Aum Sangay Choden was in labour that night. Fire broke out on the second floor of her house. Before the blaze spread, she found time to gather just the clothes she wore and haul herself out of her bed to a neighbour’s house. Her son came into the world that night, while the sky over Ura village was warmed and lit by giant flames. At the end of a momentous life, to put in a Buddhist way, his cognizant consciousness departed on Wednesday the 18th of October, 2017, in peace. The incident of fire destroying the newborn’s house was not perceived in the village as a catastrophe for the family. Flames and fortune were associated. The baby would have great merit (bsod nams), it was widely said, after the disaster, though it was no great consolation to the family. Over time, this paradoxical comment about a birth in the mid fifties in the midst of flames was forgotten. But its truth was first revealed three decades later. Those who recalled the engulfing fire felt pride about how far the child had gone, and how far he would still go. By 1971, having completed studies from Ugyen Wangchuck Academy in Paro, he had become a faithful attendant and PA to the Crown Prince. After the Coronation of HM the IVth Druk Gyalpo, he was known largely as Goop Wangchen, an ancient title (mgu pa) that translates as pleasing the mind of a higher leader with devotion.
The young Wangchen committed to memory many supplication-prayers. His pious maternal grandmother, Tanzin, was an exceptional woman for her times and could read scriptures. She encouraged him to memorize many supplication-prayers. He often participated in the night-long recitations of The Twenty-One Homages to Tara by Gelongma Palmo (10th-11th century), held to relieve illnesses before the dawn of western health services. This kind of memorization training might have enhanced one of the innate abilities that distinguished Dasho Wangchen, which was his extraordinary power of long-term retention and rapid memory retrieval. He was hardly affected by normal memory decay over time: he could recall physical, chronological, visual and verbal events in detail. His higher order knowledges and decisions were facilitated by his outstanding memory.
In his childhood, the concept of childhood was not distinct from adulthood, and tasks of children only differed in degree from those of adults. He and his chums helped parents with household routines; watched over ripening fields, drying cereals and drifting livestock; and gathered and carried home firewood. But they also devised their own outdoor games, waded and paddled in streams, climbed trees, and, wearing thick hooded hats, rode docile livestock over the windswept high-altitude valley of Ura. His family, along with its horses and mules, travelled to Kheng Wamleng Paam every winter to live with their hosts, avoiding the winter chill in Ura. Though he had come far, Dasho never forgot any old ties, and he was always kinder than he had to be to all of his old associates, acquintances and even strangers. He was so aware of the fact that those in authority can come across opportunities to harm others. “You should not harm another person even if you cannot help him or her, but help others if you can,” was one of his stands.
But many age-old practices of his childhood mentioned above where children participated started to decline after 1960. The weight of modernization was gradually felt on the hitherto slow life. The enrollment of students for a primary school in Ura in 1961 changed life-trajectories of Dasho and some of his chums. During the interview for enrollment, one of his friends pretended to have crippled fingers on his right hand, and was thus spared from schooling by the interviewer. Having studied till class four in Ura school, Dasho was transferred to Jakar school in 1966. After two years in Jakar, a band of students from Ura including Dasho walked to Paro Gaupay School in 1969. The cantilever wooden bridge over Punatshangchu was heavily damaged by the 1968 river flood. They crawled over it, leaving horses with a household in Wangdi. In Bumthang, 1967 was the year of collecting land tax after the first chain-based cadastral survey. The gup needed a first rate clerk and was head hunting for talents with good handwriting. Organizational history might be slightly different had Dasho been held back in the village, like one of his friends, to serve the gewog. Dasho had the most excellent Dzongkha hand writing, a gift from his Ura School’s teacher, Jow Phajo of Taang, who had a Gandhian view that “bad handwriting should be regarded as a sign of an imperfect education.” Neatness of his handwriting was also a window on his methodical mind, which was thoughtful in most situations, even if they were troublesome. He topped in Gaupey School as he had done before in Ura school. In 1969 itself, its headmaster, Jesuit Philby Stewart, placed the brightest few from Gaupey in the newly opened Ugyen Wangchuck Academy where the Crown Prince studied. From then on till his passing away, for 47 years, Dasho served the IVth Druk Gyalpo, in the most devoted and faithful manner. The only brief interruption in his direct, close and continous service was when he was away in the USA between 1982 and 1984 for about two years.
In 1985 he became formally the secretary of the Royal Secretariat, after his predecessor Dasho Shingkhar Lam. It has been a pivotal position in the lengthy history of the nation. Dasho Wangchen was a strikingly intelligent, inscrutable and subtle, succeeding to a long line of secretaries stretching back to the Zhabdrung’s secretary Drung Damchoe; Desi Jigme Namgyel’s secretary Lopon Gangcen, and HM Jigme Wangchuck’s secretary Lopon Keza Dawa. The ancient title of Dasho was granted to him in 1988, the year of Royal Wedding of the IVth Druk Gyalpo.
As the sphere of development increased hundred folds every five-year plan in the golden reign of the IVth Druk Gyalpo, the volume and complexity of information and data required for decision and goal setting by HM and the government correspondingly increased. In spite of a lean staffing, Dasho lived up to ever increasing tasks of coordinating information and data on various facets of development. His understanding that information cannot be consumed meaningfully by any head of government or state unless it was scrupulously organised and inclusively complete was way ahead of a key insight of management. As a conscientous worker, Dasho stretched to emulate thoroughness and precision that HM himself embodied. Unambiguously single-minded in his dedication to the Golden Throne, he worked hard to fulfill any command that he received promptly. An advice he gave, when sought, was aphoristic: “Leaders may choose you, but you have to choose your leader, and there can be only one.”
Like many indomitably resolute persons, his calmness, clarity, self-control and self-discipline in the face of difficult circumstances were admirable. Some of these were no doubt effects of the IVth Druk Gyalpo himself, while others came from his deep understanding spawned from the university of hard life rather than books. He was a man without distractions because he ruled them out.
He was bound by a sense of commitment to the community of his birth, its gods and people. While the community rebuilt the Ura Lhakhang completely over three years, between 1980-82, Dasho sponsored the sculpting of the monumental, two-storey tall Guru Nangsid Zilnon; and landmark fresco paintings of Kaling Zhitro, that took a big squad of artisans from 1982 to 1986. Its consecration in 1986 with his presence was a precursor to his many spiritual projects such as sponsoring three-year retreats, recitations and religious education. Inspired by his father-in-law, the renowned Lam Nakulung (1923-90) of Bartsham (known in old text as Bar Tshosum), a disciple of late Dudjom Rinpoche (1904-87), Dasho also became an adherent of late Dudjom and, after his passing away, of his grandson Khyentse Rinpoche (b. 1961).
After nearly four decades of working in the luminous glow of the Golden Throne, among the major transformations Dasho witnessed, the IVth Druk Gyalpo abdicated, and the country transited to democracy in 2008. The same year in November, the joyous coronation of the the Vth King was held. One month later, His Revered Majesty honoured Dasho on the National Day, 2008 with the high honour of Druk Thugsey (Heart-son of Bhutan) and commended:
“Since my childhood, I have witnessed that Pema Wangchen has served my father, His Majesty the IVth Druk Gyalpo, to whom we are profoundly indebted. He is the best among the best. His adherence to thadamtshig and lay judrey has been examplery in all circumstances. Despite occasional health constraints, he has never faltered in fulfilling his duties because of his mental capability and deligence. His service has been invaluable, having rendered it to the best of his abilities, from his mind, body and speech, all the time in the past. I have no doubt that he will continue to serve the IVth Druk Gyalpo with utmost devotion throughout his life, in the future. I wish to mark my heartfelt appreciation to Pema Wangchen for his dedicated service, with Druk Thugsey.”
Dasho Karma Ura