Lhomönkhazhi: One of Bhutan's Early Names

Bhutan was known for many centuries by the name Lhomönkhazhi (ལྷོ་མོན་ཁ་བཞི་), the Southern Mön of Four Approaches. This appears with other variations such as Lhokhazhi (ལྷོ་ཁ་བཞི་) or Southern Land of Four Approaches, and Mönkhazhi (མོན་ཁ་བཞི་), the Mön area with Four Approaches or the Four Mon Approaches. It was used to refer to Bhutan or parts of it prior to its unification in 17th century. According to the most well-known enumeration, the four approaches are: Dungsamkha to the east (ཤར་གདུང་བསམ་ཁ་), Pasakha to the south (ལྷོ་དཔག་བསམ་ཁ་), Dalingkha to the west (ནུབ་ད་ལི་ཁ་), and Taktsherkha to the north (བྱང་སྟག་ཚེར་ཁ་), places that are located in the four corners of the country and roughly correspond to the current national boundaries.

However, this enumeration of four approaches in order to explain the ancient name Lhokhazhi presents a problem of chronology as it suggests a territorial unity long before the country was formally united into one state. Could the ancient Bhutanese and their neighbours have perceived the area of modern Bhutan as a geographic unit to be approached via the four approaches even before the country was politically unified? Given the natural division of the country into many parts by mountain ranges, and the resultant pronounced linguistic and cultural differences, it is very unlikely that they did so. It is hard to imagine that valleys in Bhutan shared a sufficiently striking and unifying resemblance with one another, which they did not share with their neighbours in Sikkim and Tawang, before their unification in the 17th century. Besides, human mobility in ancient Bhutan was more commonly of north-south orientation between Tibet and India and the valleys rather than laterally among the valleys themselves. Thus, the identification of the four approaches with the four co-ordinates located at four corners of Bhutan is historically problematic.

To explain this anachronistic appellation, the historian John Ardussi argues that the name Lhokhazhi was “applied originally only to an 11th century clan appanage in far western Bhutan, and by stages emerged from the religio-political struggles of the 10th - 17th centuries as a Drukpa metaphor for the state of Bhutan as a whole”.[1] He presents a very persuasive explanation for the name, weaving it with the gradual expansion of the unitary political domain for which the name is used. In order words, the name was first used to refer to a small area around Paro, then for much of western Bhutan and finally to the whole of modern Bhutan by the middle of 17th century.

Ardussi’s theory that the term had an expanding range of reference certainly helps us resolve much of the problem of anachronism. Yet, it is possible that some Bhutanese may have attributed a vague sense of congruity and unity to the areas which constitute modern Bhutan even before the 17th century. There is at least one record in which the name Lhokhazhi is used to refer to a country with its loose domain extending as far as Khaling to the east, Chumbi to the west, India to the south, and Phari to the north.[2]

Another interpretation of the name Lhomönkhazhi is found in local oral tradition.[3] According to this oral enumeration, Lhomönkhazhi is not understood as the southern Mön of four approaches but as the four southern Mön approaches. The name does not imply a unitary land with four approaches but rather four individual places that lie south of Tibet and also served as ancient approaches/doors to Tibet. Under this scenario, the four approaches are the four main Mön valleys of Paro, Bumthang, Kurtoe and Tawang. Although this is not how the name is commonly understood today, it is a viable interpretation and may have been the original purport of the term Mönkhazhi. While Lhokhazhi referred to the appanage in western Bhutan with fairly defined boundaries, Mönkhazhi may have designated the four valleys.

It seems highly plausible, then, that the early names Lhokhazhi, which initially referred to a clan appanage, and Mönkhazhi, which perhaps referred to four Mön valleys south of Tibet, were compounded to form the later designation Lhomönkhazhi. This conveniently combined both the reference to the southern Mön area and the notion of a geographic and territorial unity and may have suited the purpose of the people, who used the name as the Bhutanese state emerged in the 17th century. The final act in this naming process would have been the identification of the four co-ordinates at the frontiers with names ending in kha (ཁ་) or approach/door. This not only made the name etymologically sound but would have also helped secure and strengthen the territorial integrity of the young nation through even its name.

Whatever the origins and the processes behind it, the name became deeply embedded in Bhutanese historical consciousness. The term has been commonly used to refer to Bhutan and, even today, the name is frequently used in its modern variation: The Dragon Country of Four Approaches (ཁ་བཞི་འབྲུག་གི་རྒྱལ་ཁབ་). Viewed against the changes in political boundaries of Bhutan’s large neighbours since the 17th century, it is a matter of no small achievement that the small country of Lhomönkhazhi has retained more or less the same national boundaries, which corresponds to the four approaches. The name Lhomönkhazhi certainly must have played an important part in this by providing a distinct, geographically-centered identity.

 

Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan from which this piece is extracted.

 

 

[1] Ardussi (forthcoming), pp 16-17. I am grateful to the author for sharing his draft manuscript.

[2] Sherab Palzang (2004), The Gem Necklace of Short Biography of Hungral Dung Dung and His Descendents, Thimphu: Centre for Bhutan Studies, p. 45-6.

[3] Personal communication with Tshewang Dargay, who cited the late Chagkhar Lama Gyonpo.

Bhutan Cultural Library Historical Account and Narrative Bhutan

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A problematization and discussion of the origins and applications of the name Lhomonkhazhi, or Southern Land of the Four Approaches.

Collection Bhutan Cultural Library
Visibility Public - accessible to all site users (default)
Author Karma Phuntsho
Editor Ariana Maki
Year published 2017
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Places