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John A. Ardussi*


One of the most important threads of ongoing research in

Bhutanese history is the documentation of the origin and

historical interrelationships among its regional elite families.

For most of its history, Bhutan has been characterized by

relatively decentralized government, a geographically complex land of fragmented ecosystems in which such families shared habitat and competed for local dominance (the term “ruled” is probably too strong a generalization). The ’Brug-pa theocracy which began during the 17th century was the first successful attempt to impose national unity upon a constellation of local self-governing units of great variety, which in some cases trace their ancestry back as far as the 8th century AD. Even under the Zhabs-drung Rin-po-che and his successors, local elite families strongly influenced the direction of state policies. Remnants of the earlier era of decentralized local government are found in the persistence of old socio- geographic names ii including, perhaps, an archaic name for Bhutan itself: Lho (Mon) Kha-bzhi (The Southern [Mon] Country of Four Approaches). iii From its inception in 1625,iv the Zhabs-drung's transplanted ecclesiastic establishment, sought to defend its Bhutanese properties against external enemies and to establish a framework for local law and order based upon Buddhist *John A. Ardussi is a member of the research team Equipe sur I'aire et I'environment tibetan, (Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique, Paris). He wrote his doctorate thesis on The History of Bhutan before 1763, and many articles on Bhutan. He is an aeronautical engineer at ELDEC Corporation, USA and is presently completing an annotated translation of the biography of the 4th Druk Desi Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye (1638-96) principles. The support cadre that administered this enterprise consisted initially of monks who came with him from Tibet and local leaders from prominent families.

However, relations among these families were not always harmonious. Mediation of local family disputes had been a common activity of missionary lamas from Tibet, whose advent over the centuries resulted in persistent ties between a particular Tibetan monastery and its Bhutanese outposts.

But the geographic and cultural distance from Tibet was significant, and ties were often loose. Many Tibetan lamas took local wives and settled permanently in Bhutan. The headship of their local family hermitage was passed down among descendants. As Aris has shown, this process often resulted in the supplanting of older layers of ruling families with new ones of a quasi-ecclesiastic character headed by men with such titles as zhal-ngo and chos-rje.v The purpose of this paper is to describe one such case, that of ’Obs-mtsho, a family with a monastic establishment in the vast district known today as Goen (dGon-yul), in the mountains northwest of Punakha in western Bhutan. The history of the rise to prominence and vicissitudes of the house of dGon ’Obs-mtsho during the 13th - 20th centuries offers important insight into the sociology of Bhutan. It also exemplifies changing patterns of competition among landed Bhutanese gentry families for positions of power within the emerging Bhutanese state.

The Early History of dGon ’Obs-mtshovi

In common with many other elite family lines of Bhutan, the ’Obs-mtsho people trace their ancestry to a renowned lineage of ancient Tibet, in this case to the lDan-ma clan (rus) of eastern Tibet.vii The legendary ancestral progenitor was a soldier named lDe-ma lDe-ma, who is said to have guarded the Jo-bo image of the Buddha as it was to Tibet brought from China in the train of princess Wen-cheng, Chinese bride of king Srong-btsan-sgam-po. The next cultural hero in this lineage was the legendary scholar Lo-tsa-ba lDan-ma rTsemang associated in the Padma-thang-yig and the bKa’-thangsde-lnga with Padma Sambhava and canonical translation activity of 8th century Tibet.viii Traditions handed down in Tibetan and Bhutanese gter-ma texts connect him with various works of early scholarship, and by the 16 th century he had become enshrined as an early figure in an important Bhutanese incarnation lineage (’khrungs rabs) of the Padma Gling-pa tradition.ix Reputed for his skill in calligraphy, the alleged inventor of Bhutanese cursive script,x manuscripts in his original hand were reportedly still to be seen in Tibet during the early 19th century,xi and in Bhutan during the 20th.xii By the 13th century, various strands of lDan-ma people had migrated to gTsang, such as those who became ministers of Sa-skya and the “kings” of Gyantse.xiii But more than one hundred years before the beginning of Sa-skya hegemony another branch of the lDan-ma had established itself in the Myang sTod district of gTsang, at a place called rTa-thang (“Plain of Horses”). There, a teacher by the name dPal-ldan Shes-rab became known for his religious practice and acquired the epithet dGe-bshes rTa-thang-pa. It was from him that gTsang-pa rGya-ras (1161-1211), founder of the ’Brug-pa sect, took his preliminary monastic vows. dGe-bshes rTathang-pa’s own son Nor-bu dPal-ldan later became a student of gTsang-pa rGya-ras. In his early youth, Nor-bu dPal-ldan meditated at a place called sGo-mo gter-khung, noted for its thermal springs and sulfurous geysers, and which was also the habitation of a local deity named dGe-bsnyen chen-po.xiv Through his great yogic powers he subdued this deity, who thereupon promised to become a protector of Buddhism and of Nor-bu dPal-ldan's successors.xv From these accomplishments this yogin became known as Grub-thob gTer-khung-pa (~ gTer-khungs-pa).

After some years had passed, Grub-thob gTer-khung-pa went before his guru and an assemblage of monks at Rwa-lung, where gTsang-pa rGya-ras is recorded to have foretold, My son, your field for converting disciples is in the South. Hence go there, and though groups of the faithful will come to you, you must take charge, for great benefit will accrue to sentient beings.xvi In this way, gTsang-pa rGya-ras dispatched him to seek his spiritual fortune in the southern wilderness of what would become the state of Bhutan.xvii On his way he founded a hermitage in Tibet called dPal-sdings, returned briefly to Rwalung for the funeral ceremony of gTsang-pa rGya-ras, and then left on his mission to the south. Along the way, he was invited to visit places known as ’Brog Tsha-yul and bDe-chenchos-sdings, then entered the vast mountainous districts of La-yag and dGon-yul in what is now northern Bhutan. In about AD 1212-13, he established a bla-brang at ’Obs-mtsho chos-sdings, not far from what is now Gasa (mGar-sa) rDzong in the administrative district of Goenkhatoe (dGon-khastod).xviii He then returned to Tibet where his uncle dPal-ldanrgyal-po still resided. There he installed the latter’s younger grandson dPal-ldan-rdo-rje as head of the local gDan-sa (presumably dPal-sdings). xix He also petitioned gTsang-pa rGya-ras’s successor at Rwa-lung, Dar-ma Seng-ge (1177/8for permission to withdraw the elder grandson Bla-ma dBon from the monk body at Rwa-lung and install him as head of the ’Obs-mtsho gDan-sa.xx The connection between ’Obs-mtsho and Dar-ma Seng-ge is confirmed by a note in the latter’s brief but contemporary rnam-thar in the biographical collection entitled Rwa-lung dkar-brgyud gser-’phreng, which mentions a certain dGe-bshes ’Obs-mtsho-pa as one of his students. xxi From this point until events of the 17th century, the details in our sources become somewhat sketchy. For several generations we know only the names of the monastic heads and a few bare facts about their deeds. The initial intent seems to have been to maintain a unified administration of the two religious centers of dPal-sdings in gTsang and ’Obsmtsho in Bhutan. But these ties gradually loosened and within one or two generations the two monasteries became virtually independent. It appears that succession at ’Obsmtsho initially followed the familiar ‘uncle - nephew’ pattern.

During these centuries, the founder’s descendants and relatives intermarried locally, increased the lands under their possession and systematically assumed the title of chos-rje.

Then, during the 15th century, the ninth incumbent Seng-gergyal-mtshan took a wife in order to preserve the family line, after which the rule of celibacy seems to have been preserved only intermittently.

’Obs-mtsho itself was expanded over time, and affiliated hermitages were built in nearby districts. A noted lha-khang at ’Obs-mtsho was constructed by the 4th abbot bSam-gtan Byang-chub. A later split in the gDan-sa resulted in the founding of a monastery named Yon-tan rDzong with its own chos-rje. The most important expansion, however, was a branch hermitage built near the summit of rTsig-ri, a mountain peak two days to the southeast and six hour’s trekking distance north of Punakha. During the 14th or early 15th century, this site was given to the 7th abbot of ’Obsmtsho, Chos-rje ’Jam-dbyangs bSod-nams-rgyal-po, by a prominent lord of the Punakha region named sLob-dpon rGyal-mtshan rDo-rje whom he had cured of sickness.

Serving initially as a winter residence, this dramatic mountain-top site was named rNam-rgyal-rtse. A lha-khang of that name was created at the very summit as a residence for dam-can sGo-mo, protective deity of dGon-yul and the northern Punakha valley (and of the followers of gTer-khungpa). xxii In the course of time, the monastery on the ridge just below rNam-rgyal-rtse lha-khang was expanded into the important monastic complex of Se’u-la (also spelled bSe’u-la), which today contains some of Bhutan’s finest art treasures of the 17th - 19th centuries.xxiii During the same era (although we have no direct testimony for the precise date), a branch residence for lay relatives of the ’Obs-mtsho chos-rje was established in the hamlet of Amorimu, located below the crest of a ridge several miles northwest of Se’u-la.

Coupled with this lineage’s successful establishment in Bhutan were its religious ties maintained with the parent Rwa-lung monastery in Tibet. Over the centuries, generations of youths from throughout the Bhutanese southlands were sent to this monastery to receive formal tuition and exposure to the larger universe of Buddhist scholarship and practice.

The ’Obs-mtsho families dutifully participated in this tradition. When the future Rwa-lung hierarch Ye-shes Rinchen (1364-1413) was born to a Bhutanese mother at Wangri-kha, near ’Obs-mtsho, it was ’Obs-mtsho Chos-rje ’Jamdbyangs bSod-nam rGyal-po who accepted him as a student for several years, before conducting him to Rwa-lung for ordination.xxiv Several generations later, we know that the ’Obs-mtsho chos-rje Nam-mkha’ dPal-bzang married a sister (lcam) of the ’Brug-pa hierarch rGyal-dbang Kun-dga’ dPalbyor (1428-1476), and that their son rJe-btsun Grags-pa Rinpo-che was sent to study at Rwa-lung monastery, before his installation as head of ’Obs-mtsho.xxv

Parallels with Pha-jo ’Brug-sgom-zhig-po

In order to see the history of the ’Obs-mtsho establishment in better perspective, and before following the story into the modern era, it is useful to compare its history with that of another lineage of remarkably similar origin. A few years after grub-thob gTer-khung-pa, a second Tibetan devotee of gTsang-pa rGya-ras destined for fame in Bhutan came to Rwa-lung, only to discover that his guru-to-be had just died.

Pha-jo ’Brug-sgom-zhig-po (1179?-1245?) xxvi was accepted as a student by the new Rwa-lung hierarch Dar-ma Seng-ge. But

before his death, gTsang-pa rGya-ras had foretold his coming:

There will come from Khams a small child, but I will not meet him. You should accept him and send him to the Valleys of the South where the feet of U-rgyan mKhan-po Padma-’byung-gnas have trod. There he will bring great benefit to the teachings of the Buddha.xxvii There are strong mythic elements to the life stories of these two ’Brug-pa pioneers, as one might expect given that the descriptions we have of them date from more recent centuries.xxviii Even so, it is useful to compare their careers and overlapping Bhutanese legacies, which had little in common beyond a similar inception. From the time when he must have first entered Bhutan in about AD 1225 Pha-jo was active mainly in the valley settlements of the far west, at Paro and Thimphu. But in contrast with the quiet life at ’Obsmtsho, Pha-jo’s career was tempestuous. gTer-khung-pa emerges from our sources as a reclusive yogi by temperament, fond of mountain retreats, whereas Pha-jo was a combative sorcerer with a sizable family. His reputed proficiency in magic and illusion won students and many patrons, as did his encouragement for their rebellion against the carrying tax (’u-la) and other excessive tithes imposed coercively by the local chief lama of the Lha-pa or Lha-nangpa sect, then well established in the area.xxix Possessed of a galvanic personality not unlike the Zhabs-drung Rin-po-che who battled the Lha-pa four hundred years later, his actions in support of the ’Brug-pa faith polarized the valley settlements, which led to his poisoning and death. So it is Pha-jo, and not Grub-thob gTer-khung-pa of ’Obs-mtsho, whom the Bhutanese regard today as having first introduced the ’Brug-pa teachings to Bhutan.xxx Late in life Pha-jo parceled out his acquired territories among four sons, to whom numerous prominent Bhutanese chos-rje families of later centuries trace their ancestry. One of these sons, dBang-phyug, was given control of land in the Thed (Punakha) district and to the north in dGon-yul, which must have soon brought him and his descendants into contact with the family of the ’Obs-mtsho chos-rje.xxxi But being fellow ’Brug-pa sectarians, the relationship which developed between ’Obs-mtsho and Pha-jo’s successors in the area seems to have been at least outwardly amicable. A key factor must have been their mutual, enduring tie to Rwa-lung monastery.

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