealed the fate of
the Shabdrung’s life in 1931. The king’s plot became obvious, as
Samten Jamtsho later went on to become the Je Khenpo as a favour
for his role in implicating the Shabdrung. He held the post for
more than 20 years completely violative of the traditional
three-year tenure system. I also met Chhoki Gyeltshen in 1959 at
Dechencholing Palace, who was then having very good relations
with the third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck.
Due to prevailing situation and fear,
the Sungtrul and his family fled to Kalimpong. They stayed in
Pedung for more than 20 years. The Sungtrul befriended and
developed a special rapport with Gongzim Sonam Tobgay Dorji (The
then Bhutan Representative in India).
In 1939, the 8th
reincarnate of the Shabdrung was born in Manla, Jangphu.village,
Tashigang (Eastern Bhutan). Incidentally I was also born in
1939. Many auspicious signs were visible when he was born and
the news of his birth spread across the country and disciples
and devotees from across the country came to receive his
blessings. Lopen Melam Rabzang offered the title of Shabdrung
Ngwang Namgyel Jigme Tenzin to the young boy. The then Tashigang
Dzongpon, Thinley Tobgay (Dopola), who was a very powerful
warlord in Eastern Bhutan took special care of the Shabdrung and
kept him under his protection.
The overall scheme to get rid of the
Shabdrung and install the Sungtrul as the Shabdrung unfolded
when in early 1952, the second king “granted” the “request” of
Gongzim Sonam Tobgay Dorji to allow the Sungtrul to return to
his former place. When the King was at Kunga Rabten Palace in
Tongsa (the then winter Palace), the Sungtrul and his family
were staying at the Tak-tse Chakhar Lakhang, Tongsa. But his
plan could not be realized as King Jigme Wangchuck passed away
in February of 1952. A month later, Sungtrul too passed away.
The third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck
was already married to Gongzim Sonam Tobgay Dorji’s daughter
Kezang Chhoden (the present Queen Mother) then was residing at
Paro as Paro Penlop. After his father demise, he went to Kunga
Rabten Palace and assumed all the responsibilities of his
father. The Tashigang Dzongpon went to attend the second King’s
funeral at Bumthang. The Dzongpon became suddenly ill after
being administered an injection for some “ailment” and died at
Bumthang. With his death, the little Shabdrung Jigme Tenzin was
left completely unprotected, and met with a similar fate as his
previous reincarnate. The third king then reinstated the late
Sungtrul Chogyel’s family and even handed over the trusteeship
of Sungtrul Gonpa, Sanga Chhokhor, at Paro , when they
requested for the same till the sungtrul reincarnation.
At present, the Gonpa is under the control of App Ugyen Dorji.
The 9th reincarnate of the
Shabdrung, Shabdrung Jigme Ngwang Namgyel was born in Manla,
Jangphu, Tashigang, in 1955, to the sister of the 8th
Shabdrung. Auspicious signs were visible when he was born and
news of his birth spread across the country. The present king
Jigme Singye Wangchuck is also born in 1955.
The young Shabdrung’s uncle, Lama
Jangchuk Pelzang, fearing that similar fate as that of the
previous Shabdrungs would befall the reincarnate, whisked him to
Tawang, Arunnachal Pradesh at the tender age of six. Lama
Jangchuk Pelzang requested the political officer of Tawang for
protection of his nephew. The political officer in turn handed
over the matter to Mr. Rustomji, the Chief Secretary of Assam
stationed at Shillong. The Shabdrung was handed over to the
Government of India by Rustomji and Government of India arranged
for him to be kept him at Rewalsar, Mandi, Himachal Pradesh.
He received Buddhist teachings and
was also tutored in Hindi and English. In Rewalsar (Tsho Pema),
in 1963, he received the ‘Terzye Wang Lung’ from H. H. Chabje
Dudjom Jigdral Yeshi Dorjee and who recognized him as the true
heart reincarnate of the Shabdrung. He stayed on in Manali,
Himalchal Pradesh and also stayed in Delhi, especially during
the winter months. Thousands of Bhutanese devotees visited him
to receive his blessing in Delhi and Himalchal Pradesh. He also
recently setup a monastery at Buddha Gaya and Sakyoung, near
From amongst the Sungtrul’s family, I
personally happened to know App Ugyen Dorji and Ama Thuji Zam
and others in the family from the 1960s. Their eldest son Sangay
Nidup is presently Minister for Health & Education. Their eldest
daughter Ashi Bidha and her husband Ugyen Dorji (presently the
Speaker of National Assembly) were also known to me. Infact,
Ugyen Dorji was one of my closest friends and I would be invited
for dinner at their house whenever I was in Thimphu. The second,
third, fourth and the fifth daughters are the present queens.
Ashi Dorji Wangmo (pet name Aungo) is the present eldest Queen.
I know her from the early 1970s.
In 1985, the 9th Shabdrung
visited Samdrup Jongkhar (Eastern Bhutan) along with his sister.
Even though every Bhutanese knows that the Shabdrung is banned
from entering Bhutan, his disciples clandestinely sheltered him
in their house while he gave audience to thousands of devotees.
After three days, I went to receive
the Shabdrung’s blessings and warned him of the danger to his
life from the Royal Government, particularly considering that
the Royal government had a hand in the fate of the previous
Shabdrungs. Incidentally this was our first meeting. At one
‘clock, exactly after seven hour of the Shabdrung’s departure,
Royal Bhutan Army and Police personnel, lead by Major Lafu of
the Royal Bhutan Army and Captain Kipchu of the Royal Bhutan
Police, arrived at Samdrup Jongkhar. The Dzongda, Thrimpon,
senior police officials, businessman and other people who had
been to see the Shabdrung were taken to Thimphu and kept under
house arrest for 15 days. They were later released with on the
condition that this incident was not to be repeated again. After
their release, they made many allegations against me that I was
the one who had reported to the government, but I believed in
myself and that I actually saved Rimpoche. If I had not warned
Rimpoche, his fate would have been certainly sealed. I was also
interrogated and my statement recorded in audio cassettes. I
questioned the interrogator about our so-called “wrongs” when
the entire senior officials and public were also involved.
In 1991, the king was in Samdrup
Jongkhar on a Dzongkhag tour. About eight thousand Sharchops,
Zonal Administrator Dasho Jigme Thinly, government officials,
Thrimpons, Gups, Chimis and the Dzongdas appointed me to
represent them and speak on their behalf. I had prepared my
speech after consulting all the people concerned. During my
speech, when I began taking about the role of the first
Shabdrung in unifying Bhutan, I was interrupted by king who said
that I need not explain history to the public. However, I didn’t
heed the interruption and completed my speech. But the king was
so worked up about my reference to the Shabdrung, that he did
not hear my mention of the contribution of the institution of
the monarchy in strengthening Bhutan and ushering it into the
with vested interested have fed concocted tales about me to King
and the royal family. The king’s unwise judgment landed me
behind bars for fifty days where I was mercilessly tortured for
no fault of mine. After my release, I unwillingly fled my
motherland for Nepal in order to save my life.
From Nepal, I
submitted a memorandum on the behalf of Bhutanese public
recorded in the audio cassettes to King through Chief Justice
Sonam Tobgay and waited for three years for a positive answer.
But King didn’t take serious note of my memorandum and thus, I
formed the Druk National Congress on 16 June, 1994 with the
support of Bhutanese Public for the establishment of democracy
and human Rights in Bhutan. Our principal aim was to establish
democracy and preserve the rich cultural heritage, religion and
traditions of Bhutan.
In 1997, I was elected the
Chairperson of The United Front for Democracy in Bhutan to lead
the democracy movement. I unsuccessfully tried to get an
audience with the Shabdrung Rimpoche whenever I was in Delhi. In
1997, April, I was arrested in Delhi by the Government of India
at the behest of the Royal Government of Bhutan. During my
incarceration, Thinly Penjore and Cheku Drukpa met the Shabdrung
and I received his blessing through them.
On the 12th of June 1998,
I was released on bail. After one month, I along with my family
and some DNC members had an opportunity to get an audience with
Rimpoche at his office. I had an hour long separate discussion
with him on the prevailing situation in Bhutan. I explained to
him the Druk National Congress’ stand on the issue. I requested
Rimpoche to preserve the institution of the Shabdrung as the
Supreme Spiritual Leader of Bhutan within the framework of the
proposed constitution. He agreed and gave his blessings.
After one month, I again had an
opportunity to meet with him and request for his blessings,
where I reiterated the same stand. Later when I requested for
the Shabdrung’s audience I was not given appointment. I don’t
know what Thinley Penjore & Co must have told Rimpoche to evoke
such a reaction from him.
The Indo Bhutan Friendship Society (IBFS)
was formed in 1999 to consolidate the longstanding friendly ties
between the people of India and Bhutan. Mr. Satya Prakash
Malaviya, the President of IBFS and Prof. Anand Kumar sought an
audience with the Shabdrung Rimpoche who gave them an
appointment. Later on appointment was cancelled. After that IBFS
officials didn’t seek any further appointments with Rimpoche. We
however hold him in very high respect and regard even though our
relation was stained for reasons we have never clearly
On the 13th of November,
2002, the Kathmandu Post of Nepal reported an interview of the
Shabdrung where he stated that “the refugees (Bhutanese) had not
been treated as human beings. They must be given due respect.
Bhutan has done no justice to them. It should be practical. Mere
talks cannot resolve the refugee problem”. Having passed such
remarks and also having remarked on human rights violations in
Bhutan, Thinly Penjore, Khila and other Lhosampa leaders have
exaggerated on the point to gain political advantage from this.
On 1st March, 2003,
Thinley Penjore gave a press release that there are about 2700
unregistered Sharchop refugees in the refugee camps in Nepal. We
had to quickly counter this false claim because the actual
figure was between 30-40 - all political asylum seekers.
Again on 4th March, 2003,
“2700 Sharchops requesting Rimpoche to lead his flock for
repatriation” appeared in the Himalayan Times daily. Rimpoche is
quoted as saying “I myself am living a life of an exile in India
for three decades now despite my wishes, and as such, am
virtually helpless at this stage.”
After one month, Rimpoche passed away
on the 5th of April, 2003 at CMS, hospital, Vellore,
Then I came to know through various
news papers of the Royal Government’s hand in the Shabdrung’s
death, as alleged by Thinly Penjore. The retaliatory remarks on
Kuenselonline.com’s editorial “conspiracy theory” questioning
the credibility of Shabdrung incarnate and “throat cancer” being
the cause of his death, and Rimpoche’s secretary, Sonam Dorji’s
reiteration of the Kuensel remarks is a point for serious
thought. When the entire Bhutanese public knows him to be the
true heart reincarnate of the Shabdrung and receives his
blessings, the credibility question doesn’t arise at all. In
1988, late prime minister of India, Rajeev Gandhi arranged for
the king to meet the 9th Shabdrung Jigme Nagwang
Namgyel face to face at New Delhi. Why would the Prime Minister
have arranged the meeting at all if he was not the Shabdrung?
The cause of his death is debatable
and we will soon get the answer. “the Almighty has his own way
of giving Justice!”
The Indo–Bhutan Friendship Society
and the Druk National Congress held a Seminar on the 13th
of April, 2003 at the Constitutional Club, New Delhi. The
members observed a two minute silence in the Shabdrung’s memory
and prayed for the early reincarnation of Rimpoche and blessings
for all sentient beings. It is time to undo all the
past events and pave the way for the new era of prosperity and
happiness by reserving the special privileges for Shabdrung’s
reincarnatation, since the 1st Shabdrung was the
founder and preserver of our country. I think that the crucial
time has arrived for the people and the Royal Government of
Bhutan to give serious thought to this issue and to the future