Zhabdrung realized that Bhutan needed to differentiate itself from Tibet in order to promote its religion and cultural identity. He devised many of Bhutan’s customs, traditions and ceremonies in a deliberate effort to develop a unique cultural identity for the country.
As a revered Buddhist scholar, Zhabdrung had both the astuteness and authority to codify the Kagyu religious teachings into a system that was distinctively Bhutanese. He also defined the national dress and instituted the Tshechu festival.
The Zhabdrung created a code of laws that defined the relationship between the lay people and the monastic community. A system of taxes was developed; these were paid in kind in the form of wheat, buckwheat, rice, yak meat, butter, paper, timber and clothing. The people were subject to a system of compulsory labour for the construction of trails, dzongs, temples and bridges. These practices lasted almost unchanged until the third king eliminated them in 1956.
In 1640’s Zhabdrung completed creation of Choesid Nyiden with Desi as temporal ruler and Jekhenpo as spiritual abbot. He appointed Umze Tenzin Drugay as first Desi (1591-1656) and Pekar Jungney as first Je Khenpo. To unify eastern Bhutan, he appointed Chogyal Minjur Tenpa as first Trongsa Penlop who later became third Desi of Bhutan.After unifying and giving identity to people, Zhabdrung went into permanent retreat in 1651 and he was believed to have died soon after.
The news of demise of Great Zhabdrung was kept secret for fear of Tibetan Invasion and internal strife. His Death was only announced in 1705. The four successive Desis, Umze Tenzin Drugay, La Ngoenpa Tenzin Drugdra , Chogyal Minjur Tenpa and GyalseTenzin Rabgay all felt that continued presence of Zhabdrung was necessary to keep country unified and Tibetans at bay though Tibetan mounted seven attacks on Bhutan between 1656 and 1730.
When the Je Khenpo finally announced the death of the Zhabdrung in 1705, he said that three rays of light emanated from the Zhabdrung’s body, representing the ku sung thug (body, speech and mind) of Ngawang Namgyal. This indicated that the Zhabdrung would be reincarnated in these three forms, though only the reincarnation of the Zhabdrung’s mind was considered to be the head of state. Because the position of Zhabdrung was a continuing one, it was necessary for the mind incarnation to be reborn after the death of the previous incarnation.
This structure resulted in long periods when the Zhabdrung was too young to rule and the Desi often became the de facto ruler. Because the Desi was a semi- elected position, there was considerable rivalry among various factions for the office. These factions also took advantage of uncertainty over which of the three incarnations of the Zhabdrung was the ‘true’ incarnation. None of the successive incarnations had the personal charisma or political astuteness of Ngawang Namgyal.
There were instances where mind and speech incarnations were given the opportunities. Besides Zhabdrung incarnations, incarnations of Zhabdrung’s son Jampel Dorji and incarnations of Zhabdrung’s heart son 4th Desi Tenzin Rabgay were enthroned to fill the void.
The next 200 years were a time of civil war, internal conflicts and political infighting. While there were only six mind incarnations of the Zhabdrung during this period, there were 55 Desis. The longest-serving Desi was the 13t hDesi, Sherab Wangchuk, who ruled for 20 years; and the most important was the fourth, Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye, who ruled from 1680 to 1694. Few of the rulers finished their term; 22 desis were assassinated or deposed by rivals. Some even ruled for less than three months. Sometimes two Desis ruled at a time.
The political situation became so unstable that some of the rival factions appealed to the Tibetans for assistance. In 1729 and 1730 Tibet took advantage of Bhutan’s instability and invaded the country three times. The lamas in Tibet initiated a truce that eventually ended the hostilities. The rival Bhutanese factions submitted their case to the Chinese emperor in Beijing for mediation. But the issue was only finally resolved when several of the Bhutanese protagonists died, leaving the then recognized mind incarnation of the Zhabdrung, Jigme Norbu as the ruler or Gyaltshab/ Representative to throne. At the same time, formal diplomatic relations were established between Bhutan and Tibet, which the late historian Michael Aris said ‘helped to guarantee the fact of Bhutanese independence’.
Some Desis also meddled with affairs of other countries. For instance in 1730 the 10th desi assisted Gya Chila formed alliance with the Panchen Lama in Tibet and with Bhutan’s help King Prithvi Narayan Shah of Nepal was able to help ruler of Cooch Bihar to defeat invader and settle family feud. Bhutanese force was then allowed to garrison in southern country. However in 1772, Bhutanese invaded Cooch Bihar which prompted ruler to ask help from British India. Thus the first contact between British India and Bhutan began which let to many battles later. In his book, Lands of the Thunderbolt, the Earl of Ronaldshay wrote:
…it was not until 1772 that the East India Company became conscious of the existence, across its northern frontier, of a meddlesome neighbour.
The British pushed the Bhutanese back into the hills and followed them into Bhutan. The British won another major battle in January 1773 at the garrison of Chichacotta (now Khithokha) in the hills east of what is now Phuentsholing. A second battle was fought near Kalimpong in April 1773. The Bhutanese troops were personally led by the 16th desi Sonam Lhendup alias Zhidar but, after the second defeat, he was deposed by a coup d’état.
Bhutanese with help Penchemn lama signed treaty of Calcutta on 25 April 1774 agreeing to respect territory of East India Company and allow cutting timber from Bhutanese soil. By 1773, Cooch Bihar was completely under East India Company.
East India Company was interested in trade route to Tibet via Bhutan and many missions followed.
Meanwhile the political intrigue and civil wars continued in Bhutan, and there were numerous skirmishes over boundaries and trading rights. The British were engaged in the Burmese war of 1825–26. As a result of this war, the British gained control of Assam, the territory that forms the eastern half of Bhutan’s southern border.
The area of plains between the Brahmaputra River up to and including the lowest of the hills of Bhutan was known as the duars, which means doors or gates. The western part of this area, known as the Bengal Duars, had been annexed by the third desi, Mingyur Tenpa, in the late 17th century and the Bhutanese considered it their territory. The eastern part, the Assam Duars, had long been administered in a complex rental agreement between Bhutan and Assam.
After the Burmese war, the British took over the peculiar land rental arrangement for the Assam Duars, along with what were described as ‘very unsatisfactory relations of the Assamese with the Bhutanese’. Major disagreements between Britain and Bhutan resulted. In 1826 the British and Bhutanese came into conflict over the ownership of the duars. Other than the area’s strategic importance, the British were attracted to theduars because they were excellent tea-growing country. However, they were also a malarial jungle, and the British had a very difficult time keeping their troops healthy.
Bhutan’s existing agreement with the Assamese allowed the British to occupy the region from July to November, and the Bhutanese to occupy it the remainder of the year in return for payment in horses, gold, knives, blankets, musk and other articles. The new arrangement meant that Bhutan sent the payment to the British, who accused the Bhutanese of delivering piebald horses and other defective goods. The Bhutanese insisted that middlemen working for the British had substituted inferior goods.
Disagreements over payments and administration escalated. In 1836 the British mounted an attack on Dewangiri (now Deothang), in the east, to force the surrender of fugitives who had committed crimes in British territory. The dzongpen refused to comply and attacked the British detachment. The British won that battle and annexed Dewangiri and the entire Banska Duar. The following year, however, at the request of the desi, they agreed to return control of the duar to the Bhutanese.
The British annexed the two easternmost duars in 1840 and the rest of the Assam Duars in September 1841, agreeing to pay Bhutan an annual compensation of Rs10, 000. Lord Auckland wrote to the deb and dharma rajas that the British were:
…compelled by an imperative sense of duty to occupy the whole of the duars without any reference to your Highnesses’ wishes, as I feel assured that it is the only course which is likely to hold out a prospect of restoring peace and prosperity to that tract of country.
Perhaps more revealing is a letter from Colonel Jenkins, the governor-general’s agent, outlining the need for taking over the Assam Duars. He wrote:
‘had we possession of the Dooars, the Bhootan Government would necessarily in a short time become entirely dependent upon us, as holding in our hands the source of all their subsistence’
This was the time of the Afghan War and the Anglo–Sikh wars. The British Indian administration had little time to worry about Bhutan, and major and minor conflicts and cross-border incursions continued. Although the British were making plans to annex the Bengal Duars, they were not able to follow through. Their troops were kept busy trying to suppress the Indian uprising of 1857, which was a movement against British rule in India.
Bhutan took advantage of the instability in the region and mounted numerous raids in the Bengal Duars. To compensate for their losses, the British deducted large sums from payments they owed the Bhutanese. In 1861 the Bhutanese retaliated by raiding Cooch Behar, capturing a number of elephants and kidnapping several residents, including some British subjects.
In such time of chaos and strife a man was born in Bumthang who would later helped rewrite the history of Bhutan and who led some of above mentioned raids against British India to ensure independence of Bhutan.