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The Empire

The State

The Shabdrung

The Government

The Religious Government

The Civil Government

The Kingdom

The King

The Royal Government

The Raven Crown

Royal Bhutan Police





Bhutan, formerly a part of Tibet, was founded in the 16th century. In 1734 it recognized Chinese suzerainty and until 1912 the Chinese Emperor was the de jure if not the de facto sovereign of Bhutan. It was ruled by the dual system of administration known as chhosi, introduced by Shabdrung (ruler) Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651). He instituted the office of the Druk Desi to look after the temporal administration of the country and the Je Khenpo to look after religious matters. This form of dual government continued until the dawn of the twentieth century. In 1907, a large gathering of nobles, officials, and governors agreed to establish a hereditary monarchy in the person of Ugyen Wangchuk, the son of the governor of Trongsa and 51st Druk Desi, and the most powerful ruler in the province. He became the first king of Bhutan. His grandson altered his title to Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King) and assumed the title of Majesty in 1963.

On the 8th of January 1910 the kingdom became a British Protectorate. From the 8th of August 1949 the Government of India acts as its protector.


The Shabdrung (Dharma Raja or King of Religion) was the head of state and the ultimate authority in religious and civil matters. For the sake of  continuity, the concept of multiple reincarnation of the first Shabdrung - in the form of either his body, his speech, or his mind - was invoked by the Je Khenpo and the Druk Desi, both of whom wanted to retain the power they had accrued through the dual system of government. The last person recognized as the bodily reincarnation of Ngawang Namgyal died in the mid-eighteenth century, but speech and mind reincarnations, embodied by individuals who acceded to the position of Shabdrung, were recognized into the early twentieth century.


According to the dual system of government established by Ngawang Namgyal, the powers of the government of Bhutan were ideally split between a religious branch and an administrative branch.

The state monastic body had an elected head, the Je Khenpo (lord abbot), and the theocratic civil government was headed by the Druk Desi (regent of Bhutan, also known as Deb Raja in Western sources).


The Druk Desi was either a monk or a member of the laity - by the nineteenth century, usually the latter; he was elected for a three-year term, initially by a monastic council and later by the State Council (Lhengye Tshokdu). The last Druk Desi ruled 1903-’06.


Since the establishment of the monarchy in 1907, the relative influence of the Je Khenpo has diminished. Nonetheless, the position remains a powerful one and the Je Khenpo is typically viewed as the closest and most powerful advisor to the King of Bhutan.


The State Council was a central administrative organ that included regional rulers, the Shabdrung's chamberlains, and the Druk Desi. In time, the Druk Desi came under the political control of the State Council's most powerful faction of regional administrators.

The seat of government was at Thimphu, the site of a thirteenth-century dzong, in the spring, summer, and fall. The winter capital was at Punakha, a dzong established northeast of Thimphu in 1527.

The territory was divided into three regions (east, central, and west), each with an appointed penlop, or governor, holding a seat in a major dzong. The penlop were tax collectors, judges, military commanders, as well as procurement agents for the central government. Their major revenues came from the trade between Tibet and India and from land taxes.

Districts were headed by dzongpon, or district officers, who had their headquarters in lesser dzong.

Ngawang Namgyal's regime was bound by a legal code called the Tsa Yig, which described the spiritual and civil regime and provided laws for government administration and for social and moral conduct. The duties and virtues inherent in the Buddhist dharma (religious law) played a large role in the new legal code, which remained in force until the 1960s.




Because Bhutan was for a long time a Chinese vassal, Bhutanese heraldry is an offspring of Chinese heraldry.

This means that the symbols used to represent the sociopolitical elements, were identical with such symbols used in China. Also, the insignia of civil and military rank were borrowed from the Chinese Qing system, itself a continuation of the earlier Ming system.

In a few cases this symbolic system is completed with symbols of hindu and buddhist origin. 


The system of rank insignia of Bhutan is copied from the Chinese or Tibetan system, the dragon (druk / lung) representing the supreme commander and emperor and the phoenix (gyaja / fung) representing the supreme administrator or empress. Lower ranks have similar insignia as their Chinese counterparts like the qilin and the lion for high military officials, and the crane and the peacock for high civil officials.

A difference is that the rank-insignia were not worn as square patches on the surcoat like in China, but were embroidered on square pieces of cloth, about 125 Í 125 cm in size, called Trikheb. These were displayed on the ground in front of the sitting official or as throne covers. On these trikhebs the sun of the Chinese rank insignia was replaced by a lotus charged with a whirling emblem (gakhil) and the rank insignia of birds and animals were arranged around this symbol.


The Empire and the State


In Bhutan, even when it is characterized by a dual system of government, the empire or nation is represented by the sun and the state by the moon as usual. Both are depicted as a disc, the sun red, the moon white.


The Shabdrung


In this sociopolitical configuration the ruler is represented by his imago. In this case the Shabdrung is represented as a buddhist monk, sitting crosslegged and with his personal emblem in his left hand. On his head there is a special headdress of plied brocade inscribed with a religious formula in golden embroidery.

The ruler himself is represented by a jachung (garuda) the ‘vehicle’ or executive official of the sovereign.

Ngawang Namgyel, the first Shabdrung (1594-1651)


In this thanka the Shabdrung is “supported’ by two red imperial dragons, and on his robes are phoenixes, symbols of imperial administration.


The print of the seal of the Shabdrung shows a version of the çakra, the center charged with his name and the spokes with religious texts. In the four corners are conch shells, the symbols of speech.

This seal symbolizes the religious aspect of the authority of the sovereign and his quality of the speech-incarnation of the first Shabdrung. The seal itself is of Chinese fashion and size, its prints are in red ink.

A print of this seal is on the document containing the contract of hereditary monarchy adopted in Punakha Dzong, 17 December 1907:

Shabdrung Jigme Dorji’s  State Seal, 1907

“The chief Lama, the Tatsang Khempo, who has possession of the Dharma Rajah’s (= King of Religion) seal, produced this from a casket. It is a huge thing some five inches (= 12,7 cm) square ...” [1]


The Government



We may suppose that the State Council was represented by a sun-and-crescent combination which is of very ancient design. This symbol, also known in Tibetan as nyi-da, is a common symbol in Buddhism. As such it symbolizes heaven, [the] method (upaya) and wisdom (prajna) [of the State Council] and it occurs on top of chortens.

In the Bhutanese context there is a version of this symbol, lacking the flame on top of it, on the first so-called Raven crown. It was also depicted on the shields of the Royal Guard which are of a design encountered in some Indian princely states.


The Religious Government


The dual system of governement, consisting of the religious branch, headed by the Je Khenpo, and the administrative branch, headed by the Druk Desi, is represented by two Tibetan Buddhist symbols. The religious branch is represented by the korlo (çakra) or the wheel of  (religious) law.



Bhutanese çakra within a garland as on a 1 ngultrum coin



The state monastic body has the çakra supported by two dragons as its achievement. This achievement  could be found above the entrance of some monasteries and today on a square seal. Also it is displayed at some religious happenings.



Upper threshold of the main entrance of the monastery of  Talo near Punakha. [2]

Showing a çakra between two dragons. This monastery was the seat of the successive incarnations of the Shabdrung, Bhutan’s head of state before the emergence of the monarchy.




Present Achievement of the Bhutan Buddhist Church


Seal of the State Monastic body

Çakra, supported by two dragons, crested by a royal umbrella and with a lotus-flower below.


The Civil Government


Choley Yeshe Ngodub, Druk Desi 1903-1906



The administrative (secular) branch is represented by the dorje (vajra) or thunderbolt.


This can be seen on the headdress of the last Druk Desi. On this headdress, crested with a sword of wisdom (raltr / khadga), is a double thunderbolt (dorje)


From the lions on the throne cover at the feet of this regent, we may conclude that the Druk Desi of Bhutan had the rank of a Chinese military official of the second rank.


Consequently the civil government should have been respresented by a dorje supported by two birds, probably peacocks, but there are no pictures of such an achievement from the time before the kingdom.


The Kingdom


In the Kingdom the king is represented by a dragon according to his title Druk Gyalpo meaning “dragon king”. This is in the tradition of the Chinese Empire and of other former Chinese vassal states like Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

The dragon  as a royal emblem was introduced by Ugyen Wangschuk as can be seen on this portrait of him, sitting on his throne and with a throne-hanging  behind him displaying a dragon.



As a consequence the dragon supporters of different Bhutanese achievements mean: “By the Grace of the King” or “Royal” in the same way as they meant “By the Grace of the Emperor”or “Imperial” before.


The first kings replaced some of the former symbols, probably because they wanted to abolish the dual system of government. Instead we see the lotus-flower, a hindu and buddhist symbol of administrative authority. [3] This can be seen on the headdress of Ugyen Wangschuk on this photography:



King Ugyen Wangschuk, 1911.[4]

On his headdress a lotus-flower.


Somewhat later the Government of Bhutan was represented by a lotus-flower and a triple jewel, supported by two dragons.  This can be seen on the headdress of king Jigme Wangchuk:



Headdress of King Jigme Wangchuk (1926-’52)  [5]

Showing a lotus-flower and a triple jewel  between two dragons


It has to be noted that the triple jewel (konchog-sum) is the symbol of the Holy Triad (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) of which Dharma signifies the Word of Buddha or the law, and Sangha the Congregation of Lamas or Buddhist Church. As such the headdress would mean “The united religious and civil Government”.


The dorje was reintroduced by the third king, Jigme Dordzji Wangsjuk (1952-1972). This symbol of secular authority (“indestructibility and overwhelming power”) was printed on stamps issued in 1954:



Not long afterwards the seal of the government of Bhutan appears, showing an achievement with the double thunderbolt and the dragons, together with a wish-granting jewel (yizhin norbu):


A newer version of this achievement shows the clouds styled in a different way:



The achievement was changed in the last years before the death of king Dzjigme Singay Wansjuk (1972-2006). It is on the Project of  26th March and 18th August 2005 for a Constitution. On this occasion one of the clouds was replaced by a lotus-flower in base.


The official description of the National Emblem is formulated in the project as follows:


The national emblem, contained in a circle, is composed of a double diamond thunderbolt placed above a lotus, surmounted by a jewel and framed by two dragons. The double diamond thunderbolt represents the harmony between secular and religious power; which results from the Buddhist religion in its Vajrayana form. The lotus symbolizes purity, the jewel represents sovereign power, and the two dragons, male and female, stand for the name of the country / the thunder dragon.


After the accession to the throne of Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk in 2006, the achievement was changed again, this time by replacing the triple jewel by a royal umbrella which symbolizes “a universal spiritual monarch”.



This achievement is also in the House of Parliament together with a sun an a moon, symbolizing the empire and the state, and a mountain-range, common in Chinese and Tibetan sociopolitical symbolism and representing the territory of the nation.


ð See illustration in the head of this essay. [6]


The Raven Crown


An important role in today’s national emblems is played by the so-called Raven Crown (Uzha Jarog Dongchen).

In the first Raven Crown, designed for the Penlop of Trongsa, Jigme Namgyal (*1825-†1881) by his tutor, the Tibetan lama Jangchub Tsöndru (†1856) different symbols are combined. It consists of:


  • A jachung (garuda) head downwards, wings expanding around the cap, charged with the sun-and-crescent symbol of Government within a wreath of flames.
  • The yesheypai chen (the (three) clairvoyant eyes of the extraordinary) of the protector deity Mahakala, symbolizing the past, the present and the future.
  • A wild goose’s head crested with a dorji (thunderbolt)


At the time the crown was designed, Jigme Namgyal was the most powerful governor in Bhutan as he had received as a personal fief the whole of Eastern and Central Bhutan (which he already controlled) from the then Druk Desi Damchö Llundrup (1852-’56).[7] As such he had a seat in the State Council, together with the other (lesser) regional rulers, the Shabdrung's chamberlains, and the Druk Desi himself. Later, he became a Druk Desi himself (1870-’73;1877-’78;1880-’81).

The crown or headdress represents him as the Mahakala or main protector of Bhutan and, the wild goose being the symbol of a Chinese civil official of the fourth rank, as the first civil official of the Bhutanese government (after the Druk Desi).




The Crown of  penlop Jigme Namgyal, about 1854.

Uzha Jarog Dongchen. Chinese and English silken brocade and damask, cotton cloth, silken embroidery, silvered brass, gilded copper plate. H. 25 cm Æ 23 cm. By courtesy of the Royal Government of Bhutan


Left: Drawing of the crown  by Robert Beer (after Michael Aris); Right: The crown in the National Museum, Paro.


The second Raven Crown.


A crown of a somewhat different design appeared on the head of Ugyen Wangchuk in 1904. [8] At the time he was penlop of Trongsa and the Druk Desi’s chamberlain (gongzim) and in fact controlled Bhutanese polical life. His hat is an adaptation of the hat worn by high Chinese officials, consisting of a red cone-shaped hat topped with a red coral bead and with a broad black upturned rim, decorated with a peacock’s feather pending from the backside. Such a hat had been presented to the regent Sangye Dorje (1885-1901) in 1891. When questioned about Bhutanese relations with China and insignia of office that were supposed to have been received, Uguyen Dorje did admit that a search had finally produced  “a hat with an imitation coral button (the insignia of an official in the second rank) and a peacock’s feather, now half eaten by insects”. [9]


 Chinese Hat of Office


In spite of this rather disparaging remarks, Ugyen Dorje’s own hat was a copy and adaptation of this Chinese hat. For the purpose, the yesheypai chen were embroidered on the hat, the coral bead was replaced by a crane’s head, crested with the emblem of the Bhutanese Government.  The rim was embroidered with four skulls, also attibutes of Mahakala, between Bhutanese-styled curls in golden embroidery and the peacocks feather was omitted.

Again, by this hat the penlop of Trongsa is represented as a protector of Bhutan but now as a civil official of the first rank. It also symbolizes the fierce denial of Ugyen Wangschuk of Chinese suzerainty.




The second Raven Crown

Left: Ugyen Wangschuk wearing the Raven Crown, 1904. Centre: Drawing of the crown by Robert Beer (after Michael Aris); The crown on the head of the actual King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk.


The Third Raven Crown


The design of the crown of the third and fourth Druk Gyalpos is almost the same as that of the crown worn by the first two kings. While the breadth of rim remains the same, the motif on it is a jachung (Sanskrit: garuda, the king of birds) instead of tantric skulls. That motif of jachung is also relevant to the crown as an enduring symbol of monarchy and majesty of the kings. Garuda, the vehicle of Vishnu and as such a symbol of  royal government, is also depicted above the head of the first Shabdrung.




Third Raven Crown

Left: Drawing of the crown by Robert Beer (after Michael Aris). Right: King Jigme Singye Wangschuk (1972-2006) wearing the third Raven Crown.


The Legend


At some time in the twentieth century the hat with the skulls worn by the Bhutanese kings was linked with the legend of the first Shabdrung and the Raven deity. [10]

A prophetic dream is said to have come to the first Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel during which the guardian deity Mahakala appeared in his raven form Legoen Jarog Dongchen (the raven-faced protector deity) to guide him on the path from Tibet south to Bhutan, which was now offered to him in its entirety by the deity as his “heavenly field”or “religious estate”.

According to this legend Bhutan was given to the Shabdrung by Legoen Jarog Dongchen. This implied that Bhutan was a sovereign state, the mandate of the Shabdrung and later kings reaching back to the interference of a deity. As a consequence the hat, formerly symbolizing Tibetan or Chinese suzerainty, was supposed now to be the face of the patron deity Legoen Jarog Dongchen and given the name of Raven Crown to symbolize Bhutanese sovereignty.


We may suppose that the invention of the Raven Crown has something to do with the dissolution of the Chinese empire and the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911/’12.

In 1734 Bhutan had recognized the suzerainty of China and, as we have seen, the regent had been offered a Chinese hat of office still in 1891 even when Chinese suzerainty was a mere fiction by the time. Nevertheless, in 1908 the Amban (of Tibet in Lhasa) addressed a letter to the regent as if there were still no king: “The Bhutanese are the subjects of the Emperor of China who is the Lord of Heaven, and are of the same religion as the other parts of the Empire. You, Deb Raja, and the two Penlops think that you are great, but you cannot continue without paying attention to the orders of your rulers ....

After the proclamation of the republic in China, Bhutan, being  a protectorate of the United Kingdom could consider itself to be a sovereign nation. The legend of the Shabdrung and the Raven deity legitimized this sovereignty.


Royal Bhutan Police




The emblem of the Royal Bhutan Army is a trident (khatvamga tsesum).



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© Hubert de Vries 2010-04-01




[1]  Aris, Michael: The Raven Crown. London, 1994. P. 95.

[2]  Photo J.C. White, private collection (detail).

[3]  Armed authority symbolized by a club or a trident, religious authority by a conch-shell.

[4]  King Ugyen Wangchuk attending the Coronation Durbar of  King George V, Delhi, December 1911. Photo: C. Bell, Pitt Rivers Museum  (detail)

[5]  King Jigme Wangchuk and queen Püntso Chödrön, Calcutta, 1935. Photo Merseyside County Museums (detail)

[6]  Retrieved from Deutsche Bhutan Himalaya Gesellschaft e.V.

[7]  Aris op cit.  p. 56.

[8]  Ibid. p. 89. Ugyen Wanchschuk at the conclusion of  peace in Lhasa, 1904. Photo: Johnston and Hoffman, British Library.

[9]  Ibid. p. 99.

[10] A more extended version of the legend by Needrup Zangpo in the Bhutan Observer. See also: A History of Bhutan Assembled by Lobpön Pema Tsewang: The Lamp which illumintaes Bhutan. Thimpu & New Delhi, 1994.


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