Brief History of Nyo Gyelwa Lhanangpa (1164-1224)

Nyo Gyelwa Lhanangpa
A mural painting of Gyelwa Lhanangpa at Sumthrang monastery in Ura, Bumthang

Nyo Gyelwa Lhanangpa was born in 1164 to Dragpa Pel of the Nyo clan, and Yongmo Pelka in the year of wood male monkey year of the Buddhist calendar. From a young age, due to his charisma and glory, he was called Zijed Pal. His father was considered the reincarnation of the Indian religious king Ashoka and at that time was the lord of the Lhasa region. On the other hand, Gyelwa Lhanangpa was also considered the reincarnation of the Great Indian Siddha  Krishnacharya.[2]

Before he was born, one night, Lama Zhang woke his disciples in the middle of the night and asked them to set up an offering and said siddha Nagpo Chodpa was going to get in Yongmo Pelka’s (Lhanangpa’s mother) womb. He requested them to arrange a welcome ceremony. Later, Lama Zhang invited Nyo Drakpa Pel and his family to his monastery, where he arranged two thrones, one for the Drakpa Pel and other one for his son. Even though the father was the religious lord of Lhasa at the time, the higher throne was made for the son in recognition that the son would be the reincarnation of a great yogi, who was of higher status than his father. Lama Zhang was thus the religious figure who identified him as a reincarnation of the great Indian siddha Krishnacharya (Nagpo Chodpa).[3]

Lhanangpa was known for his leadership abilities and wisdom from his early childhood. It is said that during his childhood games,“Lhanangpa was the one to decide who would play elephant and who would play horse, who would play the minister of exterior, the minister of interior and the general. The other children could not play as they wished, but had to ask his permission first. He made up the rules of the games, and anyone who violated them would no longer be welcomed as his playmate. Clearly, this story is meant to display his born leadership abilities, but it equally conveys the sense of entitlement that often comes with privileged birth.”[4]

However, he never had attachment towards worldly entitlements. It is said that even though his father was one of the most powerful and wealthy men in U-Tsang (Central Tibet) in those times, he never intended to inherit his father’s wealth or got attached to it. His father, Drakpa Pel, was not only wealthy but a religious person as well; he had the transmission of the special Guhyasamāja tantra lineage from his father (Lhanangpa’s grandfather). Drakpa Pel’s father Nyo Lotsawa Yonten Drakpa is know as the great translator of Nyo clan and was the traveling companion of Marpa Lotsawa in India.

From the age of five Lhanangpa started receiving the initiations of the teachings related to his family lineage from his father. Gradually, he received different kinds of teachings from Geshe Purangpa, Denbagpa, Onpo Sherab Jungney, Rongka Jobum, La Toed Minkharpa and others as well. Later he heard about the famous Drikung Kyopa Jigten Sumgon and  decided to detach himself from worldly attachments and commit his life to religion following him.

However, he was married to Lhachig Dechogma, who was at that time pregnant with his child. Lhanangpa explained to her about his wish to leave behind the worldly activities. Lhachig also willingly agreed to return back her family, so that she does not impede his dedication towards Buddha dharma. When he informed his father about his intention to leave for the Drikung monastery, his father granted the permission happily too. When he met Drikung Jigten Sumgon he was nineteen year old. Jigten Sumgon became his root teacher who was nothing less than the Buddha for him.

After arriving at Drikung, it was said that Jigten Sumgon ordered him to go to another place to receive complete monk ordination, which he did in 1190. According to the Nyo Rab Yangsel Melong, Gyelwa Lhanangpa received his complete monk ordination from Boelti Josey and Thagma Dorzhon of Thagma Kachen.

Until the age of thirty-seven, he spent years in retreat at Mount Kailash (Ti se). It was also around this time that he performed several miracles. One miracle took place over the Lake Mapham (mtsho ma pham) – it was said that he went to visit the underwater palace of the naga king. His followers and the people around there saw him sitting cross-legged on the surface of the lake and walking to and fro over it. At that time he was offered a small stupa made from three different precious stones by the Naga of Mapham Yutso. This stupa was later handed over to his son Nyoton, when he prophesied him to go to the south (Bhutan). According to oral history, the lineage holder in Bumthang owned this stupa, until the first king Ugyen Wangchuk sent a letter to the family when the king was building the Kurje Lhakang, asking to offer the stupa as the mind support for the Guru statue. The Kasho (royal decree) is still with the family. Gyelwa Lhanangpa spent many more years in other secluded retreats. It was in Mount Kailash, where he earned his title “Lhanangpa”.

After his retreats in Mount Kailash, he visited Bhutan in 1194 AD following Jigten Sumgon’s prophecy. There are also evidence to suggest that he visited Bhutan for reasons other than to fulfill  prophecy. In the biography of Phajo Drugom Shigpo, called the current of Compassion[5], in a footnote, it says at the early stage, according to the Kharag Nyo source, large domains of present-day Bhutan (lHo Kha zhi) were offered to the translator of Nyo Yonten Drakpa in the 10th century by a figure named Aryadeva of Gya clan. Perhaps, that might be also a reason for him to visit Bhutan.

However, accounts seem to disagree regarding how long he spent in Bhutan. In the same footnote mentioned above, it is said that he visited Drakar Dzumpa of Chelkha (Spyal-kha) in Paro arriving via Tsari where he initially sojourned for three years. He went to Tsari at the age of 27.[6] Some other sources say eight or eleven years.In any case, he visited Bhutan in his thirties, and by the age of forty-nine he went to Dagla Gampo, the place/monastery of Gampopa in Southern Tibet, with his Teacher Jigten Sumgon. Then Nyo Gyelwa Lhanangpa, Gar Dampa Choding and Palchen Choye (Nyo Gar Choe Sum), the three main disciples of Drikung Jigten Gonpo, went to Tsari Mountain and “opened” the hidden sacred place of Tsari by following the advice of their root teacher. So it seems most likely that he might have stayed in Bhutan between eight to eleven years. He started the Drikung school there and attracted many students.

Later his religious lineage, which was later named Lhapa, remained influential for several centuries in Bhutan, forming a number of monasteries and gaining control over the western region of the country.

During Gyelwa Lhanangpa’s lifetime, he was well known for his great brown sugar feasts (bur ston chen mo). He made several lavish sugar feasts in Drikung but the offerings also included much more than the sugar feast. He made such offerings seven times, six times before and once soon after his teacher Jigten Sumgon passed away. In the last gathering it was said that around 55,525 followers of the Drikungpas were present for the feast.[7] In his History of Bhutan, Lam Pemala argued that Lhanangpa imposed so much tax on Bhutanese people for these grand offerings, that the people of south suffered as a result.[8] But in those days, dark brown cane sugar had to be imported from India. There is no account that people at Lhanangpa’s time went to India to import these goods.

On the other hand Lhanangpa belonged to a wealthy family. As his father’s dying wish he even offered a skull cup, which belonged to Naropa and was considered as the most treasured possession of his family, to his teacher Jigten Sumgon. Moreover, soon after his father passed away, two of his half brothers and a number of other important members of his clan died. So most of his family’s wealth were offered to Drikung and Phagmodru[9]. This information could explain that all these grand offerings may not have come from Bhutan.

In Chelkha he had many disciples and sponsors who requested him to stay back as their teacher, but instead he returned to Tibet after spending a total of about 11 years, leaving his nephew Lhapa Rinchen Gyalpo as his representative. His nephew soon came into conflict with Phajo Drugom Shigpo. Therefore, towards the end of Lhanangpa’s life, Rinchen Gyalpo wrote a letter expressing his concern to Lhanangpa, saying that he was challenged in spreading his teaching in Lhomon (Bhutan) by Phajo Drugom. Lhanangpa replied by saying not to worry much, and even though his teachings may not flourish in Lhomon, the rulers of the country would be from his lineage.[10] Corresponding to his date of birth in the 3rd Rabjung’s wood monkey year of the Buddhist calendar, Gyelwa Lhanangpa also passed away in the wood monkey year of the 4th Rabjung, in the year 1224.[11]

[1] According to the brief biography of Lhanangpa called ‘Bri gung chod pa ’Jig rten dgon po’i slob ’phrin las rang mnyam bchu gsum las dpal gNyos rgyal ba Lha nang pa’i rnam thar by Jana Baza. Songmo Pati, according to Lam Jamtsho’s Sumthrang Denrab manuscript.

[2] Nagpo Chopa (Nag po spyod pa) in Tibetan.

[3] Nagpo Chodpa was one of the 108 Siddhas of India during the Buddha’s time.

[4] See Martin, D. (2008). Nyo Gyelwa Lhanangpa Sanggye Rinchen. Accessed 15th October, 2013 from The same information can also be seen in the brief history of Lhanangpa written in Tibetan, by the author Janya Baza. .

[5] Dargye and Sorensen (2001). The biography of Pha ‘brug sgom zhig po. Thimphu: NLB, p. II.

[6] See Tshewang, Padma. (1994). ’Brug gi rgyal rabs gsal ba’i sgron. Thimphu: NLB.

[7] See Martin, D. (2008). Nyo Gyelwa Lhanangpa Sanggye Rinchen. Accessed 15th October, 2013 from

[8] See Tshewang, Padma. (1994). ’Brug gi rgyal rabs gsal ba’i sgron. Thimphu: NLB.

[9] Janya Bazra. (….).Lhanangpa’s Namthar. Drikung Kagyu school: Sambotha Research Center.

[10] བདག་ཚོས་མོན་དུ་མ་དར་ཀྱང་།། ཡུལ་བདག་རྒྱུད་ལས་བྱུང་ཡང་སྲིད།། See Lam Jamtsho’s Sumthrang Denrab unpublished manuscript.

[11] Lobzang, Dungkhar. (2004). Dung dkar tshig mdzod chen mo. Delhi: Sherig Parkhang, p. 937.

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