Sunday, March 10, 2024

Restoring the only surviving photograph of Trashigang Lama Neten Sonam Dorji from Bartsham (circa 1901 - 1968)

 During the early to mid-twentieth century, when Bhutan was under the reign of the First King and the Second King, just before the country opened up to the world outside and adopted the path to modern development, both government and monastic officials held great power. And to hold the position of Lama Neten (abbot) of Trashigang must have been a big achievement for someone from Bartsham, a rather remote corner of Bhutan.

I heard a lot about the story of Meme Lama Neten Sonam Dorji from Bartsham as a child. So, recently, when I got hold of an old and totally faded photograph through my uncle Wangchuk Dorji and Bartsham Umze Drepa Tshampa Sonam Dorji, I immediately got to work trying to get it restored to get a glimpse of the Lama Neten. Umze Drepa Sonam Dorji got the picture from his uncle Kencho, one of the men in the picture.

I took professional help from my friend Dr Naren Dubey, CEO of ScanCafe Inc., a company that specialises in photo book design and photo restoration. With his help, what I got is the picture given below. The man in the middle is the Lama Neten himself, while the the one on his left is Mr. Tshering, father of Mrs. Yeshi Wangmo and Mr Tenzin Phuntsho. On his right is Mr Kencho, brother of Umze Drepa Sonam Dorji’s mother Wangmo. Both of them are relatives of the Lama Neten – Kencho being direct denscendant of Lama Neten’s paternal aunt Damchoe, and Tshering being descendant of his paternal uncle Ugyenla.

Umze Drepa Sonam Dorji recalls being told that this picture was taken in Gudama (present day Samdrup Jongkhar and neighbouring Indian town) probably around 1966 or 1967. By then, the road between Trashigang and Samdrup Jongkhar had been completed though it must been rough and rudimentary. As per Umze Drepa Sonam Dorji, he heard that the Lama Neten made this journey by a truck which used to serve as a public transport then.

My mother, who is now 80, recalls going to Samdrup Jongkhar once by bus, but walked on the return leg of the journey as they did not have enough money to pay for the fare. This might have been in the late 1960s too. The journey used to take around seven days one way on foot.

Above is a picture of Lama Neten Sonam Dorji alone, extracted from the original picture at the request of Umze Drepa Sonam Dorji since he wanted to frame it and keep it on his altar. He started his religious studies as a kid under him after his resignation from the post of Lama Neten and has very fond memories. He recalls that the Lama Neten and the first Bartsham Lama Pema Wangchen, though the latter was much younger than him, shared a great camaraderie. On one occasion, he was accompanying the Lama Neten and passing by Lama Pema Wangchen’s residence when they were invited to come in and offered food and drinks. As the attendant, Umze Drepa, then a kid, sat on the next high seat next to the Lama Neten while Lama Pema Wangchen himself, as the host, sat on much lower seat. Later, the Lama Neten teased Umze Drepa saying that he sat on a seat higher than Lama Pema Wangchen’s.

From these stories, it also seems clear that Lama Pema Wangchen always held other Lamas in high respect unlike some who try to project themselves to be better and higher than others.

Lama Neten must have loved teaching. My mother and her friends, then as kids, also learnt how to read religious texts from the Lama Neten. However, after she got married and became a full time farmer, she had never read any books. That was until 2006 when she came to Thimphu to live with my sister after the passing away of my father. Then, at the age of 62, she started to relearn what little she had learnt before. But amazingly, what she had learnt as a child proved still useful. She was able to pick up reading the texts quite fast, and now, she reads the prayer books quite easily.

People say that the Lama Neten was a respected and powerful figure in the Trashigang Dzong. While the bells of all riding horses of officials had to be silenced after reaching a certain point on approaching the Dzong, the Lama Neten usually rode his horse with its bell ringing right until the Dzong. Another story goes that the sound of his pestle crushing the doma (betelnut) for his consumption used to break the silence of the sanctum of the Dzong while all others tried their best to maintain silence.

There used to be an elegant and imposing three storeyed traditional Bhutanese house in Majawoong which was built by the Lama Neten. It is said that it was built at the height of his power with labour contribution by the monks of Trashigang. He resided in this house after he had resigned from the post of the Lama Neten. This must have been in the early 1960s it is said that he served as the Lama Neten for a long time, right from the days of Sey Dopola and even after his death in 1953.

As per accounts of the elders, he must have probably died in 1968, which is soon after the above picture was taken.

Since he was a celibate monk, he did not have any children. Therefore, this house was inherited by his siblings. When I was a kid, this house was occupied by four families, who were all descendants of Lama Neten’s siblings. These families demolished the house in the late 1980s or early 1990s when they all began constructing their own houses. The house is vividly in my mind, but I could not get hold of a picture of the same.

Lama Neten Sonam Dorji had a first cousin (son of his mother’s sister Wangchuk and her husband Wangdi from Thumling, Bartsham) who served as the Umze (precentor) in Trashigang Dzong. The post of Umze is a respected one since he is the one who leads the ritual ceremonies, and sits right next to the presiding Lama.  His name was Umze Dorji Wangdi (nicknamed Umze Merkong – as he had a small burn mark on his neck). He was the eldest son of Lama Neten’s mother’s sister Wangchuk. He was younger than Lama Neten by a few years. People believe he might have risen to the post of Lama Neten too, but he died suddenly while he was still serving as the Umze. 

Umze Dorji Wangdi was the elder brother of my maternal grandfather. According to my mother, he died suddenly during a feast organized by the villagers in his honour. In those days, and as recently as the early 2000s, it was customary for the village folks to slaughter a pig and organise a feast in honour of someone successful from the village when he comes home to visit his relatives. It was during such a feast that Umze Dorji Wangdi suddenly fell sick and died. Most probably, he had suffered a stroke. Few years later, a little boy born after his death, recounted the story of his past life that exactly matched the life of Umze Dorji Wangdi, and he was recognized as his reincarnation. He received modern education and currently works in a corporation in Thimphu, but he is also a true Buddhist practitioner at the same time following Drukpa Kargyu tradition under His Eminence Gyalwa Dokhampa. He must be in his 50s now. 

By then, the Lama Neten had resigned and was residing in his house in Majawaoong. His house was just about 150 metres below that of the Umze’s.  Elders recall that the Umze had a fine Phurpa (Kilaya) believed to have been given by some high Lama, probably Dudjom Jigdrel Yeshe Dorje. The Lama Neten liked it and wanted to have it. So, after Umze’s death, the Phurpa was given to the Lama Neten. Today, some believe that this Phurpa has been offered to the main statue of the protecting deity of the Nagtshang temple in Bartsham. 

Umze Dorji Wangdi had also helped in the construction of a two storeyed traditional house for his parents. It was not as elegant and imposing as the house of the Lama Neten, but it was a nice house with a overhanging roofed verandah (built in the architectural style of Western Bhutan) above a pig sty down below. This house, in its renovated and refurbished form, stands to this day. 

So, let us now turn back to the life and ancestry of the Lama Neten.  

Lama Neten Sonam Dorji was born in the village of Majawoong in Bartsham. Majawoong is located on a gentle slope next to the famours Barstsham Chador Lhakhang in Trashigang.  According to Umze Drepa Sonam Dorji, the Lama Neten was born in the year of ox, the same year as his paternal grandfather Meme Chadola.  From this, it can be surmised that the year was 1901.

On his father’s side, he descended from Lopen Tshering who came to Bartsham from Kurtoe Tsankhar and settled here and founded a small temple which later was replaced by the present day Chador Lhakhang. His mother had her roots in Tsamang, Mongar. 

As his name indicates, he was a learned Buddhist Master though not much is known about him now. His wife was Ani Konyermo (Ani is a respectful title used for the spouses of Lamas). 

Lopen Tshering and Ani Konyermo had eight children – 6 sons and 2 daughters. In the order of their birth, they were Dorjilia, Tenzinla, Ugyenla, Pemala, Changila, Jangchub (daughter), Damchoema (daughter) and Sinchungla (Source: Meme Lobzang Yeshi from Bartsham, 93 years old as of 2024). Their children then had many offsprings of their own. Hence, almost all Bartshampas are in one way or the other descendents of Lopen Tshering. (see the Family tree of the descendants of Lopen Tshering here 

Sinchungla, the youngest son of Lopen Tshering, married Pema Sangja from Majawoong, and they had the following children: 1. Jamu (daughter), 2. Lama Neten Sonam Dorji (son), 3.  Cheten(daughter) 4. Garpa Kezang (son) 5. Pemchoe 6. Dorji Dema (daughter), 7. Kunzang Lhamo (daughter) and 8. Phuntsho Dema (daughter). 

So, as you can see, Lama Neten Sonam Dorji was born as the eldest son of Sinchungla and Pema Sangja. He grew up during the rule of the first king and Second King of Bhutan. When he was a child, Trashigang Dzong must have been under the governorship of Dzongpon Sonam Tshering, father of Dzongpon Thinley Tobgyel (aka Sey Dopola). 

From the 16th century onwards, one of the dominant sects of Buddhism that had made inroads into the villages of central and eastern Bhutan was the Peling sub-sect of the Nyingmapa founded by Terton Pema Lingpa who was born in Bumthang. However, as it is now, the monastic order inside the Dzongs which housed the administrative centres of the different regions or districts was the Drukpa Kargyu sect set up by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the founder of the state of Bhutan. The Dzongs had a vibrant monastic community, and children from the locality were encouraged to enrol as novice monks.

And so it was that little Sonam Dorji, the eldest son of Sinchungla and Pema Sangja from Bartsham Majawoong was enrolled as a novice monk in Trashigang. The exact year that he was enrolled is not known. But suffice it to say that he was sent there when he was quite small, may be before turning 10.

He turned out to be gifted with superior intelligence, and he excelled in his studies. He not only was able to memorise and understand the scriptures much faster than the others, but he also excelled in picking up all aspects of performing the different rituals. And as a result, it is said that he rose up the ranks of the monastic centre within the Dzong steadily until he became the Lama Neten, the head of the monastic order within the Dzong.

It is said that he served as Lama Neten for a long time during the time of Dzongpon Thinley Tobgyel alias Sey Dopola and even after Sey Dopola passed away in 1953.


The above accounts have been written based on information from many people, especially the following.

Meme Lobzang Yeshey (b. 1931) with my Japanese friend Yoshiki Ishiuchi doing research on Bartsham  Meme Lobzang Yeshi is my father's maternal first cousin. He has a photographic memory of past events, and he is especially good with family history of not only the Bartshampas, but of most prominent families of Bhutan. At 93, he is now losing some grasp of those memories.

Umze Drepa Sonam Dorji (middle). He is the one who took care of the only photograph of Lama Neten Sonam Dorji. Though faded, he believed that technology should be able to restore it. That is when I came in and took help from my friend Dr Naren Dubey, CEO of ScanCafe. 

My uncle Wangchuk Dorji (b. 1956), my mother's paternal cousin, is another person who has good memories of the history of Bartsham.

My mother (Mrs Kunzang, b. 1944) is a born hard worker and not so much into small talk and story telling, but with age, she has become better at recalling and narrating past stories to me.  

No comments:

Restoring the only surviving photograph of Trashigang Lama Neten Sonam Dorji from Bartsham (circa 1901 - 1968)

  During the early to mid-twentieth century, when Bhutan was under the reign of the First King and the Second King, just before the country ...