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[[File:Shabdrung.jpg|thumb|300px|Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal)] Shabdrung (also Zhabdrung; Tibetan: ཞབས་དྲུང་, Wylie: zhabs-drung; "before the feet of"), was a title used when referring to or addressing great lamas in Tibet, particularly those who held a hereditary lineage. In Bhutan the title almost always refers to Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594–1651), the founder of the Bhutanese state, or one of his successive reincarnations.


Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal

See also: Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal
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The lineage traces through the founder of the country, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, a high Drukpa Kagyu lama from Tibet who was the first to unify the warring valley kingdoms under a single rule. He is revered as the third most important figure behind Guru Rimpoche and the Buddha. Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal established the dual system of government under the Tsa Yig legal code. Under this system, political power was vested in an administrative leader, the Druk Desi, assisted by a collection of local governors or ministers called penlops. A religious leader, the Je Khenpo, held power over monastic affairs. Successive incarnations of the Shabdrung were to have ultimate authority over both spheres.


However, after the death of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1651, power effectively passed to the penlops instead of to a successor Shabdrung. In order to forestall a dynastic struggle and a return to warlordism, they conspired to keep the death of the Shabdrung secret for 54 years. During this time they issued orders in his name, explaining that he was on an extended silent retreat.


The passing of the Shabdrung is modernly celebrated as a Bhutanese national holiday, falling on the 4th month, 10th day of the Tibetan calendar.


The Successive Shabdrungs

Eventually, the ruling authorities were faced with the problem of succession. To neutralize the power of future Shabdrung incarnations, the Druk Desi, Je Khenpo and penlops conspired to recognize not a single person but rather as three separate persons — a body incarnation (Ku tulku), a mind incarnation (Thu tulku or Thugtrul), and a speech incarnation (Sung tulku or Sungtrul). In spite of their efforts to consolidate the power established by the original Shabdrung, the country sank into warring factionalism for the next 200 years. The body incarnation lineage died out in the mid-18th century, while the mind and speech incarnations of the Shabdrung continued into the 20th century. The mind incarnation was the one generally recognized as the Shabdrung.

Besides the mind incarnation, there was also a line of claimants for the speech incarnation. At the time the monarchy was founded in 1907, Choley Yeshe Ngodub (or Chogley Yeshey Ngodrup) was the speech incarnation and also served as the last Druk Desi. After his death in 1917, he was succeeded by Chogley Jigme Tenzin (1919–1949). The next claimant, unrecognized by the Bhutan government, lived at Tawang monastery in India and was evacuated to the western Himalayas during the 1962 Sino-Indian War.

Another line of claimants to be mind incarnations of Ngawang Namgyal existed in Tibet, and is now represented by Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, who resides in Italy.

List of successive Shabdrungs

Ruled Name Lived
1616–1651 Ngawang Namgyal b. 1594 - d. 1651
1698–1712 Kunga Gyaltshen b. 1689 - d. 1713
1712–1729 Phyogla Namgyal b. 1708 - d. 1736
1730–1735 Jigme Norbu b. 1717 - d. 1735
1735–1738 Mipham Wangpo b. 1709 - d. 1738
1738–1761 Jigme Dragpa I b. 1724 - d. 1761
1762–1788 Choeki Gyaltshen b. 1762 - d. 1788
1791–1830 Jigme Dragpa II b. 1791 - d. 1830
1831–1861 Jigme Norbu b. 1831 - d. 1861
1862–1904 Jigme Chogyal b. 1862 - d. 1904
1905–1931 Jigme Dorji b. 1905 - d. 1931
1939–1953 Jigme Tendzin Chogay b. 1939 - d. 1953
1955–2003 Jigme Ngawang Namgyal b. 1955 - d. 2003
Pema Namgyel b. 2003

Shabdrung deposed and exiled

In 1907, in an effort to reform the dysfunctional system, the penlops orchestrated the establishment of a Bhutanese monarchy with Ugyen Wangchuck, the penlop of Trongsa installed as hereditary king, with the support of Britain and against the wishes of Tibet. The royal family suffered from questions of legitimacy in its early years, with the reincarnations of the various Shabdrungs posing a threat. According to one Drukpa source, the Shabdrung's brother Chhoki Gyeltshen (who had been to India) challenged the 1926 accession of King Jigme Wangchuck. He was rumored to have met with Mahatma Gandhi to garner support for the Shabdrung against the King. The 7th Shabdrung, Jigme Dorji was then "retired" to Talo monastery and died in 1931, under rumors of assassination. He was the last Shabdrung recognized by Bhutan; subsequent claimants to the incarnation have not been recognized by the government.

In 1962, Jigme Ngawang Namgyal (known as Shabdrung Rimpoche to his followers) fled Bhutan for India where he spent the remainder of his life. Up until 2002, Bhutanese pilgrims were able to journey to Kalimpong, just south of Bhutan, to visit him. On April 5, 2003, the Shabdrung died. Some of his followers claim he was poisoned, while Kuensel took pains to explain he died after an extended bout with cancer.

In early 2007, reports alleged that the current Shabdrung, Pema Namgyel, who is a small child, has been held under house arrest in Bhutan along with his parents since 2005 after being invited to Bhutan from his home in India.


Traditions state that Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal was not in fact the first Shabdrung, that the lineage traces back farther in Tibetan history through Pema Karpo.