Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel: The Buddhist Warrior

In Bhutan, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the founding father, is revered more as a Bodhisattva than anything else. Still, the Zhabdrung was much more than that. He was an extraordinary administrator, an accomplished monk, talented in all the thirteen arts and crafts and a strict vegan whose daily diet composed of milk and fruits.

Modern Bhutan will do well to go beyond reverance and learn from his administration style instead of only reading text books from the West. For example, Zhabdrung travelled extensively so that people need not take the trouble to come to see him. He believed in not taxing the people and maintained that the government should so good that the people will pay tributaries to run the administration.

Here in this piece, though, I would like to dwell on his great military strategies.

Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel was confronted with a series of invasions from Tibet during his reign. However, he did everything to minimize the casualties and just repel the invaders. Besides, he never set off on any conquest of a foreign land. He never wielded a sword. More often that not, he won without fighting. And thus, as contemporary historian Tshering Tashi puts it, he was a true Buddhist warrior. 

His biggest feat was in 1648-49, when a joint Tibetan-Mongol forces launched, what was perhaps the largest military campaign then. Gushri Khan, the Mongol warlord in Tibet and a direct descendent of Genghis Khan, felt the need to vindicate the loss of 1644 and despatched his troops under the command of Depa Norbu – the nephew of Tibetan Regent Sonam Chophel. Interestingly, the Mongols had not lost a single war ever since the Great Genghis set out to bring under his domain, of what could be the largest land mass in the history of the World under a single empire. From the coastal lines of Sea of Japan to the gates of Vienna, the Mongols have seen nothing but victories.

The joint Tibetan-Mongol invasion of 1648 was not just to reclaim the sacred relic, Rangjung Kharsapani, but also to capture the Zhabdrung and occupy the whole country. Tibet under the fifth Dalai Lama, Lobzang Gyatsho, was going through its golden period. Drukyul was invaded from two directions – Paro and and Punakha. A small contingent was also despatched to Thimphu where they managed to occupy Kawang Dzong*. It was the winter of 1648. 

The Bhutanese were also prepared by then. The central administration in Punakha was well established and two third of modern-day Bhutan was under its domain. Pazaps from Sha (Wangdue), Wang (Thimphu) and Paro valley made a formidable strength but was still far incomparable to the massive invading forces. Besides, unlike the professional war machines, the Bhutanese were mostly peasants and farmers who came forward in times of need. Still, the Bhutanese commanders were ready to face the enemies immediately – perhaps frustrated by the frequent intrusions from the North. They sought the permission to attack but Zhabdrung refused – ordering to prolong the war and not engage the intruders.

In Punakha the invaders were camped at Jiligang overlooking Punakha Dzong. At one point, to deceive them, Zhabdrung ordered the pazaps to file out from one gate and enter from the other – once in the morning and once in the evening. The invaders were made to believe that a large number of soldiers were stationed inside the Dzong and were going on daily rounds.

In another deception, a full ceremony of the immersion of Rangjung Kharsapani into Mochu was staged to fool the onlooking invaders into assuming that the Bhutanese really threw the sacred relic into the river.

Months passed, spring came and still Zhabdrung held the orders to attack. The Tibetans thought the Bhutanese had given up. Then, on one moonless night, the order was passed and the Bhutanese, in Paro, led by Paro Penlop Tenzin Drukdra launched a massive raid of the enemy camps – taking them by surprise. The captive Tibetan and Mongol soldiers, on the orders of Zhabdrung, were treated like guests, disarmed and freed back to Tibet. Depa Norbu managed to flee – facing wide criticism back home. 

When the news of the defeat in Paro reached Punakha, the invaders went into a total disarray, at which point the Bhutanese attacked. This time in broad daylight – energized by the victory in Paro. The warmer climate had also brought hot weather, sand flies and bees that the invaders had no immunity to. Religious historians and oral sources attribute this to the works of Guardian deities, while western-trained historians maintain that the Zhabdrung waited for the hot summer to engage with the Tibetan who were used to only to cold weather. Some scholars assume that many Tibetan soldiers could have fallen sick by then. 

Following the victory, though, Zhadrung Ngawang Namgyel did not celebrate. He was deeply saddened by the deaths. He commanded rituals and moelams to be conducted in all the temple across the country – in the memory of the dead from both camps. Later that year, he was 56 years old then, he commissioned a massive religious project to make over 11 million miniature statues of Buddha in memory of all the war victims in the all the invasions that took place. He worked together with the artisans, ensuring each and every statue, and late into the night for months. This apparently took a heavy toll on his health. Then came the news of the death of his only granddaughter. Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel was further distressed and went through some serious health problems. He made frequent trips to Chuphu Tshachu in hope of gaining back his health. 

Then when he saw his end was nearing, he retreated into the Machen Lhakhang of Punakha Dzong – issuing instructions that no one should disturb him. The year was 1651. It is believed that he passed away on this day as per the Bhutanese calendar – the 10th Day of the 3rd Month.



*  Kawang Dzong is a manor – adjacent to my house in Thimphu that has now been turned into Folk Heritage Museum. It is not a huge structure and the term, Dzong, was probably used the Tibetans to amplify their victory.

NB – This article is small part of a feature-length documentary film, Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyel – the Legacy of the Founding Father, which I wrote and directed. It was produced by the Royal Textile Academy. Research and production were carried out in the first half of 2016. A shorter version was screened during the Exhibition in 2016 to mark the 400-years of arrival of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel to Bhutan.


Jarogang – the place where Zhabdrung stayed during the Tibetan invasion and destruction of Semtokha Dzong.
Kasho issued to the Zarchen Family in Paro after the family put together a successful resistance to the first Tibetan invasion in 1617-18
Painting of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in Semtokha Dzong
Zhabdrungs Shoe
A shoe belonging to Zhadrung that was gifted to a family in Gaza during the exit from Tibet in 1616
Stamp commemorative
A commemorative stamp of the first Tibetan-Mongol invasion of 1644


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