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A 17th Century Stone Inscription from Ura Village Ardussi, John 2004-12

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 A 17th Century Stone Inscription from Ura Village
John A. Ardussi
In traditional times, Ura was the south-easternmost of the
districts of central Bhutan called Bum-thang sDe-bzhi - 'the
Four Districts of Bumthang.' Within the district are found
some of the oldest datable Bhutanese monasteries such as
Sombrang, connected to the Drigung Kagyudpa subsect of the
Lhapa, constructed ca. 1230 AD by the Smyos Lama named
Demchog(l 179-1265).i
Before its incorporation into the Zhabdrung Rinpoche's
centralized Drukpa ecclesiastic state during the mid 17th
century, Ura was apparently ruled by a line of petty kings,
known as the Ura Gyalpo, barely mentioned in Bhutanese
histories and about whom little is remembered today. At other
times in Ura's history it was ruled, or at least dominated by
strongmen claiming Tibetan ancestry known as the Ura Dung
(Choekey: Gdung).2 Remnants of those days are found in
hillside castle ruins of Gdung Nag-po and in the traditional
nomenclature of several homes in Ura that reflect their past
functional relationship to the house that once served as the
old royal residency, situated at the top of the hill.3 Today, Ura
is located just south of the lateral road leading to Mongar and
eastern Bhutan and is perhaps best known to tourists for its
annual yak dance (Yag Shoed) festival.
In May, 2002, during a visit to Bhutan for historical research,
I had the privilege of staying for a night in the village of Ura.4
The next morning we walked along an ancient pathway
leading westward through the center of the village. The
pathway winds among the homes, connecting them to village
fields to the south and west. As we passed by the home of the
Ura gup (Ch. Rged po) the traditional headman of Ura, I was
surprised to discover ourselves in the presence of a large, well
preserved prayer wall (Ch. Ma ni thang) (see Fig. 2, 3). The
wall is about 100 feet in length, 7 feet high, and divided into
 two unequal sections. In the gap between them is constructed
a square chorten or stupa of typical Bhutanese style from
earlier centuries. Both the walls and stupa are constructed of
traditional piled, whitewashed cemented stone with slate roof.
At shoulder height along the wall is a continuous stone lintel
on which are inset a series of slate inscription panels, painted
maroon. Typically, such slate inscriptions contain Sanskrit
and Choekey (literary Tibetan) mantras, especially the six-
syllable mani prayer to Guru Rinpoche Om mani padme
Hum! Indeed, the splendid Ura prayer wall contains many
such panels in various states of preservation. The structure
conveys the overall impression of a treasured historical
monument that has been carefully maintained by generations
of local citizens.
Such prayer walls, though on a lesser scale, are found
elsewhere in Bhutan, such as on the way to Kyichu Lhakhang
north of Paro, and beside the Chendebji chorten on the
roadway to Bumthang. Small prayer walls also dot the
traditional foot trails connecting hillside villages and
monasteries in eastern Bhutan such as those of Dramitse and
Except for the Chendiji prayer wall, which has an inscription
stone, these old monuments are often difficult to date or place
in any specific historical setting. Much to our good fortune,
however, the Ura mani wall contains a well-preserved
dedication inscription (Fig. 4), naming its founder as one of
Bhutan's most famous civil rulers ofthe 17th century, the 3rd
Druk Desi Minjur Tenpa (Ch. Mi 'gyur Brtan pa) (1613-1681).
The wall with its inscription stone are therefore important
historical relics. Although brief, the inscription provides some
tantalizing insights into the history of Ura and central Bhutan.
 Original Text
=fj  K^-^q-S|-qg,j;-sq?3:-q^i-sq'r|q-;Ti=;^^i-3:^i|  H^'tr^3!'^ g^y^-^'lt]  mr
Inscription (line numbers added):
[l]Om Svasti // spyan ras gzigs dbang de la phyag [2] tsha[l]
lo // yig drug chos sbyin grangs med spel phyrr du // dpon
[3] slob mi 'gyur brtan pas bkas gdams nas / / shar gyi btsun
pa bla ma dbang [4] dang ni // kun bzang gsang bdag
bstan 'dzin chos dbang dang / / bzo bo btsan (?) [5] khyab gu
ru rnams kyis brkos //do dam dkar brgyud bstan 'dzin rta
mgrin [6] gnyis // yon bdag ur sbas rgyal blon rnams kyis
byas // gzong gi bzo [7] bo a pha rgyal mtshan yin //
dge 'di'gro kun sangs rgyas thob par shog / / [8] bkra shis / /
Om Well-being! I bow in reverence to Lord Chenrezig
(Avalokiteshvara). In order to increase the countless number
of those reciting the Six-syllable prayer (the mani prayer), at
the command of Penlop Mingyur Tenpa, the monks of Shar
and Lama Wang, Kunzang, Sangdag, Tenzin and Choewang,
together with the craftsmen Tsankhyab and Guru, have
crafted (this mani wall and inscriptions). The laborers were
the two Kargyud (monks) Tenzin and Tarndin. The patrons
were the king and ministers of Ur-sbas (or U-ra sbas). The
chisel-scribe (gzong gi bzo zo) was Apha Gyaltshan. May the
virtue of this (deed) lead all sentient beings to Buddhahood!
Good fortune!
 Historical Commentary
Other than the famous Desi himself, none of the names in
this inscription can be identified. They were local monks and
citizens who made no other mark worthy of the history books.
The project's financial patrons were, as per custom, the local
chieftains, in this case the unnamed "king and ministers of
Ur-sbas or Ur-ra Sba axe variants of an ancient name for Ura,
interpreted to mean "Ura the Hidden," i.e. a Hidden Land or
"Beyul" (Ch. sbas-yul). Long before the advent of Drukpa
monks to the area, Bumthang was a center of Nyingmapa
Buddhist religious activity. The Nyingmapa were the Tibetan
sect that chiefly extolled the teachings of the 8th century
Indian saint Padmasambhava. It was his prophecies that
ordained the concealment of spiritual texts in such 'Hidden
Lands' in the Himalayan valleys as Bumthang, although Ura
is not specifically mentioned in any such text known to me. A
famous Eulogy to Bumthang was written in 1355 by the
Tibetan Nyingmapa saint Longchenpa (1308-1363). One
century later, Bumthang was also the birthplace of Bhutan's
most famous native saint, Pema Lingpa (1450-1521). Local
legends also say that a descendant of the Tibetan king Thri
Srongdetsen took birth in "the Hidden Land of Ura Sba,"5 a
notion further hinted at in Longchenpa's Eulogy.6
The fact that the local king and ministers still apparently held
some measure of local authority, even though "at the
command" of the Penlop Mingyur Tenpa, tends to confirm
what we learn from contemporary Bhutanese sources that
such local rulers were generally left in power, having once
submitted to the overall authority of the Zhabdrung's
government in the west. By contrast, we know that other local
lords of Bumthang, such as the Choekhor Poenpo (Ch. Chos-
'khor dpon-po) refused to submit and were either killed by the
Desi or escaped to Tibet.7
We know very little about the 3rd Desi Mingyur Tenpa's early
 life. Bhutanese sources state only that he was a Tibetan of a
family known as Smin-'khyud. Their ancestral estates may
have been in Lhobrak, not far from Bumthang.8 Like most
early Bhutanese officials, in early life he was a monk, and
was appointed to serve as resident lama at the monastery of
Dargye Goenpa in eastern Bhutan. He rose to initial
prominence in 1651, when, on the Zhabdrung's retirement
from public life (and probable death), the 1st Druk Desi Tenzin
Drukgye appointed him to serve as Choetse Chila, that is to
say the Chila (Ch. Spyi-bla) of Trongsa Fortress, formally
known as Chos 'khor rab brtan rise or Chos rise for short.9
The title Chila (Ch. Spyi-bla) first appears in Tibetan Sakya
history, and seems to have designated a monk official
deputed to oversee monasteries in frontier districts. During
the 16th century, the Drukpa rulers of Ralung also appointed
a Chila to oversee their monasteries and estates in Bhutan
and S.E. Tibet. Prior to his assumption of the title Choetse
Chila, Mingyur Tenpa was also known by the title Mon
Drubdey Chila, i.e. 'Superintendent Lama of the Mon
Monasteries' in eastern Bhutan.10
Thus, the position of Chila was originally monastic-
administrative in nature. When, as part of the Zhabdrung's
initiative to extend government rule and collect taxes in what
is now eastern Bhutan, the role of monastic superintendent
became expanded into that of district governor, the title
Choetse Chila further evolved into that of Choetse Penlop.
In 1651, at the time of Mingyur Tenpa's appointment, central
and eastern Bhutan were just being incorporated into the
centralized Bhutanese state. The initial thrust of the Bhutan
government was to found new monasteries in these lands.
Indeed, the Zhabdrung's own father Mipham Tenpei Nyima
(1567-1619) had been instrumental in the spread of Drukpa
monasticism into eastern Bhutan.
Mingyur Tenpa was by disposition a forceful overseer of the
Zhabdrung's interests. By 1667, when he was appointed to
the highest civil office in the Bhutanese government, that of
 Druk Desi, he had already accomplished the subjection of
Bhutan's central and eastern districts and founded the great
fortress Dzongs from which the east was ruled. The account
of these campaigns is briefly recorded in a small 17th century
text called the Clear Mirror of History, and from a variety of
other contemporary sources.11 After 1667, the Desi initiated a
similar campaign to subdue territories in the west and
southwest, extending into Sikkim and the Chumbi Valley of
The era of Mingyur Tenpa's administration were years of
continued strife with Tibet. The final 'retreat' or death of the
Zhabdrung was known almost immediately to the Tibetan
authorities in Lhasa, with whom Bhutan had been at odds
since the Zhabdrung's advent to Bhutan. The creation of the
mani wall from Ura surely falls within the context of the
Desi's deeds to consolidate law and order within the emerging
state of Bhutan. We are told most aptly of this in the
biography his personal attendant Ngawang Samten (1631-
1709), where it is written:
Then 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,13 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. He produced in the eyes of
beings the nectar of merit. With force he placed them onto the
path of deliverance. He founded meditation hermitages among
the mountain peaks. He provided all manner of gifts of
support and sustenance to the monks in various monasteries,
just as in the times of King Dharmapala in India.14 And at the
behest of this great man the holy Dharma of the Buddha was
taught widely, most particularly the doctrines of the
Given the Desi's long career in eastern Bhutan, from 1651 -
 1667, one might be tempted to date the prayer wall to that
period. Nevertheless, I am inclined to view its construction as
belonging to the years of his service as Desi, 1667-1680. For
it was only during that period that Mingyur Tenpa held the
title Penlop (Ch. Dpon-slob) that is found in the inscription.16
We may speculate further on his motive for sponsoring the
prayer wall, that it was a way to reestablish relations with the
village whose king he had recently defeated. Such religious
construction projects were a tool of diplomacy adopted also by
later Bhutanese rulers. During the 18th century, the 13th Desi
Sherab Wangchuk (1697-1765) cosponsored with the 7th
Dalai Lama several major temple reconstruction projects, as a
way of repairing political relations between Bhutan and Tibet.
Their joint restoration of the Drukpa home monastery of
Ralung in Tibet was completed in 1749, followed in 1756 by
an extensive and costly restoration of Punakha Dzong for
which the Dalai Lama contributed about ten percent of the
cost, including bullion for a new golden cupola.16
The study of Bhutanese history is still in its beginnings.
Epigraphy, the study of stone inscriptions, while not a major
source of historical information for the country, will have an
important role to play given the extensive devastation of
Bhutan's written archives as a result of periodic fires in the
dzongs. The 18th century legal code inscribed on slate outside
the Dzong Chung at Punakha is perhaps the most substantial
and accessible such monument. We know of a few other
dedication inscriptions as well. The passage cited above
suggests that Mingjur Tenpa himself ordered the construction
of numerous prayer walls. It is certainly possible that some
may still remain, with inscriptions useful to historians. We
hope that this small article will encourage Bhutanese
students of history to tackle these projects at an early date.
16 Yon-tan Mtha '-yas: 62.b-70.b). These events are also described in the 7th Dalai
Lama's biography (Dalai Lama 7: 409.b; 429.a, 439.b-440.a, 460.b). On the 18th
century rapprochement between Tibet and Bhutan, see Ardussi (1997).
 Figure 1 Ura Inscription
Figure 2 Ura Mani-wall and a Chhoeten
Ardussi, John (1997). "The Rapprochement between Bhutan
and Tibet under the Enlightened Rule of Sde-srid XIII
Shes-rab-dbang-phyug (r. 1744-63)." In Helmut Krasser,
et al, eds. Tibetan Studies. PIATS 7 Graz 1995: 17-27.
Wien: Verlag der Osterreichischen Akademie der
Wissenschaften. (Reprinted in Journal of Bhutan Studies,
vol. 1 no. 1, Thimphu, 1999).
 (2004).  "The gDung Lineages of Central and Eastern
Bhutan - A Reappraisal of their Origin, Based on Literary
Sources." In Ura, Karma & Sonam Kinga (eds) The Spider
and the Piglet. Thimphu: The Centre for Bhutan Studies,
Aris, Michael (1979). Bhutan. The Early History of a
Himalayan Kingdom. Warminster, Aris & Phillips.
    (1986).   Sources for  the  History   of Bhutan.   Wien:
Arbeitskreis fur Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien
Universitat Wien.
Bla-ma Gsang-sngags (1983). 'Brug tu 'od gsal lha'i gdung rabs
'byung tshul  brjod pa  smyos  rabs gsal  ba'i  me  long.
(English   title:   A   History   of the   Various   Lineages   of
Descendants of the Nyo Clan in Bhutan). Thimphu:   Mani
Dorji, Druk Sherik Parkhang.
Dalai Lama V = Ngag-dbang-blo-bzang-rgya-mtsho (1617-82).
Za hor gyi bande ngag dbang bio bzang rgya mtsho'i 'di
snang 'phrul pa'i rol rtsed rtogs brjod gyi tshul du bkod pa
du ki la'i gos bzang. Autobiography ofthe 5th Dalai Lama.
3 vols. Reprinted by Tashi Dorje, Dolanji India, 1982.
Dalai Lama 7 = Lcang-skya Rol-pa'i-rdo-rje [1717-86]. Rgyal
ba'i dbang po thams cad mkhyen gzigs rdo rje 'chang bio
bzang bskal bzang rgya mtsho'i zhal snga nas kyi rnam
par thar pa mdo tsam brjod pa dpag bsam rin po che'i
snye ma. Xylograph edition.
Dasho Tenzin Dorje (1984). Bod rje mnga' bdag khri rai pa can
gyi sku mched lha sras gtsang ma'i gdung brgyud 'phel
rabs dang 'bangs kyi mi rabs mched khungs lo rgyus gsal
ba'i sgron me. Bhutan (Thimphu?).
Lcags Stag Zhib Gzhung. Lhasa: Krung go'i bod kyi shes rig
dpe skrun khang, 1989.
 Ngag dbang bsam gtan = Gsang-sngags-rgya-mtsho. Rje grub
pa'i dbang phyug ngag dbang bsam gtan gyi rnam par
tharpa skal bzang bung ba dga' byed utpal dkarpo'i 'khri
shing. Thimphu, National Library of Bhutan, 1984.
(reprint). (The biography of Ngag-dbang-bsam-gtan
[1631-1709], written at Mtha'-brag ri-khrod near
Rje Mkhan-po X Bstan-'dzin-chos-rgyal [1700-1767] (1731-
59). Lho'i chos 'byung bstan pa rin po che'i 'phro mthud
jam mgon smon mtha'i 'phreng ba gtso bor skyabs mgon
rin po che rgyal sras ngag dbang rnam rgyal gyi rnam thar
kun gyi go bde gsal bar bkod pa bcas. Religious history of
Bhutan. Xylograph.
Rje Mkhan-po VI Ngag-dbang-lhun-grub [1673-1730] (1720).
Mtshungs med chos kyi rgyal po rje rin po che'i rnam par
thar pa bskal bzang legs bris 'dod pa'i re skong dpag
bsam gyi snye ma. 383 folios. Biography of the 4th Druk
Desi Tenzin Rabgye (1638-1696).
Yon-tan-mtha'-yas [1724-1784] (1765/6). Chos rgyal chen po
shes rab dbang phyug gi dge ba'i cho ga rab tu gsal ba'i
gtam mu tig do shah 95 folios. Biography ofthe 13th Druk
Desi Sherab Wangchuck [1697-1767]. Reprinted in
Masterpieces of Bhutanese Biographical Literature, New
Delhi, 1970.
1Smyos rabs: 106-107. For abbreviations, see the Bibliography.
2 On the Ura Gdung, see the discussion in Aris (1979):125-133. The
earliest surviving version of their ancestry is traced in the 17th
century Rgyal-rigs by monk Ngawang (translated in Aris 1986: 47-
56; Choekey text in Dasho Tenzin Dorje: 64-78); see also Ardussi
(2004). Gdung Nag-po was also known as Ura Gyalpo, during his era.
3 I am grateful to Karma Ura for supplying details on this matter
(email dated 10/31/04). This topic is worthy of further ethnographic
description for what it may reveal about Ura's past history.
4 I stayed at the home of Karma Ura's brother Dorji Wangchuk, a
member of the National Assembly of Bhutan
5 Lopen Pema, 'Brug gi rgyal rabs: 69-70. Lopen Pema describes his
source as the Rnam-mgur or "Biography and Songs" of a certain
Lama Karma Thinley of Klu-dga' ra-ba monastery in Choekhor valley.
6 Bum thang lha'i sbas yul gyi bkod pa me tog skyed tshal (Gsung
 thor-bu: 23.b).
7 Rje Mkhan-po IX Shakya-rin-chen [1710-1759]. Byang chub sems
dpa' chen po kun tu dga' ba'i rgyal mtshan dpal bzang po'i rtogs pa
brjod pa dpag bsam yongs 'du'i snye m: 21.a-22.a. (Biography of
Gyelse Kunga Gyaltsen [1689-1714]).
8 In the Fifth Dalai Lama's aubiography, the Bhutanese Desi's family
name is spelled Smon-skyid (Dalai Lama V, vol. Ga: f. 197.a). A
small district of that name is mentioned in the Tibetan Iron Tiger
[1830] Survey Records (Lcags stag zhib gzhung: 228) within Gri-gu
prefecture in Lhobrak. Gri-gu lies just across the Tibetan frontier
from Bumthang where the Desi's later career in Bhutan began.
9 Rje Mkhan-po VI Ngag-dbang-lhun-grub (1720). Mtshungs med
chos kyi rgyal po rje rin po che'i rnam par thar pa bskal bzang legs
bris 'dod pa'i re skong dpag bsam gyi snye ma:   68.b, 115.a.
10 See Ngag dbang bsam gtan: 19.b. The term Mon is used here in a
poetic sense, meaning inhabitants living in the eastern frontier
11 The Clear Mirror has been edited and translated in Aris (1986): 88-
12 Lho'i chos 'byung: 95.a. The Desi's expansionist activities in the
west are touched on in Tibetan sources, such as the Fifth Dalai
Lama's biography, and that of the Ba'ra ba incarnation Dkon-mchog
rgyal-mtshan (1601-1687).
13 Tibetan translation of a place name from Indian mythology,
Alakavati, the fortress of the god Kuvera.
14 Dharmapala was the 8th century Bengal monarch and patron
Buddhism who constructed the famous temple complex at Paharpur.
15 Ngag dbang bsam gtan: 28.b-29.a. See also Lho'i chos 'byung: 95.a.
16 We cannot rule out, however, the possibility that the wall as we
know see it may have undergone renovation over the centuries. The
inscription is damaged in places, and shows some evidence of having
been reset at some time in the past.


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