A dark era

The Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel had brought all of Western Bhutan under his rule. A few years after his death, a military campaign also integrated Central and East Bhutan into the centrally administered state.

Ngawang Namgyel himself still held the two central posts of his system of government, the Je Khenpo* and the Desi*, in personal union. But immediately after his death, the two power bases were separated and the posts filled with independent heads. The Shabdrung himself still appointed his closest clerical friends to these key positions. In his blood relation Tenzin Rabgye (1638-1696), he saw his direct successor. He always kept him close to himself and saw to his religious education.

As long as the Shabdrung's relatives and friends ruled, his work was continued and the central power consolidated. But after that Tenzin Rabgye had died without a son of his own, the traditional, blood related line of heritage of the Gya* family came to an end.

The system of government provided that all the desi* - later on 55 all in all - would be suggested by the Shabdrung's successors. But it was specifically this question of the lawful successors of the founder of the state which was to plunge Bhutan into a long line of civil wars. Rivalling desi*, the lords of the dzongs and old-established noble families waged bitter struggles for power with one another.

A time of peace and quiet lasted only a few decades when, under Sherab Wangchuck (1697-1765), the Shabdrung's teaching of rebirths was officially accepted. Following this teaching, the founder of the state embodied himself in threefold, in the aspects of speech, body and mind. The line of reincarnation of the mind was the most important one.


But even these officially recognised rebirths could not take the Shabrung's position; too many people were fighting for his inheritance: the heads of the dzongs, continuously gaining in power, the desi* himself, but also certain monks, who used thoroughly profane means to enforce their claims to power. Bhutan was marked by confusing, often war-like conditions. High taxes rendered the famers' lives very difficult.

These dark times were to carry on until the second half of the 19th century when the Pönlop of Tongsa, Jigme Namgyel (1825-1881), established himself as Bhutan's strong man.

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Shabdrung Jigme Dorje (1905-1931) was the sixth rebirth of the Shabdrung's aspect of the mind. He was the last rebirth of the Shabdrung who was appointed Bhutan's head abbot.
Photo by F. M. Bailey, 1927; loan from the British Library

Chogley Yeshey Ngodrup (1851-1917) was the fifth rebirth of the Shabdrung's aspect of speech. He was the 57th and last secular ruler before the establishment of the monarchy. From 1915 until his death in 1917 he also functioned as Bhutan's 53rd head abbot.
Photo by J. C. White, 1905; loan from a private collection

Thangka, cloth applique and silk embroidery; 19th century; H: 270 cm; loan from the National Museums & Galleries on Merseyside, Liverpool
Tenzin Rabgye was a confidant of the Shabdrung's, which was a reason the Shabdrung decided on him as his successor. When the Shabdrung entered his last meditation, he gave the following order: »As soon as he shows the necessary maturity, hand over to him the responsibility for all the important and unimportant monastic affairs.«
When Tenzin Rabgye took over his office as fourth desi*, he left the monastic community to get married and continue the family line