The history of Bhutan | Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel | The unification of the state

The unification of the state

At the beginning of the 17th century the Drukpa Kagyupa school of Buddhism was the most powerful political force in Bhutan. Despite this fact the old local principalities had not been unified to one state. It was up to the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel to do it.

The unification of Bhutan was a tedious and difficult process. The Shabdrung was able to accomplish a great deal because of his charisma as scholarly monk, as well as through his skills as politician and administrator.

Gaining control of the Paro valley

It is extremely revealing to observe the process by which the Shabdrung gained control of the Paro valley, since this process must have been repeated many times during the unification of the state.



In 1645 the old Drukpa family of Humrel in Paro presented the Shabdrung their Dzong*. In various texts it states that, in compensation for their Dzong, the Shabdrung exempted the Humrel family from all taxes and compulsory labour (ula), wherever they decided to settle.

A document dated 1646, with the signature of the Shabdrung, details the privileges granted to a noble family after they had recognised the Shabdrung's power. First he points out the ties between the Drukpas of Ralung and this family, then he describes the privileges: on all their journeys they would have free lodging, drinks, riding horses and carriage for their luggage. Additionally they would also be exempt from all taxes and compulsory labour.

But it wasn't always possible for the Shabdrung to peacefully gain sovereignty over the land.

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The full name of the Paro Dzong* is »Rinpung Dzong«, which means »fortress of the heap of jewels«.
The first building was erected by the Humrel Drukpa family. In 1645 they handed it over to the Shabdrung, who made significant extensions. The new building was inaugurated by 1646.
Photo by Guy van Strydonck

Written document, paper; 17th century;
Pen-case (ngudro), iron, gold and silver applications; L: 37 cm.;
Seal, iron, silver; L: 6,5 cm.; loan from the National Museum, Paro
The text, in cursive, is sealed with six seals and written on hand-made paper. The document is a list of boxes and pieces of luggage that were sent with the move of the head-abbot and his monks from their summer residence in Thimphu to their winter residence in Punakha. The creation of the Bhutanese state was fundamentally influenced by the fact that the administration of the realm was based on a system of writing.