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Stone Inscriptions: An Early Written Medium in Bhutan and its Public Uses Ardussi, John between 2006-06 and 2006-08

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 Stone Inscriptions: An Early Written Medium in Bhutan and its Public Uses
John Ardussi
Historical Background
Public culture in Bhutan has since the earliest historical times revolved around community
life and religion. The two were interlinked in Buddhist teachings brought to Bhutan from
Tibet by monks in search of converts in what were once wilderness areas of the Himalayas.
The 13th and 14th centuries saw periodic episodes of civil warfare in Central Tibet, sparked off
by the inroads and depredations of the Mongols from Central Asia. Many Tibetan monks
viewed these events as the culmination of prophecies urging men of religion to flee to so-
called Beyul, or serene Hidden Lands along the Himalayan fringe, of which a few were
rumored to exist in Bhutan.
However Bhutan in those days was not the idyllic place of these men's imaginations. Their
biographies show that upon arrival, they found Bhutan to be a rather rough, illiterate and
rural culture, full of dangers. Hence they employed the teaching of Buddhism as a tool to
'pacify' the land and people.
For example, the famous Tibetan Drukpa monk named Lorepa came to Bumthang in 1248
AD. There, he addressed a crowd of 2,800 people whom he described as "beastlike" (dud 'gro
dang 'dra ba), "wild, and temperamental" (rgod-gtum-po).1 The local people were said to be
fond of eating meat and sacrificing animals.
One century later, the Tibetan Kagyudpa monk named Choeje Barawa fled to Bhutan from
the civil disorders in his native homeland of Gtsang, as described in one of his religious
songs:
"The powerful (families) are now mostly robbers;
There is no hope for those who want peace and happiness.
Capture, beatings, torture! Oh, what will happen?
It is time to go to Bhutan (Lho Mon), a land without strife!"2
This image of early Bhutan comes to us not only from Tibetan sources. The 18th century
history of Bhutan called Lho'i chos 'byung, completed in 1759 by the 10th Jey Khenpo Tenzin
Choegyal (1700-1767), presents a vivid picture of the social chaos that characterized western
Bhutan prior to the coming of the Zhabdrung Rinpoche and his establishment of law and
order:
"After the manner of the proverbial big fish eating the little fish, vicious
men rose up to fight and kill one another. Escorts were needed to go from
the upper part of a village to the lower. The rich robbed the poor of their
wealth and homes, and forced them into involuntary servitude. Family
feuds, fighting, and injury went on unabated. The Wang fighting the
Dgung,' and 'Fighting between the large and small factions' were common
sayings, as enemy factions reduced the country to splinters. What was
given to a Lama in the daytime was stolen again at night, while holy men
in  retreat  in  the  mountains  and  forests were   attacked  by  robbers.
Independent Scholar, CNRS - Paris; Kansas, USA
1 Lo ras pa: ff.67.b-68.a; ShE>-la, Chos rje lo ras-pa'i tmamthar, ff.24.b, 26.b.
2 Ba'-ra Rnam-mgur 112.a: dbang ches 'phrog joms byed pa'i mang lugs la // so gsod bde
skyid re ba'i snying med po // bskyigs brdungs tshan chu byung na ji 'dra 'ong // lho mon
gnod 'tshe med sar 'gro re ran / /.
 Visiting yogins from India were seized and sold into slavery, religious
images were destroyed and made into women's ornaments. By these and
other kinds of barbaric behavior were the holy sites in this Hidden Land
destroyed. On account of this, the local spirits rose up against the
people, bringing strife and death, so that they took to placating them
with offerings of meat and blood. All of these things characterized this
land in that era of strife and the Five Defilements."3
The Zhabdrung Rinpoche and the Establishment of Social Order
As is well known, the Zhabdrung Rinpoche came to Bhutan in 1616 as a political refugee
from Tibet, and within a decade he had founded the first unified state government in western
Bhutan. One of his most important achievements was the imposition of law and order. In
contrast to the anarchy thought to have prevailed before the Zhabdrung's coming, his
biographer, Tsang Khenchen writes that
"He suppressed all robbery, banditry, and other malicious behavior
including disrespectfulness, lack of compassion, ungratefulness and
disregard for fear and injury caused to others. By these [acts of the
Zhabdrung] the entire country became peaceful and prosperous; it was
like a proverbial Era of Good Fortune."4
Government Media in 17th Century Bhutan
Every government in history faces the task of communication with its people. The question
may well be asked, what means did the Zhabdrung's fledgling government employ to
publicize even the fact of its existence? What were its governing policies, and how did it
communicate them, to residents within the country and to states on the frontier? I would
argue that the formation of a public media in Bhutan began in the 17th century with the
Zhabdrung Rinpoche's need to communicate these messages. It is instructive to consider
what forms this took, and how it developed.
In the first place, we must remember that the governing model adopted by the Zhabdrung
was the so-called 'two-fold' system wherein religion and the state were conceived of as being
linked together, as parallel entities of government. The Zhabdrung was first and foremost a
religious figure. He was the exiled head of Ralung monastery in Tibet together with its
monastic patrimony of monasteries and estates that had accumulated since the time of his
ancestor Tsangpa Gyare (1161-1211). The original governing structure adopted in Bhutan, I
have argued elsewhere,5 was based in part on this monastic precedent. For the monks in his
entourage, in residence at the state monasteries and who were literate, the Zhabdrung
composed a written code of behavior called the Tsayig Chenmo (Ch. Rtsa-yig chen-mo).
But there were, obviously, no modern means of mass communication. Neighboring states
could thus be contacted only by official letter, carried by emissaries or runners. We know
from his biography written by Tsang Khenchen (1610-1684), our primary source on the
Zhabdrung's life, that following his decision to found a new government congratulatory gifts
were sent to him from places on all sides of Bhutan. We have several references to such
3 LCB (completed in 1759) 7.a-b, repeating, verbatim, a passage composed ca. 1675 by Gtsang
Mkhan-chen in his biography of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (Dpal 'brug pa rinpo che ngag
dbang rnam rgyal gyi rnam par thar pa rgyas pa chos kyi sprin chen po'i dbyangs, folio Nga
2.b-3.a). The Wang and Dgung are believed to have been ethnic groups of earlier centuries.
4 LNDRR Nga: 146.a-b.
5 John Ardussi, "Formation ofthe State of Bhutan ( "Brug gzhung) in the 17th century and its
Tibetan Antecedents," p. xxx.
 communications between the Zhabdrung and rulers in both India and Tibet.
But within Bhutan, personal written communication with the ordinary, illiterate citizenry
would have been impractical. Instead, we see from the Zhabdrung's biography that he spent
a great deal of time moving his camp from place to place, meeting people and giving
blessings and lectures on religion. The Jesuit monks Cabral and Cacella who visited the
Zhabdrung in 1627 traveled with his entourage for more than two months before reaching his
monastery at Cheri.
But verbal communication was also limited in its reach. For example, the Zhabdrung never
seems to have traveled east of Wangdiphodrang. To extend his message to other parts of
Bhutan he appointed personal emissaries and teachers, including his own father Tenpai
Nyima who was sent to eastern Bhutan about the time that the Zhabdrung himself first came
to western Bhutan.
The Introduction of Stone Inscriptions as a Medium of Public Communication
What might be called the second phase of the Zhabdrung's programme for governing Bhutan
began with the period of Dzong construction, beginning with Semtokha in 1629, and ending
with Lingzhi and Gasa in about 1646.6 The two capital fortress-monasteries of Punakha and
Tashichhodzong were founded, respectively, in 1637 and 1641. The rationale for these
massive buildings was initially defensive, to withstand invasionary forces from Tibet, a
purpose for which they were singularly successful. No Tibetan or Mongol army ever gained a
foothold in Bhutan during the lifetime of the Zhabdrung or his immediate successors.
From sometime between the completion of Punakha Dzong and the Zhabdrung's final retreat
(and probable death) in 1651, we become aware of a new form of public communications
medium having been launched in Bhutan, which introduces the main topic of this paper,
namely the inscription of public messages on stone.
The first such document to which I call attention is one of the most remarkable physical
remains of Bhutanese history, the slate inscription containing the Zhabdrung Rinpoche's
written law code. It is a unique monument that has remained nearly intact for more than 350
years, and yet has attracted almost no attention from historians of Bhutan. However, time
prevents me today from going much beyond its bare description.
Unlike the Tsayig Chenmo, the code of behavior prescribed to the monks living in
monasteries, the Zhabdrung's law code was written to publicly broadcast the rules of
behavior imposed primarily upon the ministers of state and their deputies. No contemporary
paper copies have come down to us, and it is preserved today only in the form of the stone
slate (rDo-nag) inscription panels outside the Small Dzong or Dzong-chung of Punakha. The
inscription contains clear evidence of its having been dictated by the Zhabdrung Rinpoche
himself. For instance it bears the title Khams gsum chos kyi rgyal po dpal ldan 'brug pa rin
po che ngag gi dbang po phyogs thams cad las rnam par rgyal ba'i bka' khrims gser gyi
gnya' shing zhe bya ba'i gtam: "'The Golden Yoke of Legal Edicts', [as dictated] by the
Dharmaraja of the Three Realms, the Glorious Drukpa Rinpoche Ngawang Namgyal."
Further on in the same preamble the author clearly states that "I, the Glorious Drukpa
Rinpoche, the Dharmaraja, He who is Possessed of Magical Power, Destroyer of Enemy
Forces, have erected this of my own intent." 7 Regrettably, I do not yet have a photograph to
6 The founding of Tongsa was the work of the 3rd Druk Desi, Mingyur Tenpa, at an uncertain
date ca. 1650.
7 Nged dpal ldan 'brug pa rin po che mthu chen chos kyi rgyal po bdud dpung joms pa'i rdo
 illustrate the Zhabdrung's slate inscription, and I thank His Excellency Supreme Court Justice
Sonam Tobgye for providing me with a Choekey copy of the transcription.
Later versions of the Zhabdrung's legal code had other titles, such as 'The Pure Mirror of the
Two-Fold System [of religious and secular law]' (a document so far still lost), mentioned in a
text completed in 1720, and finally the expanded law code promulgated by the 10th Druk Desi
Mpham Wangpo which survives in an appendix to the 1759 history of Bhutan by the 10th
Desi Tenzin Chogyal.8
Stone Inscriptions on Prayer Walls
The law codes to which we have referred are rather complex documents, containing many
obscure terms and ministerial titles. One would assume that they were not easily understood
by commoners, at least in all their ramifications. And yet, at their heart, there remain the
fundamental moral injunctions common to all Tibetan cultural milieu, such as the prohibition
against theft, murder, etc., harking back to the law code attributed to Tibet's first great ruler,
Srongtsen Gampo. Furthermore, all of these legal documents presumed the universal
applicability of Buddhism and its moral teachings. They served the public purpose to
promote law and order, and constitute a clear statement to the reading citizenry of how
governance under the so-called 'Two-fold' system was meant to occur.
There is yet another, related form of stone inscription found much more commonly
throughout Bhutan, that also served as a medium of public communication. This
took the form of inscriptions carved on stone prayer walls, called Mani Dangrim
(?ma ni dang ring). As we shall see, some of these inscription walls long predate the
coming of the Zhabdrung. They are also an architectural form and communications
medium in use in neighboring countries sharing Tibet and Bhutan's Buddhist sociopolitical heritage. They merge in form and purpose with the Chhorten, and in most
instances the two types of structure are found together.
A surprising number of Mani Dangrim, of all shapes and sizes, have survived in Bhutan from
centuries past. They line the old public by-ways in both the east and west, sometimes in
hidden places along near-forgotten tracks. They were clearly meant to be touched and read
by passers-by, and so a comprehensive survey might reveal much about the location of
Bhutan's pre-modern paths and roadways. These monuments, too, have been almost entirely
neglected by students of Bhutan history, at least in formal publications.9
We estimate that the construction of these quasi-religious structures was generally sponsored
by a local ruler or other village governing body. They contain written prayers exhorting
people to moral behavior or at a rmnirnurn the six-syllable Mani prayer or other power
rjer bsam bzhin du bzhengs pa yin pas /. The names Mthu-chen and Bdud-'joms rdo-rje were
epithets of power that the Zhabdrung used of himself in his various writings and letters.
8 See BDRR: 278.a where the title of his law code is given as "The Pure Mirror of the Two-fold
System [of religious and secular laws]" (Lugs gnyis kyi bka' khrims gtsang ma'i me long).
Independent MS copies of the 10th Desi's law code are also in circulation in Bhutan. Their
relationship to the version in the Lho'i chos 'byung remains to be established.
9 The first to deal with the topic would appear to be Mr. Dorji Namgyel, in a paper presented
at a seminar held in March, 2005 by the National Museum of Bhutan, of which the final
proceedings are not yet published. His paper was entitled "Mani Dangrim: An endangered
Tangible Cultural Heritage." The only other published study that I know of to date is my own
article "A 17th century Stone Inscription from Ura Village, Journal of Bhutan Studies vol. 11,
2005.
 mantras, repeated many times. In effect, they continued the 'pacification' process and the
promotion of law and order, begun by the early travelling monks and later through
government sponsorship.
We see in these stone monuments, in my view, the earliest public written medium in Bhutan,
in effect a form of government injunction to the citizenry: "Recite the Mani Prayer, 'Om mani
padma hum', and you will bring good fortune upon yourself and upon the land." A
seventeenth century biography of the monk Ngawang Samten, who was a life-long attendant
upon the 3rd Druk Desi Mingyur Tenpa (r. 1667-1680), tells us how this ruler famously
sponsored the construction of many such prayer walls.
"For twelve years the great protector of the land Mingyur Tenpa bore the
burden of the two-fold religious system [church and state linked together
under common rule], sealing up the borders against enemies by
constructing strong forts similar to Lcang-lo-can [Alakavati in Indian
Buddhist mythology], such that the enemy could not bear to look (let
alone attack). The extent of his authority exceeded even that of the two
previous Desi. He subdued malicious beings and established them upon
the path of virtue. He filled all the districts beneath his rule with mani
walls, chortens, and temples."10
In the balance of this paper, I shall survey several Mani Dangrim, drawing some conclusions
based on their common and unique characteristics.
Examples of Prayer Walls from Eastern and Western Bhutan
The oldest of these inscription walls that I am aware of come from eastern Bhutan.
To begin, I show a Mani wall from a ruined village near Trashigang, identified as
Jamkhar, which I take to be identical with the place called Byams-mkhar or Jam-
mkhar in the history of eastern Bhutan called the Rgyal rigs.11 The site is connected
with the legendary 9th-century refugee prince from Tibet known as Lhase Tsangma,
who became the founder of ruling lineages in eastern Bhutan. The site is located on
a low ridge west of the main roadway, about three miles north of Trashigang and
south of the modern hillside village called Jamkhar. Alongside the pathway through
the site are found old Chhorten structures, recently vandalized, and a small prayer
wall illustrated here (Fig. I).12
A much more important castle site, brought to my attention some years ago by Francoise
Pommaret, is the ruined bastion known Tsenkharla (Ch. Btsan-mkhar or Btsan-mkhar-la), lit.
the "fortress of the Btsan, the king." It is located on a high ridge above the Kholong river,
about ten miles northwest of Trashigang (Fig. 2-3). This ruin is situated in a clearly defensive
location, and could well be the bastion known as Mzirnpa in eastern Bhutanese history and
legend, as local traditions hold it to be. Other than the Rgyal rigs this bastion or castle is
10 Ngag dbang bsam gtan: 28.b-29.a. See also Lho'i chos 'byung: 95.a. I wish to correct a
statement in my JBS article on the stone inscription of Ura, that was not changed during the
final edit. The most likely date of this inscription in my opinion is 1651-1667, i.e. the period
ofthe Desi's rule as Chos-rtse Dpon-slob, not the years 1667-1680 as stated in the article.
11 Rgyal rigs: 12.b. The date of this source is given by Aris as 1728, but in my view dates from
1668, i.e. sixty years earlier.
12 I cover this site in more detail in my forthcoming article entitled "A Preliminary
Investigation of Bhutanese Castle Ruins and Caves associated with Lha sras Gtsang ma, in
PIATS 10.
 referred to in only a single historical source known to me, namely the biography of the Sixth
Dalai Lama, whose mother's family claimed descent from the exiled Tibetan prince who built
it. In that text written by the famous Tibetan Desi Sanggye Gyamtsho (1653-1705), however, it
was not Lhase Tsangma but rather his uncle, the legendary dog-faced 'prince' named
Chikharathoe who built the castle that this author calls M-zrrn mkhar, which is to say an
abbreviation for Mi-zrm-pa'i btsan-mkhar.13
In 2002, together with professor Ugyen Pelgen from Sherubtse College, I collected a small
wood sample from the window frame of Tsenkharla and had it dated in the USA by Carbon-
14 method. The results show that this mountain-top bastion dates with high probability to
the period 1425-1440,14 and not to the 9th century. As I have proposed in another article, this
construction may be tied to the arrival of still another refugee from central Tibet, one of the
defeated princes of Phagmodru who then ruled Tibet. It remains to determine if the Mani
wall located on the trail nearby is from the same era as the bastion itself.
My last examples from eastern Bhutan (Fig. 3) come from the steep, wooded slopes below the
monastery of Dramitse. As is the case throughout these eastern valleys, all transportation was
formerly by walking or horse along mountain trails connecting the hillside villages and
monasteries. The valley floors are steep and subject to annual floods. The old trail up to
Dramitse from the valley floor is now bypassed by the motor road, and one would otherwise
miss these old prayer walls. The inscription wall shown here is highly dilapidated. Yet the
decaying artwork exquisitely illustrates the Buddhist notion of Impermance. None of the
walls shown here, however, contain any inscriptions other than the six-syllable Mani prayer
and other mantras.
As we survey prayer walls from the 17th century and later, we find that their inscriptions
begin to contain more historical information: the names of people, rulers, and clues as to the
date of creation. It is as if the wall's message has evolved along with the sophistication of
government, "Recite the Mani prayer! Behave in a moral way! But remember, also, who
sponsored the wall, who built it, and who paid for it!" Recently I have written about the
beautifully preserved 17th century Mani wall found within the village of Ura. (Fig. 4-6). The
inscription tells us that wall was created at the behest of the famous Penlop Mingyur Tenpa
(r. 1651-1667) and funded by the local ruler of Ura during that era. It also tells us the names of
the artisans who carved the inscription and who built the structure as an act of religious
piety. This inscription is one of the earliest known to me that can be dated, but our discovery
of such walls is just beginning.
Further to the west, and skipping some other interesting inscription walls in the east, for lack
of time, I will focus for a moment on the grand Chorten and prayer wall at Chendebji, which
is located east of Pelela on the roadway to Trongsa (Fig. 7-9). This large monument is said to
date from the 18th century, as can be gleaned from its large dedication inscription which
mentions a nearby monastery and its patrons. The inscription has yet to be properly studied
or published. The text is difficult to decipher due to the heavy protective white-wash,
common to these inscriptions.
Numerous large prayer walls are located in the Thimphu valley, including the relatively new
one located near the monastic training college above Tashichhodzong (Fig. 10-11).
is Dalai Lama VI: 149.
14 The C14 dates refer to the year when the wood stopped growing, i.e. was cut down. We may
suppose that the construction took place within five years or so of these dates.
 An enormous prayer wall, with numerous dedicatory inscriptions, lies along the roadway
north of Paro. The distinctive feature of this wall is the numerous slate panels which are
individually inscribed by a different stone carver, several of which are illustrated in these
slides (Fig. 12-15). None are dated, however, but local experts may be able to provide further
insight into the circumstances of the wall's construction.
A similar prayer wall along the river bank south of Paro contains similar dedicatory
inscriptions (Fig. 16-18), though lacking a precise date.
Lastly (Fig. 19-22), I show here several sections from a massive prayer wall located along the
pathway to the now abandoned Dobji Dzong on a high promontory approaching the Ha
valley above the roadway south of Paro. I am in the process of translating the inscriptions,
which name the sponsors and local officials. It seems to date from the 18th or 19th century,
although the Dzong itself was first constructed in the 16th century.
Conclusions
The Mani Dangrim or "prayer wall" is an architectural form having the purpose to
communicate prayerful wishes to the traveler. Its architectural roots He in the Buddhist
chhorten traditions common to Bhutan, Tibet, and other nearby Buddhist countries. To take
but a single example, I show here (Fig. 23-25) pictures of an enormous prayer wall located
near Garni in Mustang, along the Tibetan border of northwestern Nepal. Some of its
inscriptions, of which I do not have photos, are said to recite episodes from the history of
Mustang. An anthropologist studying Mustang has recently informed me,
"The positionality of the wall in Mustang's landscape speaks also to a
certain type of territorial marker, one more temporal and political than
the place it also occupies within the myth of subduing of the srin mo
(demoness) - the Mustangi iteration of the archetypal Tibetan myth about
Buddhism (and Guru Rinpoche) subduing more indigenous traditions
and practices. (This particular mani wall is said to be the intestines of
the demoness.) Garni marks one of the borders of Lode Tsho Dun (glo sde
tsho bdun), the seven principalities of the kingdom of Lo. So, it would
make sense that social geography and political territory was marked in
this particular way."i5
The Mani wall is, altogether, a form of public work, a medium of communication created by
local communities to cement the social fabric and to articulate a common dedication to the
principles of Buddhism. It is a kind of public message board that communicates an
essentially Buddhist theme of mindfulness, devotion, and community spirit. The inscription
stones may contain simple prayers, or in their later forms significant historical information
about the sponsors, creators, artisans, and their times. It is an endangered cultural heritage
worthy of study and preservation.
Bibliography
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bio bzang rin chen tshangs dbyangs rgya mtsho'i thun mong phyi'i rnam par
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ngag dbang bsam gtan gyi rnam par thar pa skal bzang bung ba dga' byed utpal
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