Her Majesty Ashi Phuntsho Choden Wangchuck

Patron Queen of Bhutan, A Legacy of Devotion and Leadership

A mountain top view down a verdant river valley.

“The Bhutanese royal family is known for having a strong tradition of patronage and support for the dharma, especially the queens. In particular, Her Royal Highnesses Ashi Wangmo and Ashi Phuntsho Choden and the present Royal Grandmother Ashi Kesang Choden have created a legacy throughout Bhutan. You won’t find many gold butter lamps in the temples of Bhutan that have not been offered by one of them. Looking back, my memory of this great queen, Ashi Phuntsho Choden, is something I can never imagine recreating. That setting was so special. I was only eight or nine years old when I spent time with her, and our encounters mostly took place in the presence of both of my grandfathers, His Holiness the 16th Karmapa, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Pomda Khen Rinpoche, and the previous Khamtrul Rinpoche — many times all at once. My childish memory of her is her eating very thin slivers of betel nut that her attendants had carefully sliced because with her aged teeth she could not chew the whole ones. But she was so elegant.”

— Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche on Queen Ashi Phuntsho Choden Wangchuck

Ashi Phuntsho Choden (1911-2003) married Bhutan’s second king, Jigme Wangchuck, in 1925 when she was 15 years old. This marriage between second cousins carried on the religious lineage of the royal family of Wangchuck that traces its origins to Tertön Pema Lingpa (1450-1521). Ashi Phuntsho Choden was the half-sister of the grandfather of the new Dragon Queen Jetsun Pema, and she was the great grandmother of the fifth king of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. (The wedding of Jetsun Pema and Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck took place in October, 2011.)

Bhutan’s nobility is tightly interwoven with sacred prophecies, revealed treasures, and Guru Rinpoche’s blessings. The country’s first queen, Ashi Tsendue Lhamo, was deeply devoted to Buddhism and was the only woman in the district of Bumthang whose wrist fit Yeshe Tsogyal’s bracelet.

Ashi Phuntsho Choden, the second queen, was equally devout. As Bhutan began the balancing act of promoting and preserving its culture while trying to engage with the modern world, she carried the Buddhadharma beyond Bhutan into India and Nepal. In 1927, when her husband Jigme Wangchuck became Druk Gyalpo, the Dragon King, she took her place as a patron queen, responsible for religious, royal, and social interests.

Ashi Phuntsho Choden’s aristocratic education taught her how to manage Bhutan’s domestic world of weavers and estates. As queen, she was kind, capable, open-minded, and generous, moving gracefully between her inner and outer worlds of her activity. When she gave birth to the third Druk Gyalpo, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, in 1928, she made sure that he learned both English and Hindi in early childhood to prepare him for Bhutan’s escalating involvement in foreign diplomacy. After the birth, Ashi Phuntsho Choden had no more children, and focused her life around Buddhism and matters of state.

During the queen’s lifetime, Bhutan and India became closely connected. In 1934, she  traveled with her husband to Calcutta. All winter, she attended races, dinners, movies, and impromptu archery competitions. In the spring, she left without her husband on a pilgrimage in Nepal.

Back in Bhutan, the queen hosted British diplomats with humor and warmth. An officer’s wife wrote about exchanging dresses with her:  “I looked enormously stout…. I then dressed up Her Highness in my dress, stockings, hat, and shoes. She was very pleased, though she must have felt the cold, as my clothes were much flimsier than hers.”

Other anecdotes reveal the world in which she lived as a woman, mother, and wife. Her daughter-in-law, Ashi Kesang Choden Wangchuk, wrote  that when she [Ashi Kesang Choden] was pregnant in Thimphu in 1954 and waiting for the Western doctor and her own mother to make the difficult overland journey to assist her, “my baby arrived early, and Mayuem Phuntsho Choden [the queen] and her maid, with Dr. Phenchung, delivered my daughter.” “A Tribute to Dr. Albert Craig”.

In 1952, while she was in India, her husband, King Jigme Wangchuck, died of a heart attack. Ashi Kesang Choden wrote of his death,  “While in Kalimpong [India] in March 1952, we heard that His Majesty the second King Jigme Wangchuck had passed away in Kunga Rapten Palace. His Majesty [the third] King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk [and] Mayuem Phuntsho Choden…[were] greatly shocked and grieved by the news…. Mayuem Phuntsho Choden and I travelled to] help with the royal cremation ceremonies.”

These day-to-day accounts of the queen’s life are eclipsed in the historical records by long lists of her extensive Buddhist undertakings. Throughout her life, she received teachings, empowerments, and reading transmissions from renowned lamas in the Drukpa Kagyu, Karma Kagyu, Dudjom, Peling, and Nyingthik traditions.

Her obituary in Kuensel, Bhutan’s English-language newspaper, notes, “The deeply ingrained spirituality that she developed became a foundation for the responsibilities that she took on herself, and Ashi Phuntsho Choden played an important role in maintaining and strengthening Bhutan’s rich Buddhist heritage. She built a legacy of religious institutions, established spiritual learning centers, and preserved the rich imagery that formed a core of Bhutan’s religious history.”

While still in her 20s, Ashi Phuntsho Choden renovated Kurje Lhakhang, where  Guru Rinpoche left an imprint of his body after subduing local demons in 746 AD. At Kurje, she also restored murals of the Guru Tshengye (Eight Manifestations of Guru Rinpoche).  Later, the queen commissioned paintings of Buddha Shakyamuni and statues of Jo Jampa (Maitreya), Terton Pema Lingpa, Buddha and his retinue, and Guru Rinpoche.

In 1972 her son, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, died of a heart attack. In 1974, she established the National Memorial Chorten in Thimpu in his memory, and for the well-being of Bhutan. (To learn more about King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, [intlink id=”452″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]see the article about him[/intlink] in the Patron Kings series. HH Dungse Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche’s father, was the chorten’s chief architect, under the guidance of his father, HH Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche. The chorten is renowned for its tantric imagery.

The queen commissioned many other chortens and lhakangs (temples), including temples in India and Nepal, and sponsored the printing and distribution of thousands of volumes of religious texts and rare mandala miniature paintings. She initiated plans for Bhutan’s national library (established in 1967) to collect and conserve vital Buddhist and secular documents, and she established three meditation centers and shedras (Buddhist colleges).

The queen’s commitment to Buddhism was born from great devotion. In 1955, camped near the shores of a lake, she dreamed of a girl adorned with flowers and silk scarves, carrying a bowl of milk. The girl sang a song that began,

I offer this song to the Three Jewels: the ultimate refuge,
There is none other than you to rely on.

The song went on to describe the location where the Ninth Gangteng Tulku would be reincarnated. After hearing the song in her dream, the queen sent a message to the monks of Gangteng that their tulku’s incarnation could be found at the source of the Mangde Chu river in central Bhutan. Later, the Dzogchen yogi, Polo Khenpo Rinpoche; HH Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche; Jigdrel Yeshe Dorji; and HH the Gyalwang Karmapa recognized the tulku as the unmistaken reincarnation of Gangteng Tulku, the body emanation of Pema Lingpa.

Later in life, Ashi Phuntsho Choden spent more time at her retreat residence, Dechencholing Palace in Thimpu. There, hundreds of butter lamps illuminated the queen’s shrine room.

When Ashi Phuntsho Choden died peacefully at the age of 92 in 2003, “tens of thousands of people lined the national highway, from Thimphu to Bumthang, prostrating, offering prayers, lighting incense, holding flowers, many of them in tears.” HH Karmapa joined the international crowd of dignitaries, monks, and lamas attending her funeral ceremonies. In a condolence letter to her grandson, His Royal Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the Central Tibetan Administration wrote that “the life of Her Majesty encompassed much of the history of modern Bhutan,” and that it was people like her and her generation of Bhutanese who have contributed so much to making Bhutan a country that is stable, peaceful, literate, and on the path to increasing prosperity. “This is a legacy which future generations of Bhutanese need to cherish and expand on. We join with Your Majesty and the people of Bhutan in mourning the death of a great soul.”