The return of the 252 years old statue of the 16th century Tibetan lama Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel Rinpoche to Bhutan in 2017 marks an important occasion.
The year 2017 is going to be a momentous year for Bhutan, the Buddhist Himalaya kingdom. This year it commemorates the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal Rinpoche, the most revered Tibetan lama of Drukpa Kagyu School, who in his eventful journey, travelled from Tibet to Bhutan in 1616 AD.
At that time, the Himalayan valley was quite a scattered stretch and was split into several fiefdoms ruled by different warlords and self-proclaimed chieftains. However, the historic arrival of Zhabdrung changed the fate of the disintegrated region. In the 1630s, he consolidated the kingdom under a single and unified rule and built the foundation of what we today know as Bhutan.
Zhabdrung, also pronounced as Shabdrung, is a Tibetan word which means ‘at whose feet one submits.’ It was a title used for great lamas in Tibet who held a hereditary lineage formally associated with a Buddhist monastery. In Bhutan, the title ‘Zhabdrung’ mainly refers to Ngawang Namgyal Rinpoche (1594–1651), the founder and unifier of Bhutan as a nation state.
He is also accorded the title Dharmaraja or Dhurm Raja, meaning ‘Lord of Virtues.’ It is a Sanskrit term and is used for spiritual rulers in Bhutan.
According to the Bhutanese constitution, Drukpa Kagyu school of Vajrayana Buddhism is the state religion of the country, whereas nearly 75 per cent of the population follows either the Drukpa Kagyu or the Nyingma school of Vajrayana Buddhism. Interestingly, it remains the only Buddhist-majority country in the world where the Drukpa Kagyu School is followed on the state level.
In the seventeenth century, when most of the Southeast Asian region was influenced by Tibetan political and religious clout, Ngawang Namgyal revolted against the Gelugpa sub-sect of Tibetan Buddhism led by the Dalai Lama. To seek refuge, he fled from Tibet to the neighbouring area, where he, being an expatriate Drukpa monk, first unified the disintegrated tribes and then founded a theocratic government and a pre-modern Bhutan emerged as a result.
Meanwhile, Ngawang Namgyal fought with rival sub-sect leaders of the area, won a series of battles against Tibetan invaders and became the temporal and spiritual leader of Bhutan, thus assuming the title ‘Zhabdrung’ (Shabdrung).
During his rule, he brought powerful people of the area together in a land called ‘Druk Yul,’ a term used for today’s Bhutan. He built a network of dzongs (fortresses) throughout the country to protect the land from repeated Tibetan invasions and to bring local lords, chiefs and elite of the society under centralized control.
Most importantly, he promulgated a code of law to strengthen social cohesion, peace and stability in the country. He also formed a dual governance system called Choesi that separated both the religious and temporal authorities, which were, respectively, headed by Je Khenpo (spiritual head) and Druk Desi (temporal head). The Druk Desi, being an administrative leader, was further assisted by penlops, a group of ministers and local governors.
As Bhutan observes the 400th anniversary of Zhabdrung's arrival in the country this year, what enhances the reverence and festivity of the holy occasion is the arrival of a 252-year old statue of Zhabdrung back to its native Bhutan. It was almost 150 years ago when the British colonial forces took the six-foot statue away from Bhutan and shifted it to The Asiatic Society’s museum in Kolkata in India in 1865.
A piece of art, the statue squats cross-legged with a benevolent smile and in an attitude of meditation. It is made of brass metal and is some 1.8 metres high. The 252-year old statue is one of the most valuable artefacts owned by The Asiatic Society.
Placed at the base of the statue, the wooden plaque reads: “Brass Image of Dhurm Raja, found at the capture of Buxa Duar on December 7, 1864.” This is because it was basically received as a gift in 1865 from Hidayat Ali, a captain in the British Army, who acquired the sculpture in 1864, when the British Army wrested Buxa Fort from Bhutanese control, says Craig Lewis, a Buddhist historian from Bhutan.
According to Lewis, the government of Bhutan had many times asked The Asiatic Society to return the statue, but its request was refused, as the Asiatic Society Act does not allow it to return those relics and artefacts it has received as gifts or donated materials.
As per the society’s constitution, once a relic has been donated to the museum it cannot be given away to any individual or country without obtaining permission from the donor. But in the case of historical Zhabdrung's statue, the donor is not alive anymore, says Satyabrata Chakrabarti, Secretary General of the Asiatic Society in Kolkata.
The sensitivity of the issue can be realzed since it is related to maintaining and promoting international diplomatic relations. Bhutan, being a close friend, as well as a neighbouring country of India, has always had a special significance and value. About Zhabdrung's statue, the External Affairs Ministry of India, wrote a letter some years ago to the Ministry of Culture to whom The Asiatic Society reports. The Society replied to the ministry that giving the statue away to Bhutan for good or loaning it to the country, even for a couple of months, was not possible, says Chakrabarti.
“Instead, we could create an enclosure in the likeness of a temple for the revered figure so that the people of Bhutan can come and pay floral tributes here,” he suggested.
However, according to him, in a major development in December 2016, the government of India, in an agreement with The Asiatic Society, showed its willingness to loan the sought-after ancient statue of Dhurm Raja to Bhutan as a goodwill gesture for a year mainly to make it a part of a festival to be held in the country in 2017.
Every year, on the death anniversary of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal Rinpoche, Bhutan observes the Traditional Day of Offering. It is a public holiday, which falls on the 4th month of the Bhutanese calendar. The day also marks the beginning of the New Year celebrations in the country and is celebrated with feasting, charitable giving and dancing. Such traditional sports as khuru, digor and archery are also played on the occasion.
This year, the arrival of the statue of Bhutan’s most venerated Dhrum Raja, the founder of the nation as well as the first great historical figure of Bhutan, happens to be the most blessed occasion for the whole nation, which is also celebrating the 400th anniversary of Zhabdrung's arrival in the country.
The writer is a member of the staff.