The history of Bhutan | Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel | The cultural heritage | The dual system of government

The dual system of government

The Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel was the head of a theocratic state; both the religious and secular power were in his hands. Before retreating into a long meditation shortly before his death in the late 1640s, he wanted to set up a strong government which could replace him effectively. The structures set in by the Shabdrung for the administration of religious and secular affairs completely followed the principles of monastic organisation.


The religious affairs (chö*) were looked after by the Je Khenpo, the head abbot of the country. He supervised the purity of the teachings and their interpretation, looked after the monks and ensured discipline. Political affairs (si) were handed over to the Desi, who also administered the wealth and property of the monk-body. This form of government, with two heads who were responsible for different areas, was called chösi* or chösi nyiden* (dual system of government).

All of the powerful positions of the religious and secular fields were filled either with monks or with lay-people who took monastic vows during their times of office. With great diplomatic skill the Shabdrung chose members of those groups for important positions, whose support he needed for the consolidation of his power.


The structure of the administration

Amongst the most important posts in the country was that of the chief of protocol (drönyer), who was also the chief justice, and of minister (kalön), who passed on the orders of the Shabdrung to the other civil servants.

The country was divided into three large regions - Tongsa, Paro and Dagana -, each of which was headed by a head lama* (pchila) or governor (pönlop). When the jurisdiction of a pönlop was too big, drungpas served as deputies in some areas. Another post of importance was that of chief of the dzong (dzongpön). The first dzongpöns were those of Punakha, Thimphu and Wangdi Phodrang. At a lower level there were the »elders« (gup), who looked after several villages and transmitted orders from the dzong to the people.

This structure of government and administration remained intact until the foundation of the monarchy in 1907. With only slight changes and additions, the posts, as set in by the Shabdrung, have been retained in the present structure of government.

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Excerpt from a thangka, applique and embroidery; early 20th century; size: 428 cm x 307 cm; loan from the National Museum, Paro
Tenzin Drugye (1591-1656), a confidante of the Shabdrung's, was the first secular ruler of Bhutan.

Excerpt from a thangka, applique and embroidery; early 20th century; size: 428 cm x 307 cm; loan from the National Museum, Paro
The monk Pekar Jugne (1604-1672) was the first to be entrusted by the Shabdrung with the post of Bhutan's head abbot.

Je Jamyang Gyeltsen, bronze, fire-gilding; 18th century, size: 44 cm x 27 cm x 20 cm; loan from the National Museum of Bhutan
Je Jamyang Gyeltsen lived from 1742 until 1803. He was Bhutan's 18th head abbot. The cleric is represented in the seating position of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas* (vajraparyanka), the hands show the gesture of the »Wheel of Teaching« (dharmacakra mudra). On his head he wears the five-leaved Buddha crown and the hair knot of the tathagatas, as are worn during tantric rites.

Ngawang Trinle Lhundrup was Bhutan's 67th Je Khenpo, from 1971 to 1987. The mural behind him shows the founder of the dual system of government, the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel.
Photo by Françoise Pommaret

Calendar sheet, paper print; size: 72 cm x 45 cm; loan from the Museum für Völkerkunde, Wien
Calendars with pictures of the present Je Khenpo can be found hanging in many houses.