Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal is revered as the leader who unified Bhutan in the 16th Century. He laid the foundation for Bhutan’s transition to a modern nation state.

As Bhutan prepares for the adoption of a formal, written constitution, it is worth reconsidering the legacy of governing principles as first laid down by the Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651). Before the Zhabdrung, the people who lived in what we now know as Bhutan were fragmented into many small communities, largely isolated from one another by habitat and culture. Only legends remain of the origins of the earliest of these people, such as the Wang and Menlog of western Bhutan, and Sharchop of the east. Bhutan’s numerous local languages and dialects stand witness to this era of social diversity. Indeed, Bhutan’s rugged geography discouraged easy lateral movement between the east and the west of the country. It took centuries fro bridges and roads to be built that would afford easy river-crossing and the conduct of trade. Rare biographies of monks such as Phajo Drugom Zhigpo, Pema Lingpa, and family histories such as the Humral of Paro, the Omtsho of Gasa and Amorimo, and Tibetan sources provide glimpses into early Bhutanese society. Life in those days seems to have been more communal and factional than today; the people were rougher and warier of outsiders. Beginning perhaps in the 9th century, Buddhist teachers and ordinary monks came from Tibet to Bhutan in search of patrons and students, and on pilgrimage to sacred sites. Many stayed to found monasteries and families, eventually forming scattered elite that went by such titles as Choeje and Zhelngo. In Bumthang and the east, where Nyingmapa religious traditions were more widespread, petty ‘kings’ (gyalpo) ruled in isolated valleys and mountain communities. Nevertheless, though often linked to one another by shared ancestral myths, there seems to have been no motivation to unite under a great single governing entity. When the Zhabdrung arrived in 1616, western Bhutan had long been home to followers of the Drukpa Kagyudpa form of Buddhism begun in Tibet. A major trade route connected Tibet to India through Bhutan, passing up the Paro valley to Phari in Tibet and to Ralung monastery, the home of the Drukpa sect. During the 13th century, Phajo Drugom Zhigpo (1184-1251) came to western Bhutan and through force of personality, managed to assert political control over many of the western valleys. His four sons divided up the land and created what could be viewed as the first attempt at political unification of western Bhutan. Phajo and his sons gained their position through struggle with rival Lhapa monks, headquartered at Dongoen Dzong and Paro Chelka monastery. The taxes that had once been paid to Drigung henceforth were paid to Phajo, who founded Tango and Cheri monastery gradually came to dominate western Bhutan. Many religious hierarchs of Ralung took Bhutanese wives. The Zhabdrung’s self-imposed exile in Bhutan in 1616 was the outcome of a famous court dispute at the palace of the Tibetan kings of Tsang. There, his status as rebirth of the previous Ralung hierarch, Pemakarpo (1527-1592) was challenged by political rivals hoping to wrest control of all the Drukpa monasteries and property, to which he, as family descendant of the Drukpa founder Tsangpa Gyare, felt himself entitled. A series of letters between the Zhabdrung and his Tibetan adversaries offers a vivid picture of his commanding personality and self-confidence. His famous proclamation of supremacy, a poem called “The Sixteen I’s” argued that the death of his adversary was karmic proof of the Zhabdrung’s incarnate legitimacy. It also boldly accepted the notion that, to make his adopted land of Bhutan safe for his Buddhist subjects, the taking of enemy lives was a legitimate means. Unlike the Dalai Lamas of Tibet, the Zhabdrung viewed himself as combining the archetypes of spiritual savior, or emanation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Compassion), and defender of religion, or Dharmaraja (Dz. Choegyal). These two roles were kept separate in Tibet. The political formulation justifying the Zhabdrung’s status as head of state, therefore, saw no need for an external military commander. The patrons were the ordinary people of Bhutan, not a Mongol military chieftain or the distant Manchu emperor. Thus the theological notion that contributed to the eventual practical absorption of Tibet within China was absent in Bhutan. The Zhabdrung went into meditation in a cave at Cheri monastery. Emerging from meditation in the winter of 1625, he announced his decision to found a unified state. The Zhabdrung cultivated a theory of governance not unlike those promulgated by various governments in medieval Tibet, called choesi zungdrel or ‘union of religion and state.’ This theory modeled itself after the early Tibetan monarchy, to the extent that the role of monarch or ruler was to provide mechanisms of security and economic welfare for public benefit and practice of Buddhism. But it also modeled itself after the Tibetan monastic system at Ralung in that it treated the civil state as subject to religious purpose. The Zhabdrung did not rule out of a vast palace, but practiced a kind of ‘management by walking around.’ He traveled a great deal through the valleys, giving religious teachings and building enduring relationships with the local people. A description of his court is left by Jesuit monk visitors in 1627: “A hundred young lamas, from twelve to twenty years of age, in double file came to welcome us, whilst three smaller ones walked in the middle carrying burning perfumes, which is a royal homage. Thus they conducted us to our lodging, a well-made tent lined with Chinese silk and adorned with a canopy. After a little while we were summoned into the king’s presence and ushered into another tent also richly ornamented with silks…the reason we found him lodged in tents in these mountains is because the people of the villages are each accustomed to call him to their village and so he sets himself up in some staging-place from which he can go to many villages, and they then offer to him presents of horses, cattle, rice, cloth and other things which are his principal revenue.” The extensions of unified government in Bhutan proceeded gradually, first through the valleys of western Bhutan and by mid 17th century, eastward to Trashigang and the Indo-Bhutanese frontier towns. In a war with Tibet during the late 17th century, Bhutan’s modern frontier on the north was finalized. It was in response to invasions from Tibet that the Zhabdrung built large fortress monasteries called dzongs, from which Bhutan was ruled and defended. By the time of his presumed death in 1651, the Zhabdrung had founded the core of the modern Bhutan state. Perhaps his main legacy was the establishment of institutions for law and order and external defense, although his civil law code, if once written, has not survived. The Zhabdrung’s biographer writes: “He suppressed all robbery, banditry, and other malicious behavior, including disrespectfulness, lack of compassion, ungratefulness, and indifference to fear and injury caused to others. By these [injunctions] the entire country became peaceful and wealthy. It was peaceful like the proverbial Era of Good Fortune. For foreigners travelling from one district to another on missions of trade, there was freedom from enemies, as also for pilgrims, women adorned with jewelry, children, and even for the elderly, who could carry their wealth as they pleased. All of our old people, those still clear of mind and knowledgeable of the past [before the introduction of law], speak truthfully of their gratitude for these. ” By John Ardussi, an independent scholar, affiliated with the French research institute CNRS (Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique).