Conflict between the Shabdrung and Kings
Times and again we are informed that the institution of the Zhabs-drung rule came to an end with the establishment of the dynastic rule in 1907. However, Jigs-med Dorji (1905-1931), born in Tawang region, came to be indentified with the last official incarnation of the Zhabs-drung. Charles-Bell mentions in his Confidential Report of Bhutan in 1910: “Capt. Kenddey and myself visited the Ta-lo monastery, seat of the Dharmaraja, on 13.1.1910. I hear that the new Dharmaraja, at present aged six years, will shortly be conducted to Bhutan”. It appears that Jigs-med Dorji was conducted to Bhutan around 1920 along with his ambitious mother, brother and followers. The Zhabs-drung’s mother appeared to be unhappy about the limited role of the Zhabs-drung in the administration of the country. It is claimed that she was instrumental in getting certain grazing permits issued to the frontier pastoralists of Tawang by the Zhabs-drung, which created a lot of problems for the King vis-à-vis the Kashang (the cabinet) and the Dalai Lama from Lhasa. His brother has gone to India to solicit support from the Indian nationalist leader, M. K. Gandhi, in favour of the Zhabs-drung against the Maharaja, a step which ultimately ended in the Zhabs-drung’s death.
F.M Bailey, the Political Officer in Sikkim, writes in his confidential letter to the Government of India on the eve of the installation of the second Brung-rgyalpo : “On the 13th (March, 1927) we paid a call on His Highness and also on Shabdrung Rimpoche… His present incarnation is 22years old, the same age of the Maharaja. He was born in a village near Tawang in Tibet. He was shy and evidently unaccustomed to see strangers. On the 14th March at day break His Highness accompanied by the Dharma Raja went to the tomb of the first Dharma Raja… In the centre the Dharma Raja took his seat and on his left two high Lamas….We then took leave from the Dharma Raja”. It was noted by the British Government that (a) the importance of the Dharma Raja had not suffered by the delay in reincarnation and (b) it was of interest that the ceremonial act by which the Maharaja was regarded as having established his succession was the putting on, in the presence of the Dharma Raja, of a Silk scarf from the tomb of the first Dharma Raja.
It appears that this new Dharma Raja was an ambitious man, who was all set for staking his claim for his lost glory. The Bhutan Agent informs F. M. Bailey on October, 2, 1931 that the main grievances of the Zhabs-drung were having “no power whatsoever and any large tract of lands in Bhutan to call his own.” Col. Weir visited Bhutan in April, 1931 to confer the insignia of the K.C.I.E. to the Maharaja and “was not able to see the incarnation of the Shabdrung Rimpoche…(who) was in meditation in a hill-top monastery some 6 miles away from Punakha.” The presence of the Zhabs-drung during the ceremony of insignia presentation had not been recorded. That was exactly the time he was seriously planning his strategy to gain power. The Indian Press reported that a brother of ‘Bhutan King’ along with his two associates met Mahatma Gandhi on May 5, 1931 at Borsad, Gujarat, India and presented certain gifts on behalf of their mentor. On inquiry it was found that the claimed brother of the ‘Bhutan King’ was, in fact, Chokshi Gyaltsen, a brother of Jigmed Dorji, the Zhabs-drung. Choksi was sent by his brother to solicit Gandhi’s” necessary help for the restoration of his power”. He had taken with himself as presents for Gandhi 11 different kinds of cloths, 2 pantos, 2 limepots and 1 pankhab (apron) made of silk. He presented the articles to Gandhi and informed him that the Zhabs-drung would himself meet Gandhi and make friendship. It is claimed that in reply Mahatma Gandhi and gave his visitor a letter in Hindi, which was translated into Tibetan in some office in Calcutta and subsequently delivered to the Zhabs-drung. It is also reported the Zhabs-drung had sent his men to find out whether the Panchen Lama had come to Tibet from Peking along with the Chinese soldiers. In case it was true, he intended to bring the Chinese soldiers in Bhutan to regain for himself the temporal powers.
The British and the Maharaja became panicky on this development and quickly swung into action. In a letter to the Foreign Secretary on October, 5, 1931, Weir assessed the situation and proposed a series of action:
“It must be realized that His Highness’s position, although strong, is not sufficiently so to enable him to take drastic action against the Shabdrung. The letter is very highly revered throughout Bhutan and any drastic action might result in revulsion of popular feeling against the Maharaja.
(a) His Highness should call the Shabdrung’s brother to his head-quarters and personally question his visit to Mr. Gandhi. If politically possible, it is desirable that he should be punished in some way…
(b) The Maharaja should pacify the Shab-drung by means of reasonable concessions, but such concessions should not go so far as to make it possible for them to be interpreted as weakness.
(c) It is possible that Shabdrung may try to leave Bhutan for Tibet. This is most undesirable, as he might be able to enlist the Dalai Lama’s sympathy against the British Government, and could also continue his journey to china. The Maharaja is being urged to prevent this, and use force, if necessary…The great importance of this is being impressed on him.
(d) It is likely that the Shabdrung will try to enter India. His Highness is being asked to prevent him from doing so, if possible…it will be dangerous for the Maharaja’s position to use any extreme measures. If the Shabdrung does leave Bhutan….that he and his followers will under no circumstances he permitted to re-enter the country. He is likely to have much money, and it is hoped that his will render his movements more amenable to supervision by the Government of India.”
Most of the above proposals were carried through. The Zhabs-drung was confined to Ta-lo monastery under a strict watch. His brother and his associates were closely interrogated by the Maharaja himself and they provided him with all the details. By the end of October, 1931, an unsubstantiated rumour spread that the Zhabs-drung had fled from his confinement. The Political Officer was requested to help the Maharaja by arresting the Zhabs-drung in case the latter entered the British territory. Armed forces were sent to watch the Indian and northern borders. A body of about 200 soldiers was sent to the Tibetan border with an order either to kill or areest the Zhabs-drung in case he was found escaping Bhutan to Tibet. The above rumour emanated from the impetuous Paro Penlop. However, the British Trade agent at Gyantse reported that the Dalai Lama had issued instruction to assist the Zhabs-drung, in case he entered Tibet. This may indicate that the Zhabs-drung was probably in correspondence with the Tibetan authorities.. To counteract all the above moves on the part of the Maharaja, the Zhabs-drung reported to be engaged in performing ceremonies (sorcery) to bring curse on the Maharaja, a serious matter among the superstitious Bhutanese.
All the moves and counter-moves came to an end on November 12, 1931. In the words of the Maharaja: “Now on the 15th November, 1931, I have received a letter in which is stated that Shabdrung was staying at Ta-la (monastery) with 4 minks and some of my body guards (?). On 12th November, 1931, he was found dead. The fact of his having passed away was not even noticed by the monks who were sleeping in the same room as Shabrung.” The Bhutan agent adds to the above. “His body was examined on the same day by Gangtey Tulku (a high incarnate Lama *) and some other Lamas from Tashichhojong but no trace of nay foul play was found. It seems he died of heart failure.” However, the Political Office in Sikkim informed the Foreign Secretary on 3rd December, 1931: “ The cause of the Shabdung’s death is still a mystery. I have, however, learnt the significant fact that one of the Shadshung’s servants, who had accompanied Shabdung’s brother on his visit to Gandhi and had been summoned to the Maharaja’s presence to give an account of his actions, was found dead outside the wall of Ta-lo monastery in circumstances which indicated suicide by poison. It does not seem improbable that the Shabdrung has sought a similar way out of the difficulties into which his recent imprudent actions have led him”. Finally, we come across the Minute paper Register No. 4087/32: Secret: Political Department, Government of India, dated August 8th, 1932. “There is really little doubt but that Shabdrung Rimpochhe was quietly poisoned.”
Besides enumerating the lapses of the Zhabs-drung the Maharaja wrote to Col. Weir: “It was not customary in the past for the Shabdrung to cohabit with women. But the present and his immediate predecessor had been thus cohabiting with women. His immediate predecessor had to fly to Tibet, and as on account of keeping a woman, he could not retain his position with the monks. The present Shabdrung lost his celibacy with his eyes open. This was most unbecoming, but I said nothing against his action.”
Perhaps the Maharaja was inciting an adverse feeling against the dead Zhabs-drung because he could not be unaware of the prince-abbotship of the past. At least the first Zhabs-drung was a monk house-holder. After getting the above letter of the Maharaja, Col. Weir informer the Foreign Secretary on December 3, 1931” … His lapse from celibacy, however, is a sin, which will never be condoned by them, (Bhutanese) when it is more widely known. Ay feeling against the Maharaja, which may have arisen in the minds of the Bhutanese owning to his virtual imprisonment of the Zhabs-drung in Ta-lo monastery, will disappear. By the death of the Shabdung Rimpoche, a chapter of the Bhutan history fraught with potential danger to the existing rule, may be considered closed.”
The above optimism of the Political Officer in Sikkim was not entertained at least in one significant centre of the Lamaist World, i.e. Lhaoa. The Druk Lochapa (the Bhutanese representative in Lhasa) was summoned before the Kashag (The Cabinet) to give details of the circumstance in which the Zhabs-drung died. The Lachapa wrote to the Maharaja, who replied the letter with details, On seeing Maharaja’s letter the Kashag sent a threatening letter to the Brung-rgyalp, on April 4;1932: “that the incarnation of Shabdung Nag-Wang Namgyal of Bhutan had been murdered (by the Maharaja) in conjunction with the Paro Penlop….the evil act of tuching the person of the Lama appears unseemly …you without considering his (Shabdung’s) holy qyalifications, have condemned him as a murderer and as one who unnecessarily creaes trouble and who fined and punished people without any reason. You axxuse him of having sent reports to (Mahatma) Gandhi against Bhutan and also of trying to go to China with a view of taking refuge..that the Shadrung Rimpoche misbehaved himself, but nothing to such effect was heard from any previous Tongsa Penlop. Moreover, ….he becomes entitled to rank and position in the Tibetan government……Please now send us, in support of what you have told us,……report giving details of the doings of the incarnate lama…..Please also arrange to hand over all the relatives of the incarnate lama, who are Tibetan subjects to Tsona Dzongpon and Tawan Dzongpons without any late or hindrance or giving any trouble or harming their lives.” Besides the above letter, it is reported that some of the head Lamas such as the Shung Trat Shang of Punakha were ordered by the Tibetans to appears before the Dalai Lama along with the servants of the late Zhab-drung.
The Bhutan court was very much disturbed by this development. Raja S. T. Dorji, the Bhtan agent was sent to Gangtok to seek Col. Weir’s advice. It was thought prudent to acknowledge the Tibetan letter in brief informing them that the Maharaja had nothing more to write beyond what he had already done in the past. The Maharajs’s draft reply was approved by Col Weir and it was sent to Lhasa only after July 4, 1932. Meanwhile, the late Zhabdrung’s brother, Choksi Gyltsen, considered to be the chief offender and the root cause of the trouble, continued to be in custody at Tongsa.
Col Weir, in course of his routine tour to Lhasa, met the Dalai Lama and impressed upon the His Holiness to close the matter: “From the materials supplied by the His HIghnes I was able to convince the Tibetan Government that the deceased Shabdrung Rimpoche was not Tibetan (but he was) but a Bhutanese by birth. I also pointed out that any punishment inflicted by the Bhutanese authority n the Zhabdrung Rimpoche or his relatives was purely an internal matter of Bhutan. I also impressed upon….that any dealings of Bhutan with foreign states were controlled by te Government of India, who were prepared to support Bhutan, if matter went further…..i further impressed the His Holiness that the Maharana of Bhutan was devoted Buddhist and that I, personally, accepted the His Holiness’s assertion that the death of the Shabdrung RImpoche was due to natural causes…His Holiness then assured me that the case might considered closed so far as Tibet was concerned.”
Possibly, this was the last formal and official stand on the issue of the incarnation of the Shabdrung. However, as a traditional society, the Bhutanese did not appear to be reconciled to the lapse of the institution of the Shabdrung. Consequently, a number of incarnations were encouraged to be identified. In such situations, the Bhutanese loyalty to the King had been adept n fixing ‘accident’ to hurry the luckness young lads to their nirvana. Nari Rustomji, the Advisor to the Maharaja in 1960s and an insider of the Bhutanese affairs, provided the picture of the last incarnation of the Shabdrung in his book on Bhutan (Rustomji, 1978: 54-55). It so happened that the latest claimed incarnation of the Shabdrung was reported to have appeared in the Tawang region in 1960s: “Jigmie’s (Lonchen: Prime Minister) most anxious concern during the Chinese agreesion of 1962 (on India) had been that latest reputed incarnation, a little boy about six, residing under the watchful and protective guardianship of a venerable Lama, Gompaste Rimpoche, in Tawang area of NEFA (Arunchal Pradesh) should not be abducted by the Chinese and set up as their puppet…..we succeeded happily in locating the Gompaste together with his precious charge and bringing them both down to stay with us in the safe environs of Shillong. The young incarnation was later taken for studies to be Tibetan settlement in Dharmasala, presided over by the Dalai Lama. The manoeuvrings in certain orthodox quarters to restore him to his traditional dignity in Bhutan are, needless to say, not given official encouragement.” (Rustomji, 1978:92). This incarnation, born some 25 years after the death of his predecessor in 1931 was also latter’s sister’s son, should be now in his late 30s and as a distant and obscure threat to an equally young and established fourth Brug-rgyalpo.
(Adopted from – BHUTAN: ethnic identity and national dilemma, second edition, 1998)
Note: The Shabdrung mentioned in this piece was murdered after his statement supporting the cause of exiled Bhutanese. A new incarnation, as claimed, has been abducted from a monastery in Sikkim and is under virtual house arrest in Thimphu. He is enrolled into primary school and is tutored in Monastic teaching in private.