Sikhim and Bhutan/Chapter 12

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The early history of this remarkable country is enveloped in great obscurity, for unfortunately, owing to fire, earthquake, flood, and internecine wars, its annals, which had been carefully recorded, were destroyed. The burning of Poonakha in 1832 and the widespread destruction of buildings by the earthquake of 1897 were particularly noticeable in this connection. The latter disaster is responsible for the almost total destruction of the library of the present Tongsa Penlop, only a few MSS., from which I have gathered some information, having escaped. Their great printing establishment at Sonagachi was burnt down about eighty years ago.

The earliest legend we hear of is that one Sangaldip, emerging from the environs of Kooch (whether from Bhutan or Assam is obscure), subdued the countries of Bengal and Behar, fighting against Raja Kedur of Lakhnante, or Gaur, and was in his turn defeated by Piran-Visah, general of Afrasiab, King of Turan, or Tartary. This was about the seventh century before the Christian era.

We next hear that in the middle of the eighth century A.D. the Indian saint Padma Sambhava converted Bhutan to the Buddhist faith. The chief rulers at that time were the Khiji-khar-thod of Khempalung, in Upper Pumthang, and Naguchhi, King of Sindhu. The site of the latter’s palace, Chagkhar Gome (the iron fort without doors), is still visible. Naguchhi, the second son of King Singhala of Serkhya, founded the kingdom of Sindhu, while his sons extended his realm to Dorji-Tag and Hor in Tibet and as far as Sikhim. In the course of a war with Raja Nabudara, who lived in the plains of India, the eldest son was killed, and Naguchhi was consequently plunged into grief. It was at this juncture that the saint Padma arrived on the scene, and with the aid of the king’s daughter, Menmo Jashi Kyeden, who possessed the twenty-one marks of fairy beauty, restored the king to happiness and saved his soul. The struggle with the demons lasted for seven days, and at the end of that week marks of the saint’s body appeared in the solid rock. The legend further goes on to say that the fir-tree growing beside the cave was the alpenstock of the saint, who, like St. Joseph at Glastonbury, made the stick to grow. Naguchhi appears to have been a second King Solomon, as it is recorded that all the most beautiful women of India and Tibet were taken to wife by the king, and that they numbered a hundred in all.

The rival King Nabudara was also converted to Buddhism by the saint, and peace was restored to the land, and a boundary pillar set up at Mna-tong. This kingdom, however, lasted only another hundred years, and was destroyed by Tibetan hordes in the time of Lan-darma, the apostate King of Tibet, who reigned about the years 861-900 A.D. Some two centuries later Bhutan was occupied by the followers of King Tiral-chan.

The subsequent fate of Bhutan is wholly connected with the origin and the spread of the Dukpa sect, founded by Yeses Dorji at Ralung. Yeses, or Gro-Gong-Tshangpa-Gyal-ras, was born in 1160 and died in 1210 A.D.

A young lama from China came to his successor, Sangye-on, and was given the name of Fago-Duk-gom-Shigpo. After studying at Ralong for some years he was sent to Bhutan, and settled at Cheri Dordam, where he lived with his wife and family. His fame soon spread, and aroused the jealousy of Lhapha, a rival lama already resident in Bhutan. Quarrels arose, and Lhapha, after an unsuccessful attack on Cheri, was totally defeated, and had to fly. In his flight he came to the Am-mo-chhu Valley, where he was warmly received by the villagers, who submitted to him. Lhapha, however, treacherously betrayed them to the Tibetans, who thereupon seized the valley. Lhapha’s settlement is recognised in the valley to this day.

Having got rid of his rival, Duk-gom’s power increased greatly, and the conversion of the Bhutanese to Buddhism was further assisted by the advent of four other lamas, who belonged, however, to different sects, and were not Dukpas. But although so many saints visited Bhutan and settled there, founding temples and monasteries, yet they only served as heralds to symbolise or portray the final auspicious advent of the peerless Dukpa Rimpochi, Nawang Du-gom Dorji, who brought Bhutan under one ruling power and control.

Du-gom Dorji, better known as Shabdung Nawang Mamgyel, was the son of Dorji Lenpa Mepham Tempai Nymia, a man of noble lineage, by the daughter of Deba Kyishöpa, and showed remarkable intellectual precocity; even as a child his carvings were marvellous in beauty and symmetry of workmanship. The date of his birth is supposed to be 1534 A.D. He studied under the Dukpa lama, Padma Karpo, at Ralong, and bid fair to succeed to the Hierarch’s chair; but a rival claimant, Kerma Tenkgong Wangpo, backed by Deba Tsang-pa, was too strong for him, so the Shabdung, in disgust, started on a long, pilgrimage, and finally entered Bhutan by the Lingzi Pass in 1557 A.D., in his twenty-third year, and lived to be fifty-eight. During these thirty-five years he was continuously engaged in warfare and in consolidating his temporal as well as his spiritual power. The opposition of the Deba Tsang-pa, of the Ralong Hierarch, and of the descendants of the four lamas mentioned before constantly involved him in serious fighting. The Tibetans five or six times attempted unsuccessfully to conquer Bhutan, and even penetrated as far as Simtoka, but each time were driven back or captured en masse. The booty obtained from the vanquished greatly increased the wealth of the Shahdung Rimpochi, whose fame spread to India and as far as Ladakh. Raja Padma Narayan of Cooch Behar sought his friendship and sent presents, as did Drabya Sahi and Purandar Sahi of Nepal.

It was at this time that some foreigners from a distant country beyond the ocean called Parduku (Portugal) brought some guns and gunpowder of a new sort and a telescope, and offered their services, which were, however, refused, as to accept them would have been against the religious principles of true Buddhism.

Most of the big monasteries and forts date from his reign, although few of them have escaped fire and earthquake. Practically Simtoka, first built in 1570, but rebuilt in 1572, after its recapture from the insurgents, is the only building now existing in its original form. Perhaps the next oldest is Paro-jong, originally started as a school of medicine, but burnt down in 1907. All other buildings have either been rebuilt or enlarged. Poonakha was founded in 1577, and designed to accommodate 600 monks. The Dharma Raja, when remonstrated with for planning such an enormous house, replied that the building would in time be found much too small. When I was there in 1905 there were at least 1500 monks in residence. Angdu-phodang was begun in 1578, and Tashi-cho-jong in 1581, and the Shabdung's quarters still exist in the western end of the fort at Tongsa.

The lama Du-gom Dorji was something of a humorist. During the rejoicings at a notable victory over the Tibetans at Poonakha he was asked if he thought it likely they would return or send any more expeditions against Bhutan. He replied: “Oh, there is no assurance they will not come again, but as they never do any harm to us it will be all right. This time we have a sufficiency of armour and weapons; we will in future indent for some tea and silks.” The saying subsequently turned out to be a prophecy.

To quote the Tibetan chronicler: “In the intervals of peace the Dharma Raja devoted himself with full energy to his various State duties, founding a body of priesthood, providing for and controlling them, giving instruction to those who were serious seekers after truth; in short, he was pastor, abbot, psalmist, rector, superintendent of carving (for printing purposes), architect of State and monastic buildings, overseer of bookbinding and other embellishments of the Kagyur library, settlement officer, chief commandant of the forces for quelling foreign aggressions, chief protector and ruler of his own adherents and followers, chief avenger and punisher of those who were inimical to the cause of Buddhism and the public peace. He was all these in one person, and fulfilled the duties right thoroughly and efficiently. He introduced law into lawless Bhutan. His boast was that he never wasted any time in idleness or selfish ease.” For the better ecclesiastical and temporal administration he appointed two of the monks who had come with him from Ralong, one, Nay-tan-Pay-kor-Jungnay, to be the chief Khempo, or abbot, whose duties were to enforce the strict observance of priestly vows among the priests, direct their studies, and preside at the ceremonies; the other was Tenzing Dukgyag, the Amsed or prior of Ralong, who was the first Dug Desi or Deb Raja, whose duties were to attend to the general administraton of the State, to deal with foreign Powers, to manage income, revenue, and other resources of the State, to provide the lamas with food, and, in short, to look after the State, while the Dharma Raja and the Khempo devoted themselves to the Church. This dual administration must be borne in mind when considering foreign relations; and it must also be carefully realised that Bhutan is wholly an ecclesiastical State, that the Church is all in all with the Bhutanese.

Such was the character of the first Shabdung Rimpochi. After his death three reincarnations appeared; that of his body became the Dharma Raja, that of his voice the Chole Tulku, and that of his mind theThi Rimpochi—an incarnation now dying out, owing to the misconduct of the present incumbent.