Zhukdrel Pünsum Tsokpa (བཞུགས་གྲལ་ཕུན་སུམ་ཚོགས་པ་) is a unique Bhutanese religious and cultural practice observed during the inauguration of various projects, celebratory occasions such as home consecrations and job promotions, or the reception of important guests. Zhukdrel Pünsum Tsokpa is believed to bring about the right conditions and auspiciousness. Zhukdrel refers to the rows of people who sit hierarchically according to rank and pünsum tsokpa means auspicious, marvelous, or wholesome.
The practice is believed to have started sometime in 1637 when Zhapdrung Ngakwang Namgyel (1594-1651), the founder of Bhutan, launched his construction of Punakha Dzong to serve as his main seat after the destruction of Semtokha Dzong. Many people from the western valleys of Bhutan are said to have gathered and the rulers of neighbouring countries are said to have sent him gifts. As many gift bearers gathered and gifts were heaped at the place, the place was also called Pungthang (སྤུངས་ཐང་), the plain of heap[ed gifts]. According to traditional oral sources, the people were made to sit in propitious rows according to their positions and roles, and to chant prayers to the successive incarnations of the founder of Drukpa Kagyü school and Zhapdrung himself. This is claimed to be the beginning of the Zhukdrel ceremony.
However, it is historically difficult to pinpoint a specific beginning for the Zhukdrel ceremony, especially given that is common in Himalayan Buddhist traditions to chant eulogies and supplication to one’s lineage masters and also to say prayers for offering food when people eat and drink. The Zhukdrel ceremony is perhaps a case of combining the two practices into a festive ceremony when a large variety of exotic food and fruits were served. Prayers and supplications to the Buddhas, their followers, the dharma protectors, other spiritual divinities, and the lamas in Zhapdrung’s lineage of in particular are said in the Zhukdrel ceremony. Over the centuries, the practice perhaps evolved to become the very elaborate ritual of offering festive drinks, snacks and fruits with high decorum and elegance it is today. The Zhukdrel ceremony was certainly observed as early as the 18th century when the Bhutanese court received the British missions although it was perhaps not as elaborate as it is today.
The chants recited during the Zhukdrel ceremony begin with verses of offering to Amitayus (Tsépakmé), Vijaya (Namgyelma) and Tārā (Drolma), three deities associated with longevity. That is followed by chanted verses dedicated to the masters of the Kagyü lineage, the Buddha, Guru Padmasambhava, the various yidam deities, Zhapdrung Ngakwang Namgyel, the dharma protectors, and the territorial deities. During the chants, various kinds of food and drinks are served first to the shrine, then to the main guests, and then the gathering. Alcohol offerings are made while chanting marchang verses, which are explained in a separate essay.
The main part of the Zhukdrel begins after the marchang. The verses for taking refuge and supplication to the guru, who in this case is Zhapdrung, are chanted, followed by the generation of the four immeasurable thoughts: loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. The Buddhas and their followers are invited to the place through visualisation and offered ceremonial ablution. After this, verses of praise and supplication to the line of spiritual incarnations to which Zhapdrung Ngakwang Namgyel belongs are chanted. This component forms the core of the Zhukdrel ceremony and begins with the phrase pünsum tsokpa, which perhaps led to the name Zhukdrel Pünsum Tsokpa or the auspicious rows of seating.
First in the lineage is Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of Compassion, who is also considered to be an emanation of Buddha Amitabha or Amitayus. This also partially explains the repeated prayers to Amitayus found throughout the proceedings. Next in the incarnation line is Pundarika, the monarch of Śambala, and then King Songtsen Gampo of Tibet. He was followed by Śāntarakṣita, the Bengali master who brought Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century. Naropa (1016-1100), the great pundit of India is next, followed by Gampopa (1079-1153), the founding father of the Dakpo Kagyü school in Tibet. The incarnation after Gampopa was Tsangpa Gyaré Yéshé Dorjé (1161-1211), the founder of the Drukpa Kagyü tradition.
The incarnation after Tsangpa Gyaré Yéshé Dorjé was Düdrel Sempa, born in the eastern Buddha realm of Abhirati. He was succeeded by a reincarnation back in Tibet in the person of Künga Paljor (1428-1476), who was followed by Chökyi Drakpa (1478-1523). In the actual verses, Chökyi Drakpa is not explicitly mentioned by his name but is referred to as the previous one. He was followed by verses of praise to the incomparable guru, who was Pema Karpo (1527-1592). After the praise is also a verse praying for his long life, which suggests that the original composition perhaps ended here. The words of the verse also hint that the verse until this point was already composed and used before Zhapdrung Rinpoche. It is plausible that the Pünsum Tsokpa prayer, named after its opening phrase, was composed as the praise and supplication to the line of incarnation leading to Pema Karpo, who became very renowned in Tibet as both a great scholar and saint.
After the verses dedicated to Pema Karpo, the three common verses of praise and supplication to Zhapdrung attributed to his father Tenpai Nyima (1567-1619), are chanted. Thus, the prayers, in their current form, were likely compiled by Zhabdrung’s time and also confirm Zhapdrung as the legitimate incarnation of Tsangpa Gyaré and Pema Karpo, the two main doyens of Drukpa Kagyü school. The supplication to Zhapdrung is followed by verses for the longevity of the lama and the prosperity of his enlightened activities. More prayers by other masters are chanted as the conclusion.
The chanting of prayers is accompanied by the offering of various food items. In the most elaborate version of the Zhukdrel ceremony, some three dozen types of drinks and fruits are offered. The first and most fundamental drink is droma (གྲོ་མ་), which is a porridge made from tubers or silverweed roots (Argentina anserina). The tubers are cooked and mixed with sugar; sometimes dark lentils are added before serving. This is followed by saffron drizang (དྲི་བཟང་) or saffron tea which is served with a snack, dzarché (མཛར་ཕྱེ་), made of powdered roasted rice. The next item is a salty butter tea, perhaps initially sponsored by the state/government and thus called zhungja (གཞུང་ཇ་). In some places, this is called jakarp (ཇ་དཀརཔ་) and made without tea leaves. It is accompanied with another snack, often a fragrant local white rice called bondey (སྦོན་འབྲས་). The next item is black tea or janap (ཇ་ནགཔ་) without butter or salt, which comes with the snack made of red rice or karché (དཀར་ཕྱེ་), which is roasted barley or wheat flour. The tea was initially sponsored by the people. The next tea is sönam chöja (བསོད་ནམས་ཆོས་ཇ་), the tea of meritorious offering, made from fine tea leaves or other herbs and perhaps initially sponsored by the Zhapdrung’s office. This is accompanied by another rice snack called drése (འབྲས་སེར་), or yellow rice, with the rice sweetened with sugar, dates, and/or nuts, and coloured yellow using saffron.
After the rounds of tea offering, the marchang (མར་ཆང་) libation is made, followed by offering a flag for prayers, offering of a cup of wheat flour in a cone shape that is decorated with small balls of butter called chémar (ཕྱེ་མར་) to mark longevity, and the offering of cash tokens. This is then followed by a long list of fruits, normally called the Zhukdrel offering, starting with betel leaves and areca nut, watermelons, bananas, lemons, oranges, jackfruits, persimmons, cucumbers, guavas, sugarcane, grapes, pomegranates, peaches, pears, apples, mangoes, dried fruits, sweets, biscuits, dry cheeses, and walnuts. The softer and more precious fruits are offered first with harder ones offered at the end to symbolize stability and strength for the future. The number of teas and fruits and snacks can change depending on the availability of the items and what the host can afford. Thus, on the whole, there are three types of Zhukdrel ceremonies, classified into the most elaborate with some three dozen items including three rounds of tea and some twenty-one fruits and snacks; the middling with two dozen items including one round of tea and fifteen fruits and snacks; and the concise version with about a dozen and half items including one round of tea and some eleven fruits and snacks. No matter what form of Zhukdrel is performed the fruits and snacks served should be odd in number.
The most important guest, who is seated at the head of the row, has all the varieties of the Zhukdrel fruits and snacks placed near him/her on a raised ornate plate called toké (མཐོ་བཀོད་). Other main guests also receive the Zhukdrel fruits and snacks on a plate while the rest of the people get the Zhukdrel fruits and snacks offered one by one. It is important for people to bring their own wooden cup and piece of cloth to the Zhukdrel Pünsum Tsokpa ceremony so as to be prepared for the various types of food and drinks served.
The varieties of food, along with the supplications that accompanies them, are mainly undertaken to cultivate auspiciousness. Signs of prosperity and offerings to honourable recipients are seen as auspicious omens for the things to come. The Bhutanese, following the Drukpa Kagyü tradition of Himalayan Buddhism, believe themselves to be expedient in creating the right auspices, confirmed through various positive signs and omens. Thus, rituals and ceremonies for auspiciousness such as the Zhukdrel are very closely and frequently observed in Bhutan.