Cel­e­brat­ing Zhab­drung

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.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Faizan Us­mani

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.

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