Kungo Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab was an Officer as well as a Gentleman

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab

The issue of a generational change in the Tibetan community has been something that is being felt more and more as the years go by. On Nov. 23, 2023, we got yet another indication of this when Mr. Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab, among the first of the Tibetan community workers in exile, passed away. Kungo Lodhar la, as he is known honorably to people who knew him, dedicated himself to the service of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people, making his contribution in strengthening the democratic fabric of the Tibetan administration. He was actively involved at pivotal moments in the history of the Central Tibetan Administration. In fact, he has the sole record of having not only served in leadership positions in all three branches of the Tibetan democratic system in exile, but being instrumental in laying down the working foundation for the judiciary wing.

From the time of his arrival in India in 1959 following the Chinese takeover of Tibet till his demise, he was involved in public work. Initially, in Kalimpong, the first town in India where he resided (with the Dakgyab Rinpoche, more about him later) he began teaching Tibetan to fellow refugees. Thereafter, after moving to Bylakuppe in now Karnataka state in South India, to the first Tibetan refugee settlement of Lugsung Samdupling, he was involved in teaching classes for adult settlers. He also served on the board of the settlement’s cooperative society, which provides support to the refugees on all aspects of their agriculture work. The society is overseen by a board of elected people from the settlement, and he was elected to it.

Tibetan Parliament for the 1969-1972

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab (standing first left) with his colleagues in the Tibetan Parliament for the 1969-1972 period.

From 1969, he was thrust into the Tibetan national scene when he was elected to the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile as a representative of U-Tsang province, and thus moved to Dharamsala. He served for three terms until 1979, and moved up the hierarchy, being elected the vice chair of the Parliament in 1976. In 1979, he was appointed as a member of the first fact-finding delegation sent by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet.

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab (kneeling second from left) and members of the first fact-finding delegation with the Panchen Lama, Ngapo Ngawang Jigme, and Bapa Phuntsok Wangyal in China.

Following his stint in the legislative wing of the Tibetan administration, he moved to the executive wing in 1980 when he was appointed the finance secretary. He served in that position for three years until 1983 when he was appointed finance minister by H.H. the Dalai Lama, who was then the head of the administration. He was the minister until May 1990 when the Tibetan administration was completely overhauled by His Holiness at the leadership level as part of his continuing democratization process, and the ministers began to be elected, rather than appointed by him.

During his tenure in the Department of Finance, Kungo Lodhar la was also overseeing the newly established Planning Council within the Kashag (cabinet).

In 1991, the three constitutionally autonomous bodies of Election Commission, Public Service Commission and Office of the Auditor General were established to enable a more transparent and independent oversight of the work of the Tibetan Administration. Kungo Lodhar la was appointed to hold the position of acting head of the new Tibetan Election Commission.

In 1992, the Tibetan administration saw a major development with the Parliament enacting laws to establish the Supreme Tibetan Justice Commission, the judiciary wing. The Justice Commission was mandated to be responsible for adjudicating all civil disputes in the Tibetan community, within the laws of the host countries. Kungo Lodhar was appointed as the first Supreme Justice Commissioner. Altogether he served as the Justice Commissioner for over 10 years, until his retirement in 2002. For the critical first five years of the Justice Commission, he was the sole Justice Commissioner, during which time he had the unenviable task of overseeing the drafting of the necessary codes, the Tibetan Judiciary Code, Civil Procedure Code and Evidence Code, as the basis of the work of the Commission. Despite the challenge of not having a legal background, he understood the vision of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and put in all the efforts, reaching out to anyone who could support the initiative. I recall him coming to the United States in 1998 to meet with then-Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer as well as to exchange ideas with law professors, all of whom were intrigued by this unique Tibetan experiment of a judiciary in diaspora.

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab with Justice Stephen Breyer in his chamber in the United States Supreme Court in Washington, DC. (Photo from his family collection)

In any case, Kungo Lodhar la was assisted in his work by Ani Vajra Sakya, a lawyer by training and one of the sons of the head of the Phuntsok Phodrang of the Sakya lineage. Ani Vajra Rinpoche had come from the United States to Dharamsala to be of service to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people. Eventually, the codes were formulated, and in February 1996, His Holiness the Dalai Lama approved the three codes, and these are the backbone of the Justice Commission even to this day.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama specifically wanted to establish the Justice Commission so that the administration would be accountable to the people. He felt that the Tibetan public should have a system in place that would not only provide them the third pillar of democracy nominally, but more importantly enable them to exercise their rights to challenge the working of the administration when they perceived abuse of power or privileges, etc.

Dakgyab Rinpoche with his steward, Chazoe Lobsang Khyenrab

Dakgyab Rinpoche with his steward, Chazoe Lobsang Khyenrab in Bylakuppe.

In 1997, two more justice commissioners, Dongag Tenzin Songag Tsang and Lobsang Dhargyal Shewo were appointed. Interestingly, the first case taken up by them in August 1997 and decided in March 1998 was a charge of defamation against the Tibet Times newspaper by a parliamentarian, Jadur Sangpo. The justice commissioners came out with a 17-page judgement.

After serving until September 2002, Kungo Lodhar la retired. However, he continued his public service, being on the board of different organizations, including the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives and the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy.

He was born in Tibet in 1937 and was related to Dakgyap Rinpoche Ngawang Lobsang Yeshi, the 14th reincarnation of Potowa Rinchen Sal, one of the three main students of prominent Tibetan Buddhist master Dromtonpa. From a young age, Kungo Lodhar la was in the service of Rinpoche. He and Losang Thonden la, a scholar and another relative of Rinpoche, assisted Rinpoche and his steward Lobsang Khyenrab when they escaped to India in 1959. Rinpoche had eyesight issues and could not see well while Chazoe la, as the steward was known, had leg issues and had problems walking.

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab

Undated photo of Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab (right) and Losang Thonden in Bylakuppe.

In India, Rinpoche initially resided in Kalimpong, where Kungo Lodhar la had the opportunity to learn the rudiments of the English language even as he taught Tibetan to refugee students. When Rinpoche was appointed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to look after the spiritual needs of the people in the Lugsung Samdupling settlement in Bylakuppe, Kungo accompanied him to South India and was with him until going up to Dharamsala in 1969. Dakgyab Rinpoche belonged to the Minyak Khangtsen (House) of Sera Mey Monastic University.

Rinpoche and some unidentified monks in Bylakuppe

Uma Devi with Dakgyab Rinpoche and some unidentified monks in Bylakuppe.

My personal connection to Kungo Lodhar la began indirectly. My elder brother was a monk of the Thekchenling Monastery that Drakgyab Rinpoche had established and was also attending to sundry needs at the residence of Rinpoche. Therefore, when I was growing up in Bylakuppe I would also visit the residence and in the process was exposed to several books in the English language there, all property of Kungo Lodhar la who had left them there after going to Dharamsala. I still recall some of the novels of the Indian author R.K. Narayan, including “The Man-Eater of Malgudi,” that I was able to read. I assume he inherited these books from the Polish writer and Theosophist Wanda Dynowska (Uma Devi or Tenzin Choedon was the name given to her by H.H. the Dalai Lama) who had resided in Bylakuppe in the late 1960s to help the Tibetans, particularly in the field of education. Uma Devi was close to Dakgyab Rinpoche, who supported her initiatives. I would occasionally meet Kungo Lodhar la when he came to the settlement on a break from his Dharamsala work.

When I joined the Central Tibetan Administration in the 1980s, he became a guide and a mentor to me, explaining to me the nature of the Dharamsala society, the leadership expectations and the workstyle of the officials.

The common perception of Kungo Lodhar la in the Dharamsala official circle was of someone who was sincerely dedicated to his work and adopted a gentle attitude to everyone. Even though his contribution to the institutional development of Tibetan democracy is formidable, not many know of this on account of his basic nature of not being in the limelight and his humility.

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab

Lobsang Dhargyal Phunrab and wife Kaldon la with monk officials of Minyak Khangtsen of Sera Mey in Bylakuppe.

He is survived by his wife Kaldon la in Dharamsala, daughter Tenzin Kunsang Phunrab in Utah and son Tashi Topgyal Phunrab in California.

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Bhuchung K. Tsering

Bhuchung K. Tsering joined the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington, DC in 1995 and is currently the head of the Research and Monitoring Unit. He worked as a journalist with Indian Express in New Delhi, and as an official of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamsala, India, before joining ICT.
He is a member of the Task Force set up by the Central Tibetan Administration to work on issues relating to the dialogue process with the Chinese leadership. He was also a member of the team led by the envoys of H.H. the Dalai Lama in the discussions that they had with the Chinese leadership between 2002 and 2010.
He has contributed articles on Tibet and related issues to Indian, Nepalese, Tibetan, Swiss and American journals. He has also testified in Congress on behalf of the International Campaign for Tibet and spoken at Universities and Think Tanks.

3 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Bhuchung La,

    I was very saddened by the news of Lobsang Dhargye La’s passage onto the next life; I immediately Lit a couples choemes and burned incense and prayed for the deceased as well as his family. My heart-felt condolence to Captain La and her children.

    I knew Lodhor La when I was going to school in Bylakuppe. He taught us how to sing the Tibetan National anthem. We came from Gangtok, and since our school was run by the government of Sikkim we did not sing Tibetan national anthem.

    Besides my family was very, very close to Drakyab Rinpoche and Chanzoe La. Whenever I came to Bylakuppe from school holidays, my parents always asked me to pay my respect and get blessings from Rinpoche. And then of course see Changzoe La, too.

    I remember very vividly when Changzoe La dropped by my house one day, took me to see a little boy in the fifth camp who was later recognized as the reincarnation of Drakyab Rinpoche.

    Changzoe La used to call Lodhor La endearingly as “our Bhu; son.” Whenever I think of Lodhor La, I always see his smile which radiates love and happiness. I pray that he will be soon reborn in a free country. I would like to offer my heart-felt condolence to Captain La and the family. I share their sorrow. May the family soon find peace and happiness.

  • Bhuchung La,

    Thanks for sending me your piece on Kugo Lodhor La. It is very moving and detailed. Excellent! Well done. I wrote a comment about my memory of Kugno Lodhor La, but I think it was lost when I press the “Post comment.” Please let me know whether you got it.