The history of Bhutan | Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel | The life of the Shabdrung | The Shabdrungs youth in Tibet

Youth in Tibet

Ngawang Namgyel, who was to assume the monastic title of Shabdrung, was born in Tibet in 1594 into the princely family of Gya*, which was head of the Drukpa Kagyupa school. His father was Tenpe Nyima (1567-1619), and his mother was a daughter of the prefect of Ü province in central Tibet. His grandfather, Mipham Chögyel (1543-1606), was the 17th abbot at Ralung monastery, the main center of the Drukpas. From an early age, Ngawang Namgyel was groomed to succeed his grandfather to the Drukpa throne.


Rivaling reincarnations

Ngawang Namgyel was recognised as a reincarnation of one of the greatest Drukpa scholars, Pema Karpo (1527-1592), himself the reincarnation of Tsangpa Gyare Yeshe Dorjes (1161-1211), the founder of the Drukpa Kagyupa school.

However, he was not the only contender: Pagsam Wangpo, son of the hereditary prince of a powerful principality in the Yarlung valley in Tibet, was also recognised as the reincarnation of Pema Karpo, whose claim was supported by the ruler of the Tibetan Tsang province. The question as to who the real reincarnation of Pema Karpos was, was never satisfactorily settled. Both the claimants ignored one-another's legitimacy.

At first the Shabdrung requested the Tsang ruler to reconsider his attitude concerning the legitimacy of the contending claims to Pema Karpo's reincarnation.

Since he received no answer, he went to visit the Tsang ruler in the Shigatse Dzong. Yet no solution was found. On the ferry over the Tsangpo river, on their way back, a quarrel started between the Shabdrung's retinue and the retinue of another lama. During the ensuing fight some of the lama's men drowned. Since the lama was a supporter of the Tsang ruler he brought the Shabdrung before court. Ngawang Namgyel was found guilty and ordered to pay a fine for the drowned men. With this sentence the Tsang ruler openly supported Pagsam Wangpo's claim to be the true reincarnation of Pema Karpo.

Since the Shabdrung refused to accept the sentence, the rumour started that his adversary was planning to kill him. At this stage the Shabdrung first started to consider fleeing to Bhutan.

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Section of a satin appliqué; total length approx. 600 cm.; loan from the National Museum, Paro
Pema Karpo was one of the greatest Drukpa scholars, himself the reincarnation of Tsangpa Gyare, the founder of the Drukpa school. The question concerning the reincarnation of Pema Karpo’s significantly influenced Bhutan's history.

Thangka, appliqué and embroidery; early 20th century; size: 428 x 307 cm.; loan from the National Museum, Paro
The Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel is seated in the center, on the left stands the first Bhutanese Je Khenpo*, Pekar Jugne (1604-1672), on the right, the first regent, Desi* Tenzin Drugye (1591-1656). In the second row from the top, to the left, is Naropa, the 10th century Indian master, and on the right, Tsangpa Gyare (1161-1211), founder of the Drukpa Kagyupa school of Buddhism. Directly beneath the Shabdrung is one of his incarnations. The person in the bottom row to the right is the Shabdrungs father, Tenpe Nyima (1567-1619).