Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal

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Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651) was a Tibetan lama who unified Bhutan. He is believed to have been reborn successively, and each of his successors is known as the Shabdrung.

He was a claimant to the position of Gyalwang Drukpa, the traditional leader of the Drukpa Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. However, the same claim was raised by the crown prince of Tsang, Pagsam Wangpo (1593-1641). Ngawang Namgyal was attacked time and again and some of his men were killed. Dealing with these attacks, he became experienced in warfare.

He realised that his life at Ralung, the headquarters of the Drukpa Kagyu, was not be safe. So, in 1616, at the age of 23, he travelled to Bhutan with his men. There, he received high respect and honour.

Reasons for the journey to Bhutan

Most of the historians, writing on Shabdrung describe that the main causes of Shabdrung's arrival to Bhutan was only to save his life. The following reasons have been suggested:

1. The conflict over the rival claims to be the Gyalwang Drukpa made his life at Ralung unsafe.

2. Losing his base at Ralung meant that Ngawang Namgyal needed to find a new home from which to promote his religious cause.

3. Ngawang Namgyal brought a number of artifacts with him from Ralung, and needed to find a home into to protect them.

4. Hoptso Lam, a Bhutanese leader, wanted to strengthen the Drukpa Kagyu locally. He decided that supporting Ngawang Namgyal would help toward this end. Therefore, he invited Ngawang Namgyal to come to Bhutan.

5. It is said that Ngawang Namgyal dreamt of a black raven flying southward into Bhutan and he took this as a supernatural sign.

6. It is said that he was invited by two deities in a dream to travel to Bhutan and rule there.

7. Ngawang Namgyal's ancestors had some renown in Bhutan.

After Ngawang Namgyal reached Bhutan, he had a relatively easy time establishing a unified state there. This was the beginning of Bhutan as an integrated polity.

Unification, invasions and suppression.

History of world says there are very less heroes who had toiled for the unification of their country. Among them Ashoka of India, Prithvi Narayan Shah of Nepal, Karl Marx of Russia are some who led the foundation of greater countries. Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal of Bhutan can be compared to these heroes in the work of unifying the country.

Gorkha tour (an old principality in Nepal)

Shabdrung was driven out of Tibet by the Tsang power. This attack never ended though he left Ralung, Tibet. He felt that his unification works seemed to be weak in Bhutan. So, his mind was diverted to the strong, simple and dedicated Gorkhalis. It was not only in this time that Gurkhalis entered Bhutan, but most the present Bhutanese of Nepali ethnicity had come Bhutan long before writes Devi Bhakta Lamitarey in his book “Dankindo Bhutan”. Bipin writes that Ram Shah contributed 40-50 families to Shabdrung having done agreement in the gold plates. These families were being led by Bishnu Thapa. In the agreement, Ram Shah declared, till the kingdom of Drukpa remains, you be there protecting the territory of Palden Drukpa and extending the calm relationship of Drukpa with Hindu. These people from Gorkha were settled from the east of Teesta to the western Thaga province (Kalimpong Dangsang area).3 On the same visit, it is said that he also visited Kathmandu and asked some artists and craftmen from Shiva Simha Malla. These people from Gorkha and Nepal (Kathmandu) had contributed in the construction of dzongs, temples, monastaries and protecting the sovereignty of the nation. It is true that most of the crafts, dzongs, temples and idols found in Bhutan are the contribution of hard, loyal and dedicated workers, the Bhutanese of Nepali origin. It was from that time the tradition of lighting thousand lamps in Swayambhunath by the Bhutanese lamas was inaugurated. The names of those lamas who rendered this service were listed already.

Tibetan Invasions

Tibetans first attacked in 1617, soon after Shabdrung entered Bhutan. It was because of the jealousy of the Tsang Deb over the popularity Shabdrung had been gainig in Bhutan. Though Shabdrung had entered Bhutan just before only, the unity of people exited there managed to repulse the invasion. In the spot the commander of the Tibetan Force was smashed, killed.

Having the first invasions successfully repulsed, Shabdrung had tied the friendship with Gorkha. As the situation of the country was politically deteriorating, he was in need of strong force which Ghorkhali shown. He asked fifty families to Ram Shah for its purpose which was already discussed.

In 1629 two incidents occurred in Bhutan simultaneously; the visit of two Portuguese and attack of Lam Kha Nga (Lhapas, Nenyingpas, Barawas, Kathogpas and Chazampas). The Jesuit priests Estevan Cacela and Joas Cabral, as Bikram writes, had given few guns, gun powder and one telescope to Shabdrung.

All these indicate that Shabdrung managed to overcome the opposition with the materials given by Jesuit priests. Tibetan invasions continued in these following years: 1634, 1639, 1644, 1647, 1648 and 1649. In 1644 combine force of Mongol and Tibet attacked Bhutan. This invasion was ordered by Gushri Khan of Mongolia. The invasion of Gushri Khan differs from historians, Sushil Manandhar mentioned the year as 1644 and Bikram mentioned that the attacked was made in 1643. These differences conclude that the time of invasion might be in December-January, 1643-44.

The millitia of Gushri Khan was led by Dalai Lama V, who was nominated as the spritiual and temporal head of the Tibet and proclaimed the Gelukpa or the followers of Yellow Hat Sect to be the national religion of the land of Tibet. This combined force was also repulsed by the Bhutanese force. The repulsion of the first invasion of Tibet of 1617 and the battle of Dunsa Drug Chhoeding itself, the popularity Shabdrung expanded. In that battle, he was said to have used his miracles to defeat his adversary. This incident proves, because of the people from Gorkha, Shabdrung’s supremacy was gained in Bhutan as well as in neighbouring countries.

In the Tibetan reverse in 1639 led by Pagsam Wangpo, second cousin of Dalai Lama V, Bhutanese were able to defeat the force. The defeat of Tibetan established Shabdrung's strong supremacy in Bhutan. In this attacked also, people from Gorkha and Kathmandu, who were sent there, rendered loyal service to the country for the protection of sovereignty as directed by Ram Shah during their departure.

All these encouraged Bhutanese to establish a sovereign and independent nation. From that time onwards Bhutanese dignity was lightened as the result of Bhutanese unity and unity among Hinduism and Buddhism.


After the successful repulsion of first Tibetan invasion of 1617, Shabdrung left for visit to Tango Monastery in upper Thimphu valley. He was still anxious that Tsang Deb might be preparing for attack. He offerred prayer to Gurdian deities and offered secred rituals which he thought would overcome the Tsang Deb. Soon he heard the news that Tsang Deb and his wife both died. It was the exact time historians focused that Shabdrung wrote his famous poem ‘Ngachudrugma’. It is the collection of 16-line poetry, which revels the amazing extent of his power and greatness. Bikramjit writes, the poem was composed during 1639, which seems to be incorrect as Shabdrung in that time was completely busy to prepare the structure of Choesi, which was formally announced in 1651 AD. The English version of the poem ‘Ngachudrugma’ is produced below:

I turn the wheel of the two laws- Temporal and Spiritual.
I am the supreme refuge of all.
I am the spiritual ruler of glorious Drukpa.
I am the subduer of those who seek to falsify the teaching of Drukpa school.
I set the seal of protection of all writings like the Goddess of learning.
I am the secred source of moral precept.
I am the origin of unlimited thoughts.
I confound those with false view.
I am the fountain head of the power of Debate.
Where is the man who never tremble before me?
I annihilate the hordes of evil beings.
Where is the strong man that can bear up against my power?
I am mighty in speeches that expands religion.
I am wise in all science.
I am the divine manifestation spoken of by the superior ones and
I am the destroyer of false incarnations.

It can be said to be his fate that after his prayer to the guardian deities in Bhutan, both Tsang Deb and his wife died in Tibet. When he heard the news of Tsang Deb’s death, Shabdrung saw accurate time to overflow his power and miracles so that he could gain more popularity and confidence in Bhutan. His real words of Ngachudrugma are in Dzongkha.