My first memory of Dasho Shingkhar Lam Kunzang Wangchuk is from 1982 when I was a young boy. The community of Ura was renovating the village temple and building a colossal statue of Guru Rinpoche. Dasho Shingkhar Lam arrived on his yellow jeep to appraise the work. When the sculptors left for lunch, Dasho Shingkhar Lam, an agile man with a subtle sense of diplomacy and eyes for artistic finesse, took the chisel in his hands and climbed on the enormous statue to refine the curves of the Guru’s nose and lips. “Now, it looks much better. I hope they would not notice”, he said with some mischief in his voice. It is this first impression of an adept sculptor, which still lingers in my mind when I think of Dasho Shingkhar Lam. But Dasho Shingkhar Lam was more than just a deft sculptor.
Dasho Shingkhar Lam was born in 1928 as the eldest son to Shingkhar Lam Koncho Gyaltshen and Pema Tshoki of Ura. As a fourteenth generation descendant of the great philosopher-saint Longchenpa (1308-1364), he was a scion of the religious nobility which served as the spiritual overload of Shingkhar village. Besides, at the age of 5, he was recognized as the rebirth of Nyungne Rinpoche, a lama of impressive artistic skills. The young Lam Kunzang Wangchuk received his religious training under the tutelage of his father and uncle. He spent his early youth in the village of Shingkhar but often went on religious missions and alms rounds with his father to the neighbouring districts of Kurtoe and Zhongar.
At the age of 16, young Lam Kunzang Wangchuk had to join the court of the Second King in Wangdicholing, following the disappearance of his uncle who was a courtier. It was customary then for elite families to fill such vacancy in court by the next eligible kin. During our long rides together from Thimphu to Bumthang in the last decades of his life, Dasho Shingkhar Lam would often narrate, with acute nostalgia, his sentimental departure from home, his exciting career in the court of the Second King and his progression as a statesman culminating in the title of Dasho in 1968 and the positions of the Secretary to the Third King in 1964, Speaker of the National Assembly and a deputy minister in 1971.
We shared a common interest in the nuances and details of Bhutan’s cultures and history. Thus, during our meetings or travels together, he would shower me with details of life in pre-modern Bhutan and the process of early modernization as he happily reminisced his own adventures and accomplishments. “It was exciting times to follow a great leader like the Third King and be part of history to introduce many new wonderful projects,” he often said. He took pride in being the mastermind behind many national symbols and practices, which were adopted as Bhutan emerged to become a modern nation. On one recent occasion, he was peeved to hear someone on BBS claim credit for the insignias of Royal Bhutan Army, which he has designed.
Dasho Shingkhar Lham was an astute statesman with spiritual leanings and undivided loyalty to his Kings. Even in his high office, he was imbued with deep sense of humility, his body slightly stooped in modesty and his voice low and crisp. With the vagaries of political life, he went through a phase of uncertain life in the decade leading to his resignation in 1985. The interesting stories of his journey from a retainer in the court of the Second King to his political climax during the reign of the Third King has long been told in Dasho Karma Ura’s novel, The Hero with Thousand Eyes. I would like to direct readers to this wonderful historical novel for both Dasho Shingkhar Lam’s personal story and accounts of mid-twentieth century Bhutan.
Dasho Shingkhar Lam’s role as an active public figure continued even after he left his political office in 1985. Taking up his role as both a reincarnate and hereditary lama, he increasingly spent his time leading religious rituals and overseeing temple renovations in his native villages of Ura and Shingkhar, where he was affectionately called Meme Dasho. Beside fulfilling the duties of a lama, he also got more time to exhibit his artistic talents. An inborn artist without formal training, Dasho Shingkhar Lam has left behind many artistic legacies in the form of temple wall paintings, thangkas and sculptures.
Yet, my second best memory of him is not of the fine artist but the nimble performing artist he was even in his sixties. Dissatisfied with a cham dancer during a festival in Ura, he quickly donned the robes and joined the troop to perform the piece with the flair of a master dancer. I was dazed by his dexterity. Since then, I had an earnest wish to learn the choreography of all dance items he knew and received from a special lineage, but my wish was not fulfilled. “I regret not sharing with you all the dance steps when I was fit,” he said after suffering a tragic stroke over a decade ago.
The stroke left him physically debilitated during much of the last decade of his life but this also allowed him to turn his mind to serious spirituality and practice the teachings he has received from many enlightened masters. With Choyingdzo, Longchenpa’s magnum opus on Dzongchen experience, by his bedside, Dasho Lam increasingly submerged into inner states of prayer and meditation. Most of our discussions in the last few years would dwell on teachings on the nature of mind and on the intermediate state of bardo. In evening of 16 October 2014, Dasho Shingkhar Lam Kunzang Wangchuk has passed away and entered the first phase of his meditation in the Clear Light state of bardo. His body lies in repose and thugdam while his immediate family members, relations, disciples and communities today mourn for him.
A statesman of outstanding stature, a religious virtuosi, a sculptor, scribe, artist, choreographer, public figure and one of Bhutan’s cultural paragon, Dasho Shingkhar Lam was a rare Bhutanese renaissance man. With his demise, Bhutan has lost one of her brightest stars, and I, my cultural beacon and an exalted kin.
Karma Phuntsho is a scholar on Bhutan’s culture and history and runs the Shejun Agency for Cultural Documentation and Research.