The history of Bhutan | Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel | The life of the Shabdrung | At the end of the road

The end of the road

Towards the end of his life, the Shabdrung devoted himself to the creation of 100 000 Tsatsa, miniature images moulded in clay, for each of the 115 main deities of the Drukpa school. Since this work took up more and more of his time, he delegated some of his power to the choir master Tenzin Drugye and the chamberlain Damchö Gyeltshen, but the final decisions always remained his.


On the tenth day of the third month of the Year of the Iron-Rabbit (1651), the Shabdrung began a strict seclusion in the Punakha Dzong, from which he never reappeared. He ordered his entourage to keep his death secret for twelve years. Circumstances were such that the twelve years turned into fifty.

None of his supporters in Bhutan suspected anything. It was quite normal for high lamas to go into meditation for many years; furthermore their longevity was believed to exceed that of normal people. This belief in miracles, and the fact that occasionally orders were given in his name, were enough to silence any doubts that the Shabdrung may not be alive. It was only in 1701, that the death of the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel was officially announced.

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The Shabdrung, bronze with remains of gilding; 17th century; H: 52 cm.; loan from a private collection.
This unusually large bronze statue of the unifier of the state on the lotus throne wears a hat that is typical for the Drukpa Kagyupa school and the clothes of a monk. The base is decorated with lotus flowers and mythological animals. His right hand shows the symbolic sign for touching the earth, and in his left holds a vase with the elixir of long life.

The mortal remains of the Shabdrung are kept in a temple in Punakha Dzong. Only three people have access to this room: the King, the head-abbot, and the monk who looks after the body.