The Phobjikha valley is home to many prominent schools of Buddhism, and is most notably a base for the Dzongchenpa, (རྫོགས་ཆེན་པ) or School of Great Perfection, a branch of the Nyingma (རྙིང་མ) school. Its most famous proponent was Künkhyen Longchen Rabjam (ཀུན་མཁྱེན་ཀློང་ཆེན་རབ་འབྱམས; 1308-1363), who revitalized Heart Drop Teachings of the Nyingma School. Out of eight Buddhist centers that he established within Bhutan, Nyenlung Drechak Ling (སྔན་ལུང་འབྲས་བཅགས་གླིང་) was established in the valley. His disciples further promoted the Great Perfection teachings in Bhutan, in particular Trulku Peljor Gyeltsen (སྤྲུལ་སྐུ་དཔལ་འབྱོར་རྒྱལ་མཚན) who built two temples known as Kewang Lhakhang (ཁེ་དབང་ལྷ་ཁང་) and Damchen Lhakhang (དམ་ཅན་ལྷ་ཁང་).
In the fifteenth century, the great (གཏེར་སྟོན་པངྨ་གླིང་པ) Tertön Pema Lingpa (1450-1521), regarded as re-incarnation of Longchen Rabjam visited the valley. He predicted that “in the future my teachings will take firm root in the hills above” ཕུག་ཡར་གྱི་སྟེང་ལ་ མ་འོངས་པའི་ནང་ ངའི་བསྟན་པ་དར་བར་འགྱུར།. As predicted, the line of Gangteng Trulku (སྒང་སྟེང་སྤྲུལ་སྐུ) was established at the end of the 16th century with the birth of first Gangteng Trulku Rikzin Pema Thinlé (རིག་འཛིན་པངྨ་ཕྲིན་ལས), Pema Lingpa’s grandson. He was instrumental in establishing the present Gangteng monastery, which was extended by the subsequent incarnations, especially second Tendzin Lekpé Döndrup (བསྟན་འཛིན་ལེགས་པས་དོན་གྲུབ) in the 17th century.
Residents of Phobjibkha, or Phobjibs, originally had two classes of people: the upper class that formed the nobility and the ordinary class. The nobility constitute the minority position and trace their mythical origin to Jowo Durshing (ཇོ་བོ་དུར་ཤིང་), the chief local deity of the region who resides in Durshingang (དུར་ཤིང་སྒང་) in the Black Mountains. Tradition maintains he had an affair with a lady known as Angé Lhacham (ཨང་རྒས་ལྷ་ལྕམ), Lhacham being an honorific name for a respected woman. She gave birth to a daughter who started this lineage although the girl’s name is not known.
Phobjibs speak a language known as Henkha (ཧེན་ཁ), also as Nyenkha (སྔན་ཁ) or ancient language. The word ‘Nyenkha’ (སྔན་ཁ) was derived from an older term ngyen lung (སྔན་ལུང་) meaning ancient region, which Longchen Ramjam used to refer to this area. The semi-nomadic herders of Sephu north of Phobjikha valley speak this language.
Gangteps in the winter settled in Shar Chitokha, a four hour drive from Phobjikha valley. In the past, Gangteps were engaged in serving lamas and their monasteries and were known as lam drapas (བླམ་གྲྭཔ་). Though they no longer serve as drapas (གྲྭཔ་) they live in Gangteng and serve as priests in the monastery. The people of Gangteng speak a language known as Shakha (ཤ་ཁ). Gangteng gewog is bordered by Sephu and Dangchu gewog in the north, Phogjikha gewog in the east, Bjena gewog in the west and Athang gewog in the south. Bjenabs are settled in the gewog of Bjena but migrate to Phobjikha during summer. They speak Dzongkha (རྫོང་ཁ). Athangpas are people who reside in Athang gewog, a day’s walk from Phobjikha. They are also seasonal migrants and speak a language known as Athangpikha (ཨ་ཐ་པའི་ཁ). Weavers from Athang gewog particularly renowned for Athang Rachu (ཨ་ཐང་ར་ཅུ) and Athang Mathra (ཨ་ཐང་དམར་ཁྲ) clothes. Adaps or Athangpas are known to have two distinct social classes: the noble Ada Saymo and the ordinary Adaps. Atha Saymo (ཨ་ཐ་སྲས་མོ) trace their origin to (ཞབས་དྲུང་འཇིགས་མེད་ནོར་བུ) Zhapdrung Jikmé Norbu (1831-1861). During one of his visits to Ada village he encountered a lady named Dechen Tshomo (བདེ་ཆེན་མཚོ་མོ) and married her. From her was born a daughter who started Ada lineage. The majority of the remaining population are considered ordinary Adaps.
The name Phobjikha is believed to have been given by Lama Drukpa Künlé (1455-1529). While he entered the valley he found it a wide tract of land that seemed to extend in size, so he named it Phobjikha, or expansive valley. Another story connects its origin to Gesar of Ling (གླིང་གེ་སར) from eastern Tibet. Lingkarthang, a small plain situated in front of Gangtey monastery, is said to be Gesar’s birthplace and the valley one of the many battlefields. This is a purely oral tradition.
Sonam Chophel is a researcher at Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research.