Birth of the Drukpa lineage

by HILARY CHIEW, The Star, August 13, 2007

Ladakh, India -- TIBETAN Buddhism or the Vajrayana tradition consists of four schools – the Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug. 

The Drukpa lineage, one of the more notable sub-sects of the Kagyu school, was established in 1206 after its founder, Tsangpa Gyare (1161-1211), saw nine dragons soaring into the sky from the earth at the holy place where his guru, Lingchen Repa, had instructed him to build a monastery.

Believing it to be an auspicious sign, he promptly named his sect Druk (meaning dragon), which also refers to the sound of thunder in Tibetan. The spot where the monastery was built was named Namdruk (Sky Dragon). 

Buddhism had arrived in Western Ladakh via Kashmir in the second century, when it was a part of Tibet’s Kushan empire. At that time, much of eastern Ladakh and western Tibet were practising the shamanistic Bon religion.

Ladakh, a land of high passes located on one of the Silk Road networks, became an important trading centre. In 842AD, after the collapse of the Kushan empire, a member of the royal family annexed Ladakh for himself and founded an independent Ladakhi dynasty.

This dynasty spearheaded the second spread of Buddhism by inviting masters from northwest India to revive Buddhist teachings, besides sending scholars to India to acquire knowledge. Its rulers also constructed many monasteries throughout Ladakh and Tibet. 

In the 12th century, the dynasty expanded its rule into present-day Nepal. However, in the next two centuries, the kingdom was invaded by the Balti-Kashmir armies, which led to the partial conversion of the predominantly Buddhist Ladakhis to Islam.

In 1470, Ladakh was reunited by the distant cousin of its then ruling king, who founded the Namgyal (meaning victorious) dynasty, which survives until today. 

The dynasty helped the Drukpa lineage to establish monasteries, and successive reincarnated spiritual gurus strengthened the influence of the lineage in Ladakh.

In Bhutan, possibly the only remaining Tibetan Buddhist kingdom in the world, the lineage is the dominant school and state religion. In fact, the small Himalayan kingdom also takes the name of Druk Yul, which means “Land of the Thunder Dragon”. 

The fourth reincarnation of Tsangpa Gyare – Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651) – united the warring regions in Bhutan and became the political and religious leader there. 

He devised many of Bhutan’s customs, traditions and ceremonies, thus forging a unique cultural identity that’s distinct from Tibet’s.

The Tibetan diaspora, particularly following the political persecution of Tibetans under Chinese rule since 1950, further encouraged the mushrooming of Tibetan Buddhism sects in various parts of India and beyond.

Ladakh is also known as “Little Tibet” for its significant population of Tibetan descendants and preservation of threatened Tibetan culture, notably the way of life of the monks and nuns. 

Ladakh is situated between the Himalaya and the Karakoram mountain ranges, with altitudes between 2,500m and 7,000m above sea level. 

It borders Tibet, Pakistan and Kashmir Valley and consists of the Leh and Kargil districts. Its importance as a trade post diminished after 1960, when China closed its borders with Tibet and Central Asia. 

Since 1974, the Indian Government has encouraged nature-based tourism to boost its local economies. 

Today, Ladakh attracts some 18,000 adventure-tourists annually. With a population of 260,000, it is also the least inhabited part of India because of its very harsh conditions. It receives less than 100mm of rain per year.

Predominantly Buddhist, Ladakh had asked for autonomy from the Muslim Kashmiri-dominated Indian Government. 

This led to violent riots between its Buddhist and Muslim population in 1989. As a result, the Ladakh Hill Development Council was created in 1993.

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