Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Bhutan’s Early History: Separating Fact From Myth - II

Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel: Demystifying His Death

In almost all the records that I have read so far about Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, there seems to be two opposing views:

1. That he entered strict meditation in 1651 and died many years

        later while in meditation, never to re-emerge;

2. That he died in 1651, while in retreat, but that his death was kept

        a secret to discourage the Tibetans from any warlike intensions

        towards Bhutan, including avoiding succession complications.

Another little known record says that he died of food poisoning as a result of a trip to Chubu Tshachu in Punakha.

On the contrary, I was seriously inclined to believe that he might have been done in by one of the seat holders of the time, while in meditation at the Machen Lhakhang.

If we are to believe that he died while in meditation, we cannot be certain as to the day of his demise. Since he was in strict Tsham (chetjar/ngentsham dampo), no one would have been allowed to interact with him in person – not even his attendant serving his meals. Thus his death would have remained a secret for days, if not weeks. On the other hand, we cannot believe that he died in the year 1651 upon entering meditation, since he entered meditation a perfectly healthy person – although supposedly a little obese.

So, if he did not die a natural death, the next possibility is that he may have been done in – a real possibility since murder and internecine incidences was rife during those tumultuous times. If we are to pursue this line of thinking, who would have been the person/persons who may have committed the crime?

According to records, the possible candidates would be:

          1.  Druk Desi Umdze Tendzin Drukgye

          2.  Je Khenpo Pekar Jungey

These two could have committed the heinous crime – in order that they could continue to rule. But it is most unlikely that they were responsible for such an act since they were two of the only five rulers directly appointed by the Zhabdrung. Their allegiance to the Zhabdrung would have been unshakeable.

4th Je Damchoe Pekar: 1697 - 1707

4th Druk Desi Tendzin Rabgye: 1681 - 1694

Further, in 1654, Tendzin Rabgye the 4th Druk Desi had a dream in which Zhabdrung appeared before him but did not utter a word – which caused Tendzin Rabgye to come to the firm conclusion that the Zhabdrung was already dead. He had, for sometime, strong premonitions that the Zhabdrung was no more.

Even if we are to disbelieve any such old dreams, it could be said with certainty that the Zhabdrung was no more, by 1667. The reason is that Chogyel Minjur Tenpa is said to have been absolutely furious to learn that he was not taken into confidence about the demise of the Zhabdrung and that he was fraudulently appointed as the 3rd Druk Desi in 1667 – under a fake Kasho stamped with the seal of Zhabdrung, who was no more.

Another hint at mischief can be deduced from the fact that three months after the Zhabdrung’s supposed retreat in 1651, Desi Umze Tendzin Drukgye held a large gathering of important dignitaries to inform them that the Zhabdrung should not be disturbed for any reason since he is in strict retreat (Tsham). This was uncalled for since everyone would have known that a person in strict retreat couldn’t be disturbed or interacted with.

Another hint that should tell us that the Zhabdrung was already dead – before entering Tsham - is that some records mention that the Zhabdrung had entered “PERMANENTTsham. The term permanent Tsham can only be employed when one is certain that the person in question is not going to be re-emerging from the retreat!

While I was confounded by all these inconsistencies, something revealing occurs – the recent observance of “Zhabdrung Kuchoe” on 22nd April, 2021. When I realized that the day – 10th Day of the 3rd Bhutanese month (22.04.2021) is observed as the day of the demise of the Zhabdrung, I was puzzled. This means that people would have had to have known exactly when he died! In other words, the Zhabdrung was conclusively dead OUTSIDE the Tsham and not INSIDE the Tsham.

In other words, the reverse would have to be the truth – that unlike what the historical records say, HE HAD ALREADY DIED and then was CONSIGNED to Tsham, so that difficulties could be averted. The death may have occurred from natural causes or may have been the result of the food poisoning at Chubu Tsachu.

One historical record confirms that: "On the 10th Day of the Third Month of Iron Rabit Year, the Zhabdrung, at age 54, entered the Machen Lhakhang in Punakha Dzong into strict seclusion (chetjar dampo)."

I cross checked the Gregorian calendar and find that the Bhutanese calendar date of 10th day of the third month of Iron Rabbit Year (more accurately Iron-Female-Rabbit Year) translates to:

30th April, 1651

This means the Zhabdrung's death occurred exactly on the day of the “Zhabdrung Kuchoe” - a day which we now correctly observe as the day of his demise. There appears to be no mistake there!


  1. Zhabdrung kuchen was started observing only later by 10th Je Khenpo Tenzin Chogyel. And please don't try to create new history. This is a nonsense article I have ever soon so far

    1. Dear Kinkey,

      I think the term is "Zhabdrung Kuchoe" and not "Zhabdrung Kuchen" as you put it. But you do make a point that needs to be elaborated for the benefit of the Bhutanese people. How did it happen that the 10th Je Tenzin Chhogyel initiated the observation of Zhabdrung Kuchen as you call it?. According to accepted records, the 10th Je Tenzin Chhogyel held the seat between 1755 - 1762. How did it happen that the demise of the Zhabdrung was observed nearly after more than a century of his death?

      No doubt you know that his death was admitted lot earlier - after a little over half a century of his demise.