The Raven Crown-History of the symbol of Bhutan’s monarch
In the world of the black birds, the raven (Corvus corax) is the largest; it’s shining black feathers, hoarse voice, and playful nature represent power, mystery, wisdom, and intelligence.
Legon Jarog Donchen an emanation of Mahakala represents the bird in the deity form. As the nation’s protecting deity, the raven is considered so sacred that killing one is more heinous than the murder of a hundred monks. So it is not surprising that the bird’s nests are found on the walls of the monasteries and Dzongs, illustrating the Buddhists’ deep reverence for the raven and its natural elements.
Origin and significance
Bhutan’s Monarchical Crown, designed by the Tibetan “avant-garde” Changchub Tsöngrü (1817-1856), is known as Usa Jaro Dongchen or the Raven-face. Crown because of the Crown’s raven pinnacle. The Crown’s brim is embroidered with motifs of the skull and the Garuda bird. On the bird’s head sit the sun and the moon symbolizing longevity, steadfastness, and enlightenment.
This first version of the Raven Crown was conceived more as a magical helmet than a symbol of royalty. Imbued with the essence of two of the great protector Yeshey Gonpo’s (Mahakala) many forms, namely the linked pair of ‘enemy gods’ (Dralha) called the Northern Demon (Jangdu) and the Raven Headed Mahakala of Action (Legon Jarok Dongchen), it was intended to associate these deities permanently with its wearer.
There was a conscious allusion, surely, to the role played by the Raven Headed Mahakala in the State’s first unification under the founding father, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (1594-1651). Likewise, the victories which Jigme Namgyel won over his rivals within Bhutan and his success, although temporary, against the British in 1865 are still ascribed to the deity’s powers.
The later crowns, which developed from this prototype, shed their immediate purpose of giving advantage and protection in real conflict, domesticating its symbolism into that of a triumphant royalty.
Back in the olden days, such battle helmets were known as Tschap Jham. These helmets are different from other ordinary helmets because the steel is hidden inside. Several flat pieces of iron are pierced with nine holes that are interlocked; they formed the frame of the helmet. Then several silk scarves known as dhar thoe are woven tightly together to cover the frame.
The frame is then covered with silk and fleece. It was believed to bring powers to the wearer. So Jigme Namgyel wore it in his battles against many rivals within the country and against British who tried unsuccessfully to subdue him.
As stories go, Lam Changchub Tsöngrü is supposed to have selected a black horse for Jigme Namgyel. Wherever he went, the horse would be saddled and led beside Jigme Namgyel. While no one rode the horse, it was believed that the deity Mahakala would be riding it, as evidenced by the animal sweating as if it was carrying a rider.
Jigme Namgyel’s battle helmet was unique and features embroidery depicting three eyes. From records, we know that the Lam blessed the Crown and invoked the special protecting powers of Jangdue and Legon Jarog Dongchen. Over time, it became the unique symbol of authority.
As Mahakala became an important protective deity associated with the country; this particular form too gradually became an important national symbol, especially in times of adversity and external threats. Flags and pennant of the deity were often carried into battle as protective charms.
In his book, History of Bhutan, Lam Pema Tshewang explains the raison d’etre behind choosing the raven head and its design, “The kingdom of Bhutan is a state that upholds the teachings and traditions of Palden Drukpa. The principal protective deities of the Palden Drukpa are Yeshey Gonpo, Lhamo Dudsolma and Laegon Jarog Dongchen. The Crown resembles the face of Laegon Jarog Dongchen.”
Before 1907 the helmet was worn as a part of the regalia for the Trongsa Penlop, a local governor. The battle helmet evolved over time but continued to be the model for all Raven Crowns. The Crown, topped by the head of a raven, became the legacy to his heirs.
The First King, Ugyen Wangchuck (1862-1926) inherited his father’s battle helmet. The first pictures of it were taken during the mission of British Officer Francis Younghusband in 1904, before he became King in 1907.
During this mission, he acted as a mediator between the British and the Tibetans. According to Michael Aris, “The Raven Crown on his head is hidden by a cloth wrapper to protect it from the dust of the journey”. Aris further commented that Ugyen Wangchuck led the Bhutanese to the scared Tibetan city making a grand entrance wearing the Raven Crown.
The First King reinterpreted the Crown by stripping it of its purpose of supernatural protection in battle and turning the symbolism into that of Triumphant Royalty. The Raven Crown worn later by all the Kings of Bhutan as a symbol of the King were modified from the one worn by Jigme Namgyel. However, most of the Crown retained the distinctive raven head, the wrathful eyes of Mahakala, the sun and the moon.
In Tibet, Changchub Tsöngrü earned a reputation as the ‘avant-garde’ of the Rime ‘eclectic’ religious movement. In Bhutan, he is more known for his prophesy of Jigme Namgyel’s (1825- 1881) ascension to power. As the main lam or guru of the father of the First King, the lam designed the Jarog Dongchen headgear or the Raven Crown, which has became one of the symbols of monarchy of the country.
The Lam was born in Olka near Gyantse in Upper Tsang in Central Tibet, but died in the Ta Dzong in Trongsa in Bhutan at the age of 39. The Lam was associated with Bhutan from a very young age. He travelled to Bhutan at least six times; Paro being the first place to receive his teachings and then he travelled to Central Bhutan to give teaching there. Changchub Tsöngrü played an important role in the political and religious life of Bhutan in the mid-19th century.
For the Bhutanese, the big black bird with shining feathers, hoarse voice, and playful nature is sacred and is its national bird. More profoundly, it is the symbol of the country’s guardian deity Yeshey Gonpo and the Raven head takes pride of place on top of the King’s Crown. The Raven Crown symbolizes the sacred nature of Bhutanese Kingship.
Desi Jigme Namgyel’s Raven Crown remained in the guardianship of the Wangchuck family. When the Second King died, Mayum Phuntsho Choden Wangchuck became its custodian. Later Mayum offered the national treasure to HRH Ashi Sonam Choden Wangchuck for safekeeping. After having looked after it for several years, in 1975, Ashi Sonam presented it to the National Museum in Paro.
The inventory of the Museum says that it received the Usha or crown of Jigme Namgyel under office order No RPH (B) 4/TS/717 dated 28/8/1975. This priceless piece of history has since been housed at the National Museum in Paro for the general public to view and reflect upon.
Contributed by Tshering Tashi
Amici del Bhutan - Italy