Ura is located at about 50 kilometres from Jakar, the main town in Bumthang district, along the old east-west national highway. This beautiful valley, home to one of Bhutan’s largest clustered villages, is today widely known as the Ura (ཨུ་ར), “u” as in Ugyen and the suffix ‘ra’. It is the most populated village in Ura gewog with about seventy households and over 400 residents.
Name of the Village
It is said that Ugyen Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava, travelled through this valley when he visited Bhutan in the 8th century. He was visiting Bumthang at the invitation of King Sindhuraja, who is believed to have lived in an iron castle, or Chagkhar, in Bumthang’s Chokhor valley. Locals say that Guru Rinpoche visited the Ura valley and blessed it as his secret hidden land, giving rise to the name Urgyen Bayul (ཨུ་རྒྱན་སྦས་ཡུལ), the ‘hidden valley of Ugyen Rinpoche’. This was abbreviated to Urbay (ཨུར་སྦས), as the valley was referred to in the past. Though today some elders in Bumthang still call the valley Urbay, most use Ura, a glossing of Urbay.
Ura captured the imagination and appreciation of other Buddhist masters besides Guru Rinpoche. For example, Longchen Rabjampa (1308-1363), in his praise of Bumthang valleys written in 1355 claims that the label Ura was given by Tibetans. According to local oral accounts, the name Urbay was changed to Ura (ཨུ་ར་) by 20th century government officials taking a census or registering land who used the Tibetan name. Another account maintains that because the valley is Ugyen Rinpoche’s hidden land surrounded by mountains, the name Ura refers to the valley of Ugyen (ཨོ་རྒྱན་) with a fence (ར་བ་) of mountains. The etymology of these names suggests that both these names were not used to refer to the valley before Ugyen Rinpoche’s 8th century visit. It also clearly shows the strong tendency of local residents to associate the land with Guru Rinpoche and his introduction of Buddhism.
In addition to these names, Ura is also sometimes referred to more poetically as Ura Serzhong or ‘Ura the golden bowl’. This is because Ura sits in a bowl-shaped valley in which all kind of cereals grow. The name explains both the natural landscape and the agricultural orientation of its people.
Historical accounts of Ura tell us that a local ruler called the dung (གདུང་) ruled the village. There are two narrative versions of the Ura Dung’s origin. In one, it is said that a celestial figure known as Gungsey Langling descended from sky, sent by the god Ode Gungyal in response to the prayers of the people. Gungsey Langling was miraculously conceived in the womb of a local woman named Sonam Peldron, and was destined to rule the area. After birth, he becomes the dung Lhagoen Palchen. A site called Lhababteng, located below the Ura central school, is considered to be where Dung Lhagoen Palchen descended from the sky. Lhababteng, therefore, is understood as the place where the god descended. Others, however, explain that the place is where Dung Lhagoen Palchen first set foot in this valley, or where his mother conceived him in her womb.
Dung Lhagoen Palchen’s line continued only until the third generation. His son Lhazang Gyal was the second Ura dung, and his son Drakpa Wangchuk was the third. Drakpa Wangchuk didn’t produce any heirs to continue the bloodline, and therefore is said to have instructed his subjects on his deathbed to find his incarnation in Tibet. As instructed, some local men traveled to Yarlung in Tibet carrying a local tong or wild Bhutanese pear. When they encountered a group of boys playing outdoors in Yarlung, they threw the fruit toward them. One of them picked it up, which was taken as a sign he was the incarnation of their former leader. The men then tricked the boy with more fruits, eventually putting him in a sack and bringing him to Ura. The boy ruled Ura as Dung Lhawang Drakpa. He later traced back his ancestral line to the King Lang Darma of Tibet.
The second version of the origin narrative talks about a young man named Barkye who was a bastard of a celestial deity in eastern Bhutan. When Barkye died on a journey to India, his consciousness entered a fish that swam in the rivers, eventually reaching the Zhongar area. He then emerged from the body of the fish and rose to become the ruler of Zhongar and some neighbouring areas. When he died after a rebellion mounted by his subjects, he is said to have left the instruction to find him in Tibet using Bhutanese pears. The Ura dung family is said to have originated from the Tibetan child who was brought as his successor.
The Village Setting
Oral accounts suggest that Ura once had several settlements scattered across the valley. Some elders still recall the ruins of houses they saw to the north and south of the current Ura village. It was only in later times that these scattered villages merged to form the large village. Today, Ura village is a clustered settlement near a large temple and around a small knoll on which is a big house known as the house of Pongba, meaning ‘the one on the hill’. In the past, this was the spot where the castle or the khar (མཁར་) of Ura dung is believed to have stood.
As the scattered settlements started to merge around the khar of the dung, they formed four divisions. Therefore, the households of Ura are today set into four divisions known as the dho zhi (མདོ་བཞི་) or four sets of households: Todpa, Tarshong, Charzhung, and Krispa. These four divisions were named based on their locations as the households merged into one village. The village’s administrative and social systems were based on these four divisions. Each division selected one representative household who worked on an annually rotating basis to coordinate community activities throughout the year.
The Krispa households were the earliest settlers near the castle of the dung. Therefore, they were known as Krispa, meaning ‘earliest settlement’. Those who settled to the north side of the castle were called Todpa or ‘upper households’. The group that settled by the area of the dung ruler’s horse paddocks were known as the Tarshongba, or ‘households by the stable’. Those homes built near the surrounding wall of the castle were called the Charzhungpa, or ‘households by the border wall’. It is probable that these four groups were initially distinct settlements around the ruler’s castle but as time passed and homes filled in the spaces or shifted locations, the boundaries between the four divisions became increasingly blurred.
Each of the four divisions has one each household considered to be a wealthy household or chugpa (ཕྱུག་པ་): the Tod Chukpa of the Todpa, Charzhung Chukpa of Charzhung, Tarshong Chukpo of Tarshong, and Krischukpa of Krispa. These households were not only considered the wealthiest but also played a leading role in their respective units in the past.
Buddhism in the Valley
Ura valley’s first contact with Buddhism, according to local tradition, was in the 8th century when Ugyen Guru Rinpoche passed through the valley and blessed it as his hidden valley. However, it is quite evident that actual practices of Buddhism arrived in Ura valley only in the 13th century when Bhutan was beginning to see Buddhist scholars make their way from Tibet to Bhutan, which was then known as Lhomon (ལྷོ་མོན་). Sumthrang Samdrup Chodzong was established in the upper reaches of Ura valley in the 1220s by Nyo Dechog (also known as Nyoton Trulzhig Chojey). He was the son of Nyo Gyelwa Lhanangpa, and established Sumthrang as a centre for the practices of Dorji Phurba, perhaps the first major Buddhist tradition in the valley. An annual ritual called the Serdham, a ritual to protect crops from unfavorable weather, especially hailstorms, was explicitly conducted on behalf of the people of Ura. The people of Ura arranged everything for the day’s ritual and even today people of Ura continue to participate in this ritual.
Since Nyo Dechog, many Buddhist scholars and masters began visiting the valley. Longchenpa established Shingkhar Dechenling, across a pass from Ura, followed by the 14th century establishment of Gadan Lhakhang by descendants of Phajo Drugom Zhigpo in Bayteng or ‘the place above the hidden valley’, which is located just above the Ura village. Gadan became a monastic temple that developed a special connection with the valley of Ura in the centuries after its establishment. It now plays a major role in the proceedings of Ura’s major annual festival known as the Yakchoed.
Written by Samten Yeshi and edited by Karma Phuntsho. Samten Yeshi is the project manager of Loden Shejun Cultural Programme and 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.