Sunday, December 20, 2020

Rewriting History

Historians, particularly Bhutanese historians, tend to treat our history with a casualness that is inexcusable. Historical texts are rife with contradictions. Authors are keen to publish their own take on the past—versions that are quite often in conflict with other accounts. In some cases, truly illogical claims have been made.

For instance, I have examined four different records of the chronology of Trongsa Poelops, with numerous inconsistencies in the names. Three of the records do agree on one point: that there were a total of 16 Trongsa Poenlops from 1647 to 2006. The fourth record, however, lists a staggering 25 Trongsa Poenlops.

I was not interested in history until I started putting together my book on the coinage of Bhutan. I discovered that the historical documentation on this topic was confusing, often inaccurate, and at times pure conjecture—the product of the writer’s fertile imagination.

One source of misinformation in the history of our coinage drew me deep into the tangled thicket of Bhutanese history—in particular, the lives and times of the famous Pala and Pila brothers, forefathers of the Wangchuck and Dorji families. Even accounts narrated in school textbooks are grossly erroneous, resulting in generations of Bhutanese growing up with a misunderstanding of our own history.

On page 3 of the Royal Education Council’s A History of Bhutan: Course Book for Class X, the following narration appears:

Pala continued to serve under the Paro Poenlop in the course of which, he has a son in the village of Tsentona. This was Sharpa Puenchung, who was to be the father of Kazi Ugyen Dorji of Kalimpong. He in turn rose to be Bhutan Agent and later Gongzom to the first Druk Gyalpo in 1907. His other son, by an earlier marriage, was Kitchelp Dorji Namgyal of the Bemji Chhoeje, who became Druk Desi.

There are problems with this passage. First and foremost, it is misleading to say that Sharpa Penchung’s son Ugyen Dorji was from Kalimpong; phrasing it this way makes it sound like he was not Bhutanese. It is true that Gongzim Ugyen Dorji was born in Kalimpong in 1855 to parents Sharpa Penchung and Thinley Om, in a house called Kota Homa/Kota Ghar/Kothi Woma. But most readers are likely unaware that Kalimpong in 1855 was Bhutanese territory. Only in 1865 did the British India government annex it, after the great Duars war.

It is also incorrect to state that Pala Gyeltshen married twice. He married only once—a woman from Tsendona in Paro (I am still trying to find out her name). Thus, it is not possible that Desi Kitshelpa Dorji Namgyal was the son of Pala Gyeltshen. I say this with certainty because, on page 30 (Reprint 2019) of A History of Bhutan 19th to 20th Century: Course Book for Class VIII, the following sentences appear:

It became clear then that Jigme Namgyal was the most powerful man in Bhutan. The officials of the Central Government and the Central Monastic Body invited Jigme Namgyal to be Druk Desi. He was therefore enthroned in 1870 as the 48th Druk Desi.

After he was enthroned, he appointed Kawang Sangye as the Wangduephodrang Dzongpoen, Wang Chogyal Zangpo as Zhung Dronyer, and his half brother Kitshelpa Dorji Namgyal as Gongzim.

The same Course Book, on Page 32, says:

In 1877, the Punakha Dzongpon, Ngodrup and the Paro Poenlop Niyma Dorji got together and planned to rebel against Jigme Namgyal and the new Desi. Further, they killed his representative, Nyerchen Charchung in Paro. This act of treachery required action from Jigme Namgyal. Jigme Namgyal, his son Ugyen Wangchuck, Phuntsho Dorji, his half brother Desi Kitshelpa Dorji Namgyal, and the Thimphu Dzongpoen went to Paro and captured the Ta Dzong.

These records are correct. Kitshelpa Dorji Namgyel was the son of Pila Gonpo Wangyal, born out of wedlock to a woman named Chechemo, who hailed from the house of Bemji Choeje in Trongsa. Pila Gonpo Wangyal fathered Kitshelpa Dorji Namgyel during his short stint with the Trongsa Poenlop, on his return journey from Gantey to Doongkar, where he settled down and married Sonam Pelzom and fathered the future Trongsa Poenlop Jigme Namgyel, as well as four other children. He built the Doongkar Nagtsang or Jigme Namgyel Nagtsang, which still stands. And Pila Gonpo Wangyal did marry a women in Gangtey during his time there. But this woman died soon after, childless.

Since Desi Kitshelpa Dorji Namgyal was born before Pila married Sonam Pelzom, Desi Kitshelpa Dorji Namgyal has to be the oldest of the six children fathered by Pila. Thus, it is correct that Desi Kitshelpa Dorji Namgyal is half brother of Jigme Namgyal.

I spent months tracking the journeys of Pala and Pila. I finally met the incumbent Head of Bemji Choeje who, along with other members of the Bemji Choeje family, confirmed that Kitshelpa Dorji Namgyel was indeed the son of Pila Gonpo Wangyel. When I cross-check the events in which Pila was involved, it is clear that only he could have fathered Kitshelpa Dorji Namgyel—not Pala, as some records claim.

As I find time, I will write a more detailed account of the journeys of the two brothers, Pala and Pila. Without an accurate account of this nation’s past, we will never fully understand the forces and personalities that brought us to where we are today.   

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