When Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal came to Bhutan in 1616, his Minister of Religion, Tenzing Drukda who was an esteemed physician, started the spread and teaching of gSo-ba Rig-pa in Bhutan (ITMS, 2002). Although there were sporadic instances of Bhutanese being sent to their patrons to study this art of medicine in Tibet before then, it was only after 1616 that gSo-ba Rig-pa was established permanently in Bhutan.
The names of many Bhutanese traditional doctors of the past who excelled in their skills have remained alive in the memory of the people long after their death. Unfortunately, very little is known of the traditional doctors who practiced in Bhutan from the time of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal to the time of the Wangchuck dynasty. However, according to Druk Karpo by Lopen Nado, published in 1986 at Tharpaling Monastery, Bumthang, the following names were mentioned as responsible for the development of gSo-ba Rig-pa in Bhutan during that period. They were: Lopen Tshering Samdrup, Ngawang Dhargyal, Chang Gyeltshen and Lopon Tshewang Namgyal.
His Majesty Ugyen Wangchuck, the first King of this dynasty had his court a personal physician called Drungtsho Pemba who was the descendant of a family of traditional doctors and whose father, Drungtsho Gyeltshen was said to have been the personal physician to the first King’s father, Jigme Namgyal. Drungtsho Gyeltshen was born near Trongsa and was trained in Tibet in the famous Lhasa Medical School of Chagpori. Drungtsho Pemba’s son Drungtsho Penjore who also studied at Chagpori acquired the fame of being the best doctor in the family and was called to serve at the court of His Majesty Jigme Wangchuk, the second King of Bhutan. The above-mentioned physicians used to send raw materials to Tibet and received the prepared drugs from Chagpori. They apparently never manufactured the medicines.
Another Bhutanese physician at the court of the second King was Mahaguru, the former Gangtey Trulku’s physician. Mahaguru himself was from Gangtey Gompa and trained as a doctor there. He was a very saintly man as well as a good doctor who prepared his own medicines whenever he needed to prescribe them to his patients. On His Majesty’s orders, he was provided with regular rations from Wangdue Phodrang Dzong. At the age of seventy eight, he predicted and publicly announced the time and place of his death. His son stated that he died quietly and painlessly as predicted. People estimated that he died at the age of 100.
In the first half of the twentieth century, another famous physician was Drungtsho Chimi Gyeltshen. He was born in Mongar and when he turned twenty, he went to Tibet to study medicine at Chagpori. After staying there for sixteen years, during which he rose to the highest rank for the traditional physician, he came back to Bhutan at the bidding of Ashi Kenchock Wangmo, the second King’s younger sister and settled near kurtoe. Drungtsho Chimi Gyeltshen died in Lhuntshi in 1966.
Drungtsho Singye Namgyal from Bumthang Lamay Goenpa studied medicine from Drungtsho Pema Namgyal in Tshurpu, Western Tibet. He came back to Bhutan and practiced privately till 1983. After that he was appointed as Physician at Bumthang Hospital by the Health Department.