The history of Bhutan | Bhutan before unification | Until the establishment of the state | Western Bhutan

Western Bhutan

The history of western Bhutan, until the early 17th century, was shaped by religious schools who, together with the spreading of their teachings, gained secular power.

The continuous strengthening of the Drukpa Kagyupa school was to finally lead to the establishment of the Bhutanese state.

The Drukpa Kagyupa

The establishment of the Drukpa direction as secondary line of the Kagyupa school can be traced back to Tsangpo Gyare Yeshe Dorje (1161-1211). When he was on his death-bed, he prophesied that a man would come from East Tibet to spread the teachings of the Drukpa in the »southern valleys«, that is in Bhutan. This referred to Phajo Drukgom Shigpo (1184-1251).

He fulfilled those prophecies and turned into one of the most relevant figures in Bhutanese history.

On his way from Tibet, he first reached Lingshi, where he was welcomed by the nomads, and then went on to Taktsang, where he meditated for a month. During this time Guru Rinpoche appeared to him in a vision and prophesied that he had to meditate at twelve locations. In a further vision he learned later that he would find his consort, who would be a reincarnation of the famous Yogini Machig Labdrön (1055-1145). In a wonderous episode he actually found her and started a line of descent with her.

During the 13th century four sons of Phajo Drukgom Shigpo settled in the four valley-communities of western Bhutan to spread the Drukpa teachings. They married into respectable local families and started local aristocracies (chöje* and shelngo). Since these families pursued spiritual as well as secular tasks, they developed into the most important and influential force in western Bhutan.

They continued their good relations with the Gya* clan, the leading Drukpa family in Tibet. From the 14th to the 16th century they repeatedly invited abbots of the Drukpa schools to Bhutan, so that they could do missionary work and found further monasteries. One of them was Ngagi Wangchuck (1517-1554), the great grandfather of the future founder of the state, the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel.


The Shabdrung

Despite the fact that the Drukpa were powerful and influential, and were able to leave their mark on the political and social development, the Drukpa families were unable to unite the country. The rise of the Drukpa school was not an unbroken one. They had to assert themselves for several centuries against other Buddhist directions.

The establishment of a unified state was reserved for an extraordinarily talented statesman, the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel.

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Phajo Drukgom Shigpo was the cleric who brought the school of Drukpa Kagyupa to Bhutan
Photo by Françoise Pommaret

A direct line of descent of the great masters of the Drukpa school leads directly to the founder of the state, the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel.