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Sources for the History of Bhutan

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Sources for the History of Bhutan
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Item Code: IHF092
Author: John A. Ardussi
Publisher: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9788120834095
Pages: 218
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 10.0" X 7.5"
From the Jacket

The four works included in this collection have enjoyed a rather chequered career. They originally formed the second volume of the doctoral thesis Michael Aris submitted in 1978 to the University of London. They have been included because of their value as crucial source material on the formative era of Bhutanese history, as they cover the entire period leading to the full emergence of the Bhutanese theocracy. Their relative brevity as compared with the other major works relevant to this period further suggested the convenience of including them as a group of inter-related 'minor' texts.

While the first two works in this collection have never before been available to modern scholars, and are indeed hardly known even in Bhutan, the next two (which include a text translated from Portuguese) have been partially known from the works of John Claude white (Sikkim and Bhutan- Twenty-one years on the North- East frontier 1887-1908, London) and C. Wessels (Early Jesuit Travellers in central Asia, The Hague 1924).

Michael Aris (1946-1999) was research fellow in Tibetan and Himalayan studies at St. Antony's college, Oxford. He was also visiting professor at Harvard University and a fellow of the Indian Institute of advanced studies. In 1967-72 he lived in Bhutan and worked there as a royal tutor, government translator and historical researcher. On returning to England he obtained a doctorate in Tibetan literature form London University. Michael Aris was married to Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel peace Prize.

John A. Ardussi is a senior research fellow in the Dept. of religious studies, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, and associate research member of the Tibet Himalayan study team, UMR-8155 of CNRS (Paris).

He was awarded a post-graduate fellowship and earned his doctorate in 1977 from Australian national University, Canberra, with a dissertation on the history of Bhutan.

He has traveled to Bhutan many times for research and lectures and written numerous articles on Bhutan and Tibetan history, including most recently the edited proceedings of the conference "The written treasures of Bhutan" hosted by the Bhutan national library.


The four works presented here have till now, and particularly in recent years, enjoyed a rather chequered career. They originally formed the second volume of the doctoral thesis I submitted in 1978 to the University of London. They were subsequently made available in the form of a microfilm supplement to my Bhutan: The early history of a Himalayan Kingdom (Warminster and New Delhi, 1979). A few copies of the supplement were printed from the originals, paginated and bound for the benefit of those colleagues who were reviewing the main volume. It soon became clear, however, that the choice of microfiche as the medium of publication (a choice which had been determined only by the need for economy) was a major obstacle to the dissemination of these sources: most colleagues and students had strong inhibitions about using even as simple a piece of technology as a fiche reader! Many asked me to look again for a more conventional means of publication. This has now been made possible due to the help and kindness of Professor Ernst Steinkellner through the hospitality of his flourishing series, the Wiener studien zur Tibetologie and Buddhismukunde.

The book as now published is reproduced directly from the originals typeset by Aris & Phillips Ltd. The only changes are a few minor corrections and insertions, a reorganized structure (and consequent repagination) and the addition of a bibliography. These amendments were kindly made for me by Mr. Phillip Mudd, to whom I am indebted.

Among the critical notices which the first edition received, by far the most detailed comments were those provided by Professor J.W. de Jong in the Indo-Iranian Journal. The corrections and alternative readings he proposed have not been incorporated. Instead I should like to summarize them here for the benefit of readers, and I take this opportunity of thanking professor de Jong most warmly for his valued attention:
Text I: f. 14b: on comparison with the form given on f. 29a, there is a case for correcting lha'I khams-pa to lha'u khams-pa.
Text I: f. 33a: for Udayana read Santanika.
Text I: f. 33a: for tshe'I dus byas-nas read tshe'I dus byas-nas.
Text I: f. 41a: thong-pa should not have been corrected to thos-pa, and the translation should read: "One does not break somebody's plough for the sake of the people".
Text I: ff. 41a, 43a &
Test II: ff. 18b, 19a: the phrase tshug ma-thub-par should be rendered throughout as "unable to bear, withstand".
Text III: f. 109a: a quotation from the sa-skya legs-bshad which I had failed to identify is the one starting blo-chung: this is Bosson No. 12. Similarly:
Text III: f. 109b: rgyal-po-nyid is Bosson No. 202.


Dr. John A. Ardussi- Senior research fellow, University of Virginia Tibet Center.
It is distinct pleasure to write an introduction to this new edition of Michael Aris's Sources for the history of Bhutan (hereafter abbreviated as sources). The book was originally published as a microfiche supplement to Aris's Ph D study published in 1979 as Bhutan- The early history of a Himalayan Kingdom (hereafter abbreviated as Bhutan). The version of sources updated here first came out in separate book form in 1986 in the Vienna University series Wiener studien zur Tibetologie und Buddhismuskunde. Both Bhutan and Sources were groundbreaking studies of early Bhutanese history based on original documents, and represent state of information available in 1979.

Sources consists of editions and translations of three important 17th -18th century Tibetan language documents relating to the history of Bhutan, plus a translation of a 17th century report on Bhutan written in Portuguese by a Jesuit monk who, with a colleague, passed through the country in 1627 on his way to Tibet. Quite by chance; the two priests were eye witnesses to the very first year of the Zhabdrung Rinpoche's newly founded Buddhist state (1725/6) that was to become the country now known as Bhutan.

Thirty years after Bhutan and sources were first published; research on Bhutanese history is still an emerging field with few specialists, compared to the hundreds working on neighboring Himalayan countries Tibet, Nepal, and Ladakh. However, a number of articles relevant to sources have been written by other scholars, and important new source documents have become available for comparative study, In this introduction I plan to review several topics on which these new materials shed light, taking them up in the order in which Aris's essays were published. At the end, I have included a brief bibliography of these recent publications for the benefit of readers who may wish to refer to them.

Over the past forty years, conscious of the importance of preserving Bhutan's heritage and fragile cultural properties for future generations, the Royal Government of Bhutan and individual members of the royal family have devoted a great deal of attention to the development of institutions focused on preservation and research. These include the centre of Bhutan studies founded in 1998, The Bhutan national library & archives (1967) and the National Museum (1968). The centre for Bhutan studies publishes a regular research journal called Journal of Bhutan studies, and all of these institutes maintain on-line, Internet information and search portals that will greatly assist the work of future scholars.

1. The Rgyal-rigs, Written by Monk Ngag-dbang: A history of the clans and founding families of Bumthang and Eastern Bhutan.

If a man does not know his own family lineage, He is like a monkey playing in a boundless jungle. (Bhutanese proverb).
As readers of Bhutan will know, the Rgyal-rigs is the shortened title of an unusual genealogical study written by a monk descended from local nobility in Trashigang named "Monk Nagawang of the Byar", in the years after central and eastern Bhutan were forcibly incorporated into the Drukpa state between about 1648 and 1655. The chiefs of these districts form Bumthang eastwards and south to the town now called Pemagatshal near the Indian frontier, had ruled over a population representing several ethno-linguistic strata different from the predominant Ngalong of western Bhutan. The sharchop (shar-physogs-pa) or 'Easterners' are distant kin to citizens of Tibetan Mon Yul and West Kameng in Arunachal Pradesh, whereas the early inhabitants of Bumthang included the so-called Gdung (pron. Dung), whose complex origin myths are tied to Tibet. The Rgyal-rigs and the subsequent history called the Lo-rgyus are their story.

The Rgyal-rigs was studied by Aris in Bhutan (1997) on the basis of a single manuscript which he edited and translated in sources. Unfortunately, he was never able to travel to the eastern districts in question. In fact, few westerners had ever been there. The translation, therefore, contained a large number of unidentified place names, and no map existed to provide the reader with geographical context. This may explain why, more than thirty years after its publication, Tibetologists, Indian historians, and other Himalayan history specialists have yet, in my view, to fully appreciated the fresh perspective that a close study of the Rgyal-rigs and the Lo-rgyus offer to the standard picture of the greater eastern Himalayan world based on Indian, Tibetan and Chinese sources.

In the years since 1979, Bhutan has become open to tourism and development, and good maps are available for the entire country. It is possible to identify many of the old place names mentioned in the Rgyal-rigs and to better visualize the events described. We now know that the complicated topography and river systems of eastern Bhutan go far to explain the rather fragmented distribution of communities mentioned in the Rgyal-rigs, many of which are located along upper mountain ridges. Over the centuries the locally prominent families dispersed and intermarried, extending branches southwards to the Duars along the Indian plains, upwards along the Gamri River (called Tawang River in Tibet) and eastwards to Dirang, well into what is now Arunachal Pradesh. Chapters 2-5 present what the author Ngawang could learn about their separate genealogical streams form oral accounts of elderly people and from the few relevant texts that he could locate.

The easterners' political organization was very different from that of western Bhutan under the Zhabdrung Rinpoche. There, after his founding in 1625/26 of the uncleus of what would become the Bhutan state, political and religious Buddhist principle called chos srid zung'brel. In eastern Bhutan society was based on old traditions of royal descent, including several strands of nobility (as described in the Rgyal-rigs) purportedly deriving from refugee princes of the 9th century Tibetan Yarlung monarchy, with the add feature, as Aris argues (less successfully in my view), of a kind of clan organization. Among the Tibetan princes whose Bhutanese connections are described in the Rgyal-rigs, Lha-sras Gtsang-ma (b. 800 CE), son of emperor Sad-na-legs, was most prominent.

Religious affiliation was another difference between east and west. Whereas the Drukpa school of Buddhism had been firmly established in western Bhutan since the 13th century, as late as the first half of the 17th century there were almost no Drukpa monasteries in eastern Bhutan. There, the main religious pioneers from Tibet had come from Nyingmapa and, in the Far East, Gelugpa traditions.

From the time that the Zhabdrung Rinpoche took refuge in western Bhutan in 1616 until well into the 18th century, Tibet and Bhutan were either in a state of war or uneasy truce with each other. It was the continuation of a bitter sectarian political struggle that had impelled the Zhabdrung to leave Tibet in the first place. In the beginning, Bhutan's Tibetan antagonists were the kings of the province of Gtsang who ruled from Gyantse, and after 1642 fighting continued with the Gelugpa government of the Dalai Lamas in Lhasa. The 5th Dalai Lama launched an army against Drukpa followers among the rulers of western Tibet. Bhutanese Drukpa emissaries were driven out of Nepal at the demand of Gelugpa adversaries. Even the famous Blue Beryl medical treatise written by the Tibetan regent Desi Sangye Gyatsho contained a proscription against its use to heal Drukpa patients.

The two countries competed throughout the Himalayas for sectarian advantage and territory. Numerous Tibetan armies invaded Bhutan, only to be repulsed. In defense, the Zhabdrung's deputies chose to annex eastern Bhutan into the Drukpa state. The conquest of eastern Bhutan in the 1650's by forces from the west was primarily focused on defeating or driving out followers of the Tibetan Gelugpa sect, but other local chiefs were also caught up in it. Responding to this, another military attack was launched by Tibet. It, too, was unsuccessful in that the Tibetans failed to recover control of their monasteries in eastern Bhutan. When the dust finally settled after a declared truce in 1679, a de-facto border between Bhutan and Tibet was created in the northeast. Tibet built a new fortress monastery at Tawang to head off further Bhutanese encroachment, and to serve as a new administrative centre for Tibetan Mon Yul. Other consequences were also significant, if unintended. The extended families of eastern Bhutan now straddled the new frontier between their lands along the Gamri River and in Mon Yul. In the late 20th century, Tawang became a focal point of contention in the border dispute in Arunachal Pradesh between India an China, but it seems to have been forgotten that the context of its creation was a border conflict between Tibet and Bhutan, not between Tibet and India.

The conquest of the local rulers in the east meant the end of their traditional authority. Although the chiefs who cooperated were more or less left in place, their powers were greatly diminished. Perhaps most important to monk Ngawang, as time passed and Drukpa institutions of authority strengthened, the oral traditions about the former eastern chiefs' once proud ancestry began to quickly die out. Even as he wrote, he bemoaned the wanton mixing of the eastern clans and the bored disinterest of young people in the old traditions. It was to save that recode for posterity, and to express his aspiration to see the rise to power of a future king, that Ngawang claimed to have composed the Rgyal-rigs. More than a few Bhutanese today, I believe, would view the establishment of the monarchy in 1907 as a fulfillment of Ngawang's dream that "at some future time, one of high family and lineage, noble and judicious, a descendant of the lord-kings [of eastern Bhutan] would come forth appointed by heavens to rule the land, like a star shining in the daylight."

The two books Rgyal-rigs and Lo-rygus are thus unique in many respects among Tibetological writings, a story written by the vanquished. They area as close to what modern south Asian historians would call a 'subaltern' history as one is likely to find among Tibetological sources. The Rgyal-rigs was, as Ngawang wrote in his introductory poem, "a secret little song, a story I tell carefully only to men of nobility, on whose faces it might raise a smile, not one that I dare to repeat for the ears of all.

The date of the Rgyal-rigs
Given the sensitive issues of ethnicity, territory, power, and religion on which it touches, the Rgyal-rigs has not ceased to be a work of political interest. Even more so the Lo-rgyus, which is the second text in sources attributed to the same author. A key question of relevance to the issue of historical accuracy is their date of composition. Were they written based on information from eye witnesses to thee events of 1655-1685 or much later based on handed down traditions? I have studied in an earlier publication (Ardussi 2007: 6-9) and concluded that the Earth-male-Monkey year given near the beginning of the Rgyal-rigs and in the colophon refers to the year 1668, a mere decade after the final conquest period of eastern Bhutan, and not 1728 as consistently stated by Aris. However, two other authors have put forward different dates, a Chinese Tibetan author arguing for 1608 and most recently a Bhutanese author for 1848. Of course, still other dates based on the recurring 60-year cycle are also possible. But which is best supported by the evidence?

Aris never addressed the issue of the date of composition anywhere in his writings, before his untimely death in 1999. It is unclear why he settled on 1782. The only evidence for this that I have seen is a handwritten note by an unknown Tibetan writer, on f. 50.a of the Tibet House manuscript that I have called MS TibH, which adds in cursive script above the date earth male monkey, the comment: rab byung 12 / phyi lo 1728 i.e. "12th cycle, western year 1728." The original MS from which TibH is a photocopy came from Bomdila in Arunachal Pradesh, but we do not know by whom and when this note added, or using what information.

The argument for 1668 is based on a most important passage near the beginning of the Rgyal-rigs itself, one that was accidentally omitted from Aris's edition and so was unknown to him. Just as Sources was going to print, the less defective edition of Dorje (1995) came into his hands. There Aris discovered the omission, but rather than address the question of the date he merely included a page of Addenda and Corrigenda slipped loosely into the book, in which he himself admitted that "The full implications of this new edition for my own work must await detailed study." Regrettably he never returned to this topic.

The missing passage found in all editions except sources clearly gives the date when the Rgyal-rigs was written in the context of well known events of Bhutanese and Tibetan history.


Background to the Texts5
Text I:Text and translation of Sa-skyong rgyal-po'I gdung-rabs 'byung-khungs dang 'bangs-kyi mi-rabs chad-tshul nges-par gsal-ba'I sgron-me (short title: rGyal-rigs 'byung-khungs gsal-ba'I sgron-me). Author: Ngag-dbang (Wa-gindra). Date: 1728.11
Section I16
Section II24
Section III46
Section IV56
Section V60
Concluding verses and colophon64
Addendum [I- IX]68
Text II:Text and translation of dpal' brug-par lung lha'I gdung-brgyud-brgyud-kyis bstan-pa'I ring-lugs / lho-mon-kha-bzhi-las nyi-ma shar-phyogs-su byung-zhing rgyas-pa'I lo-rgyus gsal-ba'I me-long. Author: Ngag-dhang (Wa-gindra). No date.87
Text III:Text and translation of dPal 'brug-pa rin-po-che mthu-chen ngag-gi dbang-po'I bka'-khrims phyogs thams-cad-las rnam-par rgyal-ba'I gtam. Author: bsTan-'dzin Chos-rgyal. Date: 1729121
Part I122
Part II134
Part III150
Text IVTranslation of an except from the Relacao of Estevao Cacella (1627)169
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