Gup-drep Samten – a tribute to an icon

There comes in your life people who simply humble you with their knowledge, wisdom and eloquence – no matter who you are or how old you get. Gup-drep Samten, was one such man. Every word that he spoke, every story he told and every piece of advice he gave, were loaded with well-situated wisdoms and age-old traditions transcending the time and space. It is trait that I have rarely seen in an ordinary man. He never uttered more than what was required. And when he did, it was like he had an autocorrect software and thesaurus in his brain that edited every word that came out of him.

I first met Gup-drep Samten when I was researching on the legends and folktales of Punakha Dzong. His name was recommended by just everyone that I had asked around. The year was 2003 and I was directing the BBS production of the grand consecration of newly-renovated Punakha Dzong. I spent few hours interviewing him on the oral history of the great monument.

As years rolled by, I came to know his whole family through various associations of work and spiritual pursuits – plus a Sharchokpa-style relation when one of my distant nieces married his youngest son. For some time now he considered me as a part of the family. This new arrangement laid out more chances to go over to his place where I would just sit and listen to his wonderful stories and legends – of two rivers falling in love, of mermaids lumbering timbers towards Punakha Dzong and the myth of the giant meteor stuck near Punakha bridge. He also shared events of his life that had happened half a century earlier – with the finest details of a 4K high-definition camera.

However, all those knowledge and wisdom were not what made him a go-to-guy in Punakha valley. For me, it was his human side. It was the life he dedicated to the public service, which made him popular. Although he had no western education, he served as gup (county head) for seven tenures when there was no monthly salary as such. In his heyday, he was one of the first Bhutanese to be featured in US-based PBS TV documentary, Man of the People. He was also a pious man – donating part of his annual rice harvest to the monk body of Punakha Dzong for over 60 years. His genuine and selfless altruism – to go an extra mile to help anyone, made him a very special person. There is not a single adult person in Punakha district who didn’t know him.

My favourite story of his empathetic deeds, though, comes from another region – from the Oleps of Athang Rukha, a place in the Black Mountains and people that I have been associated with as a social worker for over ten years. The locals there narrates how they got their land as kidu from His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo.

It was the Year of the Dog (circa 1982) and two years had passed since we were not allowed to hunt or do tseri (shifting cultivation). We have been hunters-gatherers living off the forest since the time we existed.

We spotted this vast land left fallow in Rukha. We were told by the people of the neighbouring village of Athang that if we appealed to the King, we might be granted to settle here. So, our parents – six of them, went to Thimphu to try for the land.

After they approached the Gyalpoi Zimpoen (Chamberlain to the King), they were told that a No-Objection letter was required from the Central Monastic Body, as part of the land was their tsamdro (grazing land). So, our parents proceeded to Punakha.

When they were wandering around the Punakha Dzong not knowing where to go, a man approached them and enquired. Our parents told him that they were going to see the heads of the Monk Body – and gave him the reason. The man was shocked to see their conditions. They were neither dressed properly nor had a written application to be submitted to the Zhung Dratshang (Council for Ecclesiastical Affairs) – or carried anything with them as gifts. So, he said, “You cannot approach the lopen-zhib (the four Council members) in this condition. First, you need a written application (zutsi), and then some offerings of gifts. And you need kabney (ceremonial scarf) to enter the Dzong. If you go just swinging your arms. You will be shooed away at the entrance gate itself.”

Our parents were dazed and didn’t know what to do. They had literally come out of jungle and had no idea of such worldly decorum. Finding them totally confused, the man went again, “Don’t worry. I will help you. By the way, I am Gup Samten.”

He then took our parents to his house, fed them and hosted them for few days. Meanwhile, he wrote the application, borrowed kabneys for them and prepared gifts and presents on their behalf for the members of the Council. Then he led them to see the Dorji Lopen (vice-Abbot of Bhutan) and the other lopens – one after another – and got them to issue the no-objection letter. Then he prepared another application to His Majesty the King who gracefully granted the land.

After I heard this story from the people of Athang Rukha, my respects for Gup-drep Samten increased even further. Here was a true public servant, who didn’t think twice before going out of his way to help someone. It enhanced my confidence to help others without expecting anything back. 

Gup-drep Samten passed away peacefully – in his home town of Punakha near the Great Palace of Eternal Bliss (Pungthang Dewachen Phodrang) where he once served as Nyerchen-tsab (head of stores and finance). He was 88. Hundreds of people poured in – recounting stories such as the one above.

Days after the news of his death reached Athang Rukha, a group comprising of the sons and grandsons of those six men, travelled to Punakha to pay respects to him. This time they made sure to dress well and bring gifts too – of rice, vegetable, fruits, sugar cane, and whatever their land – which he helped get, produced. And the land on which they now have a home for some 22 households.

I have no doubt that this time Gup-drep Samten would have been pleased to see them – and not shocked.


Gup-drep means ‘former gup’ (county head), a title which stuck with him because of his association with that position 




One thought on “Gup-drep Samten – a tribute to an icon

  1. Choki Dorji

    Thank you for your beautiful story. It had touched my heart so deeply that my eyes were tearful for a moment. I also know Gup- Drep Samten when I was studying in Punskha Jogh School. Your story is a total reflection of respect and gratitude to our elders and ancestors . It’s a great inspiration to go through your beautiful stories. It’s so beautiful,,,,,,,


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