Dialogue  April-June 2009 , Volume 10 No. 4

India and Bhutan

Lokesh Chandra

Land of Values and Nature

Bhutan is the pure bastion of Vajrayana where the fundamental essence of all that is and becomes, unfolds.

Bhutan with its rocks and cliffs in boundless wastes, its peaks and air rustling with invisible presences, presents a crushing majesty of nature. Vast emptiness is filled with unseen forces and mysterious beings. The universal energy of creation awakens in mystic visions of symbols of cosmic consciousness frescoed on the walls of dzongs, as the smile of the Buddha triumphs over the conflicting opposites in unruffled peace.

The cosmic silence of the vales, the valor of Mahakala conditioning the strategies of Bhutan, and the value emanating from the meditations of Padmasambhava have imbued Bhutanese notion of governance with the wisdom and compassion of bodhisattvas. The lineage of the first King of Bhutan H.M. Ugyen Wangchuk goes back to Pemalingpa who was known to descend from the gods and was in close relationship to Guru Rimpoche. A new king presents a ceremonial white scarf to a scroll-painting of the protective deity of the realm, to symbolize the purity of his intentions.

Ancient Country

 Two temples in Bhutan go back to the period of Songtsen-gampo who ruled from about 627-649 AD. They are: Kyerchu Lhakhang in Paro and Jampai Lhakhang in Bumthang.

Padmasambhava is the Second Buddha, and the patron of Bhutan. He subdued the enemies of Dharma by his magical powers, and assigned them the role of Defenders of the Faith, retaining their fear- inspiring characters. Bhutan has many caves where the divine Guru meditated and around which temples were built in later times. Taktsang ‘Tigers’ Den’ is the famous monastic complex dedicated to the cult of Guru Rimpoche. Perched on a cliff overlooking the Paro Valley, it derives its name from the eighth aspect of Padmasambhava, Dorje Drolo, standing on the back of a tigress. The monastery is built on the sheer face of a cliff. It goes back to the 8th century, and once tigers roamed in these mountains. Today it is a complex of chapels and temples floating in the clouds in summer. Built in nail-less style, here prayer-flags flutter blessings to benefit all sentient beings. Yogi Milarepa composed a song while meditating at Taktsang. Milarepa moved in the subtleties of yoga and his fire of unquenchable mystic ardor pours new life in his poetry.

 The chronicles of Bhutan relate how an Indian prince Sindhuraja established his kingdom in Bumthang in the eighth century. He built the Iron Castle on the Chamkhar River, whose vanishing ruins can still be seen. The mighty king was attacked by an enemy from the south, a king known as ‘Big Nose’. The Crown Prince of Bhumtang was killed in battle and Sindhuraja was desperate, and lost all belief in gods. The deities were angry, the king fell ill, misfortune befell the country and the people whispered that the angry deities had taken away the ‘vital strength’ of the king. To save the kingdom, Guru Rimpoche was invited to help. He came with his retinue and transformed himself into eight manifestations to destroy evil forces. Guru Rimpoche transformed himself into a Garuda and swooped down on the lion-demon and wrested the king’s ‘vital breath’ from him. Sindhuraja and his people were saved. The ‘Temple of the Future Buddha’ (Jampai Lhakhang) was restored, and the ritual dances of Guru Rimpoche were introduced in Bumthang. In gratitude, the Sindhuraja entrusted his most beautiful daughter to Guru Rimpoche. This Princes Mon.mo was an incarnation of a ‘Cloud Fairy’ and became the ‘Mystic Consort’ of the Guru. Tales of Guru Rimpoche dominate the sacred spots of Bumthang. Kuje Lhakhang was built around the rock-cave where Guru Rimpoche sat in meditation. Several legends point out caves where the divine Guru meditated and around which temples were built in later times. The oldest monasteries like Thowada, Singgyi Dzong and Takstang are associated with the Guru. The earlist ‘Eve Stupas’ are also ascribed to his period, the biggest being the Kora Stupa. The village called ‘Place of the Lotus-foot Impressions’ celebrates the footprints that Guru Padmasambhava left on stones. The most beautiful of them is venerated as a relic in the shrine of a small temple . The Lotus-born Guru symbolizes the abiding kinship of India and Bhutan.

Land of Symbols

Bhutan is called Drukyul or the Land of the Thunder Dragon in their language. It derives from the legend of the founding of the monastery at Ralung. When this monastery was being erected, a great thunder-storm struck the place and it was named the Thunderstorm (Druk) Monastery. A school of Nvingma, the Drukpa Kagyu lineage, was founded by lamas Glin.ras.pa Padma.rdo.rje(1128-1188) and Gsan.pa.Rgya.ras.pa in about AD 1180. The Druk Monastery became a famous seat of learning and its lamas spread Buddhism in Bhutan and founded monasteries there. From this time, Bhutan came to be known as the country of the Druk. As one of the four supernatural animals of Buddhism (thunder dragon, garuda, lion, tiger), druk or thunder dragon represents the light-increasing power of spring time. He is the vehicle of Vairocana and is a symbol of auspicious ascent. He is thus the future destiny of Bhutan in her march to a new era.

Scientific development

The famous yogi Thangtong Gyelpo (1385-1464) built iron-chain suspension bridges, and his bridges were standing until recently. He was a pioneer engineer of the Transhimalayan region, and once his swinging suspension bridges were characteristic crossings of the broad and powerful mountain rivers. His family monastery crouches against ferruginous rocks between Paro and Thimphu.

Cultural Renaissance under Pemalingpa and Bhutanese identity

Bhutan is a land that has celebrated proto-engineering in its multiple exceptionalism. Pemalingpa (1450-1521) was an iron-smith. Bhutanese swords, coats of mail, and bell-founding were matchless in the Vajrayana world. One day he went to the forest to look for mushrooms. He found none, and on his way back met a hermit with a long white bread. He regretted that he could offer him nothing. The hermit pushed aside twigs on the ground and there was a whole bed of mushrooms. He invited the hermit to his hut, cooked the delicious mushrooms, but there was no hermit. He opened a small paper-roll given by the hermit. It was written in the Devanagari script of the gods. He could not read it, but understood it with his heart rather than with his mind. He realised that the hermit was a manifestation of guru Rimpoche, and he himself was his embodiment. One day he went to the Burning Lake: so called because of the flickering lights on its surface. Here he found a casket filled with small script-rolls in which the words of Buddha were inscribed in the script of the dakinis. In a vision he was initiated into his future purpose. He began to preach and as the villagers listened to him, flowers of all the colours of the rainbow fell from the sky. None could catch them, as they vanished like rays of light nothingness. The Tamshing Temple is one of the important foundations of Pemalingpa, where his present incarnation resides. It has three halls dedicated to Guru Rimpoche to Amitabha the Buddha of Eternal light, and to Protective Deities. They have frescoes that lead on to the formless sphere beyond all earthy imagination. The substance of Bhutanese identity is ethnicity, language and religion.

From a great cultural heritage to a mighty kingdom

 Bhutan has a rich literary heritage of thought, with great polymaths like Pemakarpo(1526-92) whose sumbum or collected works are an encyclopedia of the symbolism, psychological processes and rituals of esoterism. He describes the subtle spiritual realizations and their manifestation in the psyche and speculation. These can inspire explorations of new avenues in contemporary researches on artificial intelligence. Pemakarpo played a unique role in the emergence of Bhutan as a powerful kingdom. Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651) was declared as his incarnation. In a prophetic dream, Raven-faced Mahakala guided the Shabdrung south to Bhutan and offered it as his ‘heavenly fieled’. This Mahakala became the main protector of the Kingdom. The Shabdrung established a central government with its present borders and a set of institutions to run the country. It was a historic transition in the life of the emerging state of Bhutan. The Shabdrung erected the first fortress of Simthoka Dzong to the south of the Thimphu Valley in 1619. It was a model for all later fortifications or dzong. The continuity of the Bhutanese state is assured by the Raven Crown of H.M. the King of Bhutan. The Raven –faced Mahakala surmounted on the royal crown has been and is the Protector of the Realm. Raven is drona in Sanskrit. Dronacarya is well-known in the Mahabharata as the teacher of the Kaurava and Pandava princes and as a general of the Kauravas during the Great War. The epic symbolism of the Drona, or the Golden Eagle of the USA, link power to values as the essential source of timeless legitimacy. These symbols of power have been expressions of divine majesty from pre-historic periods.

His Majesty the King of Bhutan wears the Raven Crown, symbolizing the Raven-headed Mahakala. During the 1864-6 War with the British, the 51 Regent (Druk Desi) Jigme Namgyal wore a crown of this Mahakala in battle, invoked divine aid, and special rituals were performed. Bhutanese success is attributed to the divine Raven. Treaty of Sinchula was signed in November 1865. The mantra of this Mahakala end: sarva-satrum maraya phat / mangalam. His sadhana says: “With the splendor of a hundred thousand suns, he abides amid a blazing mass of fire, subduing with his stamping feet the head of a malevolent enemy.” (Martin Willson and Martin Brauen, Deities of Tibetan Buddhism, 2000 p. 345). The Album of Five Hundred Deities at the Rietberg Museum, Zurich has a powerful representation of this Mahakala on folio 118 of the manuscript. Mahakala was the charismatic power of the Mongol Emperor Khubilai Khan. The Nepalese artist-prince made an image of Mahakala in 1274 which was used in a ritual to aid the Mongols against the Southern Song. Mahakala thus united north and south China, and it remained the centre of an imperial cult among the Mongols, as a perfect symbol of the right to rule.

Foundation of present Bhutan by H.M. King Ugyen Wangchuk (1862-1926): sagely within kingly without.

 The founding monarch of the present state was H.M. King Ugyen Wangchuk (1862-1926), the first King of Bhutan of the Wangchuk dynasty. He is called the First Druk Gyelpo. He consolidated the country by harmony and consensus and thereby assured the sovereignty of the state. There have been two major historic events in the emergence of Bhutan: firstly, the creation of a theocracy by the Shabdrung I, and finally after three centuries the foundation of the monarchy in 1905. H.M. King Ugyen Wangchuk studied reading and writing under his maternal uncle, the eighth incarnation of Pemalingpa of Lhalung. He laboured like a menial, collecting large loads of firewood, ate his meals in a line with servants, worked as a labourer on a new road, herded cattle in Bumthang like ordinary peasant. This hard training made him an astute monarch dedicated to the well-being of his people in the true Buddhist spirit of Bahu-jana-hitya bahu-jana-sukhya. He created the male dress: Bhutanese male robe (go) with Western shoes, stockings and hat. It has remained in vogue since. A photograph of 1905 shows him and his council of ministers at Punakha, with a backdrop of Garuda slaying a Naga, elephants blowing conch-shells (sankha), a peacock and horse facing each other, flanking a garlanded Lingam in the centre. He was installed King on 17 December 1907 in the context of a Buddhist culture of kingship. Bhutanese literature is full of references to Asoka, to the Dharma Kings of Tibet, and Bhutan’s myths of origin are dominated by royal elements. The Bhutanese monarchy has been imbued with the concept of a Bodhisattva who reincarnates to alleviate the sufferings of the world. His Majesty Ugyen Wangchuk was a patron of the multi-volume Nyingma treasure-texts entitled Rinchen.terzo. The British Government decorated him in 1922 at the great shrine dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava at Kuje in Bumthang. The name of the King is correlated to the Great Guru Padmasambhava: Ugyen is oddiyana the birthplace of the Guru, wangchuk means Lord. As the saintly Lord of Oddiyana, or Oddiyanesvara, he earned the hearts of his people by a life of simplicity and sanctity.

Modernisation and Values

The accession of the third king His Majesty Jigme Dorje Wangchuk (1928-72) in 1952 was an important milestone in the modernization of the state. The 520 rifles and his bodyguards were developed into a regular army on modern lines. The crown was decorated with a garuda instead of tantric skulls. It continues to be worn by the present King, H.M. Jigme Sinnge Wangchuk (1955-?). The garuda personifies the wrathful forms of Padmasambhava and is strongly associated with Vajrapani who is a metamorphosis of Indra, the King of Gods. The presence of garuda on the royal crown is indicative of the rising power, defined identity and recognized sovereignty of Bhutan in its modern institutions. Garuda is identified with the God of Thunder, and is thus an appropriate symbol for the royal crown of the Land of the Thunder Dragon. The seeds sown by H.M. King Ugyen Wangchuk have given rise to a new era. Treaties with India included development aid. Our first Prime Minster Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru spent nine days to travel to Bhutan on an animal caravan in 1958 to assure all aid to Bhutan, including the construction of highways, helipads and aerodromes. In 1965 the King ordered new roads and new buildings that had became necessary to house the ministries. Electricity, heating, and telephones arrived. The new ‘development wings’ added to the earlier constructions were done in the traditional nail-less frame. The classical charm of Bhutan mingled with modern needs. Bhutanese have shown a unique genius to combine the technical and spiritual culture in their Shangrila land.

In 1970 the President of India flew to Thimphu on a state visit, as India was sponsoring a motion to make Bhutan a member of the United Nations.

From the impressive wooden arches, overhung wall painting in the dzongs, the ‘mystic spirals’ of Avatamsaka cosmography and other networks of interwoven spiritual universes, Bhutan is emerging into the glare of modernity through TV., education in India and elsewhere in the world, global relationships, electoral politics and so on in endless array. Stability and identity of Bhutan will have to be safeguarded in her Gross National Happiness, in the confluence of the timely and timeless.

Consumerism vs. Humanism

As civilization develops in Bhutan, the primal nomadic world is fast disappearing, subjecting men to the whims of mechanical contrivances. In the mysterious loneliness of Chomolhari lives her Goddess and she will continue to do so close to the heart of the people of Bhutan.

In 1970 a joint Indo-Bhutanese expedition went to the Chomolhari to pay respects to the majestic Sovereign Goddess of the Divine Mountain. The young Lt. Chachu of Bhutan reminisced: “For our people the Chomolhari is a very holy mountain, since it is the abode of the Goddess. I was brought up in such an atmosphere and always thought that Chomolhari was a sacred mountain, never to be trodden by man.” The King of Bhutan provided an image of Lord Buddha, blessed by the Lamas, to be placed on the summit along with the flags of Bhutan and India. Lt Chachu was moving from camp to camp on a pilgrimage, in the spirit of going to the abode of the Goddess to pray. They placed the image of Lord Buddha on the summit along with the flags. On return Lt. Chachu said: “once you have been there you feel yourself a purer, a better man.”

Modern rulers and ruled are loosing ties of value-systems. Contemporary democracies are faced with the crises of values inherent in the electoral system which demands vast financial resources. Will money undermine the mind of nations? Bhutan with its rich and living heritage can provide a valorized alternative.

When the King speaks of Gross National Happiness along with GNP, or proposes a Constitution where the sovereign power belongs to the people of Bhutan, he is imbued with the notion of the Bodhisattva as a model for kings. Literature frequently alludes to Asoka and the Dharma-Kings of Tibet. The Bhutanese monarchy was founded on the ideals of King Mahasammata ‘The King Elevated by Many’ (Man.pos bhur.bahi rgyal.po) who is the first king in Buddhist legend. Internal Integration evolved over the centuries in the wonders of myth and imagination need to be strengthened by social, economic and political formulations for the future. Bhutan has to avoid the global crisis of national identity. The formulation of the concept of Gross National Happiness stems from the individuality and distinctiveness or selfhood (rang.byui) of Bhutan. Bhutan is the sacred soil of her people, and they have celebrated it in the abstraction of the legends of Guru Rimpoche. Culture is the mother of science. A core Han culture going back to thousands of years strengthens the unity of China and becomes the miracle of her modern development. “A nation defined only by political ideology is a fragile nation” (Huntington, Who are We?, p. 338). Bhutan has a rich legacy of endeavour and devotion, and the mystic chords of creed and memory. Bhutan has to march in this century with the inner core of culture and the outer bastions of civilization. Technology has to be a dialect of the language of Values.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati