The journey towards December 17, 1907
The genesis of Bhutan as a nation unfolds as a captivating narrative characterized by turbulence and transformation. The Zhabdrung’s demise saw the country and the government deteriorating with every generation. The subsequent generations witnessed a decline, plunging the country into anarchy and civil strife during the 18th and 19th centuries. For almost two centuries, Bhutan struggled to produce a leader capable of steering the nation out of chaos. The subsequent reincarnates of the Zhabdrung could not measure up to the greatness of Ngawang Namgyal. The reincarnates of the visionary figure, if promising, often became pawns manipulated by regional secular leaders for their gain.
However, this era of uncertainty was destined to end. In 1852, within the Dungkhar Choeje family of Kurtoe, the third son of Pila Gonpo Wangyal was born. Named Jigme Namgyel, Bhutan’s oral tradition, has it that Jigme Namgyel’s motivation was a dream he had at the age of 18, foretelling that his destiny awaited him in the service of the Penlop in Trongsa dzong. Steered and spurred by it, Jigme Namgyel left Kurtoe for Trongsa, which he entered around 1843 and found his master, the Trongsa Penlop, Ugyen Phuntsho.
Customarily, Jigme Namgyel started his career in the court of Trongsa at the lowest level, that of a garopa, (common retainer). After a brief interview, with the Penlop later, he was employed as his garopa. His efficient services soon made him the Zinkaff, (superintendent of the garopas). There was no turning back. Very soon he was made Trongsa Tsongpon, or the “trade master” of the commercial activities between Trongsa and Jakar with Tibet.
It was during this period that he met the woman destined to be his future wife. Pema Chuki, who was the daughter of Penlop Ugyen Phuntsho. In 1848, Jigme Namgyel was promoted to the rank of Trongsa Zimpon.
Later, when Tshoki Dorji was the Trongsa Penlop, Jigme Namgyel saved him from a plot to assassinate him. Showcasing his appreciation, the Penlop promised to make Jigme Namgyel the Trongsa penlop after his retirement, before his own son Tsondrue Gyaltsen.
In 1850 Jigme Namgyel was promoted to Trongsa droenyer and three years later Jigme Namgyel became the 14th Trongsa Penlop. By then he was indisputably Bhutan’s strongest leader, feared and respected.
From the 1850s to 1870s, he ushered Bhutan towards a state of peace by reducing the number of local feuds among the top leadership and gradually unifying the state over three decades. The reduction of internal conflicts, especially after 1878, allowed for the laying of the foundation of the monarchy.
Bhutan’s first Monarch, Ugyen Wangchuck was born to Trongsa Penlop Jigme Namgyel and Ashi Pema Choki in 1862 at Wangduecholing Palace in Bumthang. Even though he was the second son, yet his father named him the heir apparent. From a young age, he accompanied his father in all his activities and endeavors. He was trained in the art of leadership and warfare, from the age of nine. He worked at the courts with other servants. He was also Zingap (guard of the Master’s chamber).
When 15, he was engaged in a battle at Paro after the Penlop rebelled against father. He was kidnapped and later released. At 17, he became the Paro Penlop. Two years after appointing him to this post, his father Jigme Namgyel passed away. At 18, Jigme Namgyel had traveled from Kurtoe chasing a dream. He had realized his dream.
Jigme Namgyel lived in an age of anarchy, intrigues, and conspiracies. Through sheer strength and determination, he had eliminated all potential claimants to political power and solidified his heir’s position.
Ugyen Wangchuck was an equally commanding leader, and shrewd strategist, endowed with diplomatic skills, political judiciousness, broadminded, and tact for promoting peace and friendship before recourse to violence. In 1882, when he was 22, he became the Trongsa Penlop. He made his paternal uncle Dawa Penjor Paro Penlop. It was during this time that he faced the rebellion of his two adopted brothers, Alu Dorji(Thimphu Dzongpon) and Phuntsho Dorji(Punakha Dzongpon then). It was the last internal political struggle that Ugyen Wangchuck had to face. The battle, known as the 1885 Battle of Changligmithang also marked the end of internal feuds in Bhutan.
Externally, Ugyen Wangchuck caught the limelight because of his successful handling of the Colonel Younghusband Mission of 1903-1904. On June 14, 1903, 5 British officers, 700 troops marched from Gangtok to Tibet and reached Khampa Dzong. There was an imminent war between the mighty British and the Tibetans.
While the British initially withdrew on September 17, 1903 especially due to bad weather conditions, on December 16, 1903, 5000 Gurkha and Sikh Regiment crossed to Rinchhengang in the Chumbi Valley. However, what could have been a full-blown war was prevented by Ugyen Wangchuck, who reached there and brokered peace, between the British and the Tibetan.
The role he played and the impact it had on the British is immortalized by Younghusband himself, who put on record in 1904.
“The Tongsa Penlop himself, the principal man in Bhutan, accompanied the mission to Lhasa, put me into communication with leading men and was highly instrumental in effecting a settlement. A year ago the Bhutanese were strangers; today they are our enthusiastic allies.”
The British Raj bestowed honors upon him, reflecting his strength and administrative prowess. In 1905, he was made a “Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire”. When the Prince of Wales visited India, he traveled to Kolkata and met him officially in 1906. His strength and administrative prowess were evident even though he was not crowned the King. He visited Delhi and met King George V, the Prince of Wales during his first visit in 1906.
Meanwhile, the last of Bhutan’s secular rulers, Chogley Yeshey Ngodrup, retreated to Paro in 1905 leaving the place of Bhutan’s nominal ruler vacant.
There was nothing that could stop Ugyen Wangchuck from making history. He was powerful at home and recognized beyond as the leader of Bhutan. And at such a moment, his friend, Kazi Ugyen Dorje, petitioned the state council to elect Ugyen Wangchuck as their head.
In November 1907, an assembly of leading Buddhist monks, government officials, and heads of important families was held to end the waning 300-year-old dual system of government and to establish a new absolute monarchy.
And the following month, Bhutan underwent a historic transformation. Ugyen Wangchuck, already a recognized leader, was elected as the first hereditary Druk Gyalpo, marking the end of the dual system of government. The ceremony, immortalized in history, solidified Bhutan’s commitment to its new monarchial system.
The ceremony on December 17, 1907, sealed the birth of a nation, ushering in a new era as leaders pledged their allegiance. Fifty seals adorned the oath, heralding Bhutan’s commitment to its new monarchical system.
A nation was born!
Ugyen Tenzin from Thimphu