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GREAT FIGURES OF THE MISSIONARY WORK – Bengal and the Kingdom of the Dragon (49)

admin / April 19, 2019

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

To the great frustration of the Jesuits, their interpreter, “who spoke Hindi, Persian and the local dialect very well,” but not the Bhutanese language, was not of much use to them. From the other side the panorama was not much more encouraging: there was only a monk from Tsaparang, capital of the kingdom of Guge, “very dear to the king,” who understood a bit of Hindi. Communication with Shabdrung would therefore be difficult enough, but enough for the missionaries to be able to explain the reason for their journey. That is to say, the preaching of the “faith of Christ our Lord for having known that previously they had it, and then, with the change of times and lack of priests, had been lost.” It is recalled that at that time the Portuguese missionaries believed that Tibetan Buddhism was an old form of Christendom but very much distorted. And it was this incessant search for lost forms of christianity, fomented by the medieval myths of the Cataio and the Prester John, so often intertwined, that would lead the Portuguese religious men to the extraordinary adventure of the Himalayas. Shabdrung showed appreciation for the priests – it could only be for a good reason they bothered to come so far to visit him – and asked them to learn the language – “so that we are able to talk at ease” – providing for that task the mentioned monk of Chaparangue, who would in the future accompany the padres.

The few Bhutanese sources that mention the event have a different version, as the researcher Yonten Dargye had warned me previously in Thimphu. For the Bhutanese, it had been Shabdrung’s fame, “tireless and victorious fighter against the Tibetan enemies,” that had reached Portugal. Hence, the king of that nation had decided to send the priests as his emissaries to prove the reputation of this Himalayan monarch.

We are faced here with a scenario similar to that of the Chinese emperors, who regarded all visitors as subjects of tributary realms, no matter how far removed they might be.

Cacela’s text implies that Shabdrung was not in the palace, but rather in a sort of traveling court, which refutes the idea, argued by some, that the meeting took place in the monastery of Chagri. Most likely it happened somewhere on a hill outside Thimphu, where the monastery of Semthokha stands today.

Cacela explained to us the motive of the royal itinerancy: “The reason why we find him lodged in tents in this mountain, is because the people of the villages usually often request his presence. So the king camps in a specific place where his subjects offer him horses, cattle, rice, cloths and other things, which is his principal income, and those who live far away do not invite him, but instead come to him with their gifts.”