Ngawang Namgyal

Zhabdrung in a nineteenth century painting

Ngawang Namgyal (later granted the honorific Zhabdrung Rinpoche, approximately at whose feet one submits) (Tibetan: ཞབས་དྲུང་ངག་དབང་རྣམ་རྒྱལ་, Wylie: zhabs drung ngag dbang rnam rgyal ; alternate spellings include Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel; 1594–1651) was a Tibetan Buddhist lama and the unifier of Bhutan as a nation-state. In addition to unifying the various warring fiefdoms for the first time in the 1630s, he also sought to create a distinct Bhutanese cultural identity separate from the Tibetan culture from which it was derived.

Birth and enthronement at Ralung

Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal was born at Ralung Monastery, Tibet as the son of the Drukpa lineage-holder Mipham Tenpa'i Nyima (Wylie: 'brug pa mi pham bstan pa'i nyi ma ) (1567–1619), and Sönam Pelgyi Butri (Wylie: bsod nams dpal gyi bu khrid ), daughter of the ruler of Kyishö (Wylie: sde pa skyid shod pa ) in Tibet.[1] On his father's side Ngawang Namgyal descended from the family line of Tsangpa Gyare (1161–1211), the founder of the Drukpa Lineage.

In his youth Ngawang Namgyal was enthroned as the 18th Drukpa or throne-holder and "hereditary prince" of the traditional Drukpa seat and estate of Ralung (Wylie: rwa lung ) and recognized there as the immediate reincarnation of the 4th Drukchen,[nb 1] the "Omniscient" Kunkhyen Pema Karpo (Wylie: kun mkhyen pad ma dkar po , 1527–1592).

His recognition and enthronement at Ralung as the Drukpa incarnation was however opposed by Lhatsewa Ngawang Zangpo, an influential follower of Drukpa Pema Karpo, who promoted the recognition of a rival candidate, Gyalwang Pagsam Wangpo, an illegitimate son of the Chongje Depa, Ngawang Sönam Dragpa, as the Gyalwang Drukpa incarnation. Lhatsewa and supporters of the Chongje Depa conducted an enthronement ceremony of Pagsam Wangpo as the incarnation of Künkhyen Pema Karpo and Gyalwang Drukpa at Tashi Thongmen monastery. The Chongje Depa, then persuaded the Tsang Desi (or Depa Tsangpa), the most powerful ruler in Tibet and patron of the rival Karma Kagyu sect, to support the recognition of Pagsam Wangpo as Gyalwang Drukpa and incarnation of Künkhyen Pema Karpo. By 1612 the Tsang Desi, Karma Phuntsok Namgyal (Wylie: Kar-ma Phun-tshogs Rnam-rgyal ) had gained control over all of Ü-Tsang.

For a time Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal continued to live at the main Drukpa seat of Ralung, as irrespective of who was entitled to be considered as the true incarnation of Kunkhyen Pema Karpo, Ngawang Namgyal was the main Drukpa hereditary lineage–holder, and legitimate throne-holder at Ralung Monastery, the traditional seat of the Drukpa Lineage.

From Tibet to Bhutan

However following a misunderstanding Shabdrung Rinpoche and his party had with an important Karma Kagyu lama, Pawo Tsugla Gyatsho [1568–1630], the Tsang Desi demanded compensation be paid and that the sacred religious relics of Ralung such as the Rangjung Kharsapani should be surrendered to him so they could be given to the rival Gyalwang Drukpa incarnate Gyalwa Pagsam Wangpo.

The Tsang Desi prepared to send covert armed guards to arrest Shabdrung Rinpoche and enforce his demands. In 1616 facing arrest, and following visions (in which it is said that the chief guardian deities of Bhutan offered him a home) Shabdrung Ngawang Namgayal left Tibet to establish a new base in western Bhutan, founding Cheri Monastery at the head of Thimphu valley.

In 1629 he built Semtokha Dzong at the entrance to Thimphu valley. From this dzong he could exert control over traffic between the powerful Paro valley to the west and Trongsa valley to the east.

Unification of Bhutan

He consolidated control over western Bhutan subduing rivals belonging to the Lhapa, a branch of the Drikung Kagyu sect which had built some of the original dzongs in Bhutan, including Punakha Dzong in 1637-38. The Drukpa Kagyu, the Lhapa Kagyu and the Nenyingpa had all controlled parts of western Bhutan since the 12th century. Later he would conquer and unify all of Bhutan, but would allow the ancient Nyingma sect to continue in central and eastern Bhutan (today the Nyingma comprise approximately 30% of Bhutan's monks even though they are privately funded while the Southern Drukpa Kagyu is supported as the established state religion of Bhutan).

In 1627, the first European visitors to Bhutan (the Portuguese Jesuits Estevao Cacella and João Cabral) found the Shabdrung to be a compassionate and intelligent host, of high energy and fond of art and writing. In keeping with his position as a high lama he was also meditative and had just completed a three-year silent retreat. He was proud to have the Jesuits as guests of his court and was reluctant to grant them permission to leave and offered to support their proselytizing efforts with manpower and church-building funds, but they pressed on to Tibet in search of the apostate church said to be isolated in the heart of central Asia (cf. Nestorian Stele).

In 1634, in the Battle of Five Lamas Ngawang Namgyal prevailed over the Tibetan and Bhutanese forces allied against him and was the first to unite Bhutan into a single country.

Dual system of government

Zhabdrung also established the distinctive dual system of government under the Tsa Yig legal code, by which control of the country was shared between a spiritual leader (the Je Khenpo) to preside over the religious institutions and an administrative leader (the Druk Desi) as head of secular affairs, a policy which exists in modified form to this day.

Relations with Ladakh

Singye Namgyal, who ruled Ladakh from 1616–1623 and 1624–1642, was a devotee of the Ralung lineage of the Drukpa school. Like Bhutan, Ladakh then had differences with the new Gaden Photrang government of Tibet established by the 5th Dalai Lama which attempted to annex Ladakh[2] An invitation was sent to Bhutan requesting Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal to become the state priest. As Shabdrung was occupied confronting an invasion from Tibet and consolidating the new Bhutanese state, he sent Choje Mukzinpa as his representative to the court of Ladakh.[3] Several religious estates were offered to the Bhutanese in present-day Ladakh Zangskar and western Tibet ( Ngaris skorsum ) which was then part of Ladakh. One of them, Tagna or "Tiger's Nose" monastery established by Choje Mukzinpa, became the main seat of the Southern Drukpa Kagyu tradition in Ladakh. This monastery still preserves artifacts and documents related to Bhutan — some of them said to have been gifted by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal.[4]


Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal died in 1651, and power effectively passed to the penlops (local governors) instead of to a successor Shabdrung. In order to forestall a dynastic struggle and a return to warlordism, they conspired to keep the death of the Zhabdrung secret for 54 years. During this time they issued orders in his name, explaining that he was on an extended silent retreat.

The passing of the Zhabdrung is modernly celebrated as a Bhutanese national holiday, falling on the 3rd month, 10th day of the Bhutanese calendar.[5][6]


  1. Depending on whether or not Tsangpa Gyare is enumerated in the list of Gyalwang Drukpa incarnations, Kunkhyen Pema Karpo is either the fourth or the fifth Drukchen, and Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal or Pagsam Wangpo counted as the fifth or sixth. Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal's biography and some other Bhutanese & Ralung sources do not enumerate Tsangpa Gyare as the first Drukchen incarnation but instead count Gyalwang Je Kunga Paljor (1428-1476) as the first.


  1. Dorji & Kinga (2008). p. 3
  2. Dorji & Kinga (2008) p. 171.
  3. Dargey & Sørensen (2008) p. 264
  4. Dargey & Sørensen (2008) n.188, p. 140–141.
  5. "Holidays of Bhutan Spring/Summer". Far Flung Places & Bhutan Tourism Corporation. 2011-07-03. Retrieved 2011-07-26.
  6. "Public Holidays for the year 2011". Royal Civil Service Commission, Government of Bhutan. 2011-04-26. Retrieved 2011-07-26.


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