Zhabdrung Kuchoe - Remembering the Founder of Bhutan

A statue of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel
A statue of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel

Ngawang Namgyel is a Tibetan Buddhist lama who is credited as the Founder of modern day Bhutan in the 1630s; He is also accredited for institutionalizing a distinct Bhutanese cultural identity unique from its neighboring countries. Later he was granted the honorific Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. Zhabdrung translates to “at whose feet one submits” which transpired when citizenry pledged total submission by laying tribute to his feet.

Zhabdrung also established the dual system of government. The head of the state was Zhabdrung and the leader was succeeded by his reincarnation. It had the spiritual leader designated as the Je Khenpo and the secular leader known as the Druk Desi as Zhabdrung’s subordinates. Although the political institution has shifted from the dual system to Hereditary Monarchy, the political structure still maintains the division of the secular and non-secular affairs. Among many of the Dzongs built by Zhabdrung in the country, the Punakha Dzong is the most significant one. It was the principal seat of Zhabdrung himself. The Machen Zimchu within the Dzong houses the embalmed body of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel thus amplifying the significance of the Dzong.

Zhabdrung Kuchoe marks the death anniversary of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. The passing of the Zhabdrung is marked as a national holiday in Bhutan which falls on the 3rd month, 10th day of the Bhutanese calendar. According to historical accounts, his death was concealed from the public fearing disintegration of the newly formed nation. The public were simply told that Zhabdrung was meditating and would not make any public appearance. With the exception of two senior attendant monks, only the King and the Je Khenpo (Spiritual head) are allowed inside the Machen. As a tradition all Kings and Je Khenpos begin their reigns by offering prayers at this shrine.

The Thongdrol of Zhabdrung graces the central tower of the Punakha Dzong. They are displayed only on special occasions. Devotees in the country commemorate the day by paying homage to Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel by visiting sacred sites, offering prayers and butter lamps across the country.