GREAT FIGURED OF THE MISSIONARY WORK – Bengal and the Kingdom of the Dragon (53)

– Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

Fleeing religious persecution in Tibet in the seventeenth century, King Ngawang Namgyel (the real name of Shabdrung Rinpoche, literally “the one at whose feet all prostrate”) had the merit of creating a unified country with a distinct identity from  what it was until then: a patchwork of small fiefs at war with each other.

 What may be termed the second phase of the Shabdrung program to rule Bhutan would begin with the period of construction of the fortress monasteries of which we spoke in one of the last chronicles, begun at Semtokha in 1629 and completed in Lingzhi and Gasa around 1646. The reason for this ploy was one: to resist the invading forces of Tibet. It turned out very successful. No Tibetan or Mongol army managed to set foot in Bhutan during the life of Shabdrung or his immediate successors. The monastic fortress of Pungthang Dechen Phodrang (“Palace of Great Happiness”), administrative center of the district of Punakha, was built between 1637 and 1638, at the command of Shabdrung, to prevent the Tibetan invasion, constituting the capital process of the kingdom, succeeding in this function Paro. A chapel commemorating the victory over the Tibetans would be built later, in 1639, where the arms of the enemies captured in battle were kept. Punakha would remain as capital of Bhutan and seat of Government until 1955 and is today the winter residence of the highest dignitaries of the local lamaism. Its construction had been prophesied by guru Rinpoche. This famed saint foretold that “a person named Namgyel would reach a hill that resembles an elephant.” Indeed, when Shabdrung visited Punakha he determined that a fortress should be built on a promontory nearby, which resembled the back of a pachyderm. This was done at the confluence of the rivers Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu, whose waters of different tonalities symbolize the co-existence of the masculine and the feminine. Today, besides hosting an annual festival – the Tshechu – it serves as administrative headquarters of the district of Gasa and contains the largest monastic body in the kingdom. A smaller building, the Dzong Chug, houses a statue of Buddha dated 1326. The venerated vertebra (or leg bone) – which Father Estêvão Cacela refers to in his Relation, as we saw last week – belonged, in fact, to Tsang-pa Gya-ras (11611211) founder of the Drupka school and remote, though direct, ancestor and spiritual master of Shabdrung. This relic is stored in the monastery of Punakha, where there are also the remains of Shabdrung, who died in 1651, for it was there that the monarch came to reside after having retired from public life. Fearing the disintegration of the kingdom, the rulers who then ruled the country kept the news of his death for twelve years in secret.

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