The mysterious Muslim gunsmith of Bhutan
In 1903, Thimphu Dzongpon persuaded an Indian gunsmith working in the Lhasa arsenal to work for him in Thimphu. The now de-classified British records affirm that the gunsmith was most likely a “Muhammadan”. Gongzim Ugyen Dorji (1855-1916) attests that guns were being made in Thimphu. The First King’s chamberlain confirmed that the workman was a Muhammadan who had formerly been engaged in the arsenal of Lhasa.
According to a British report, dated 22 April 1903, Dzongpon Kunzang Thinley (1860-1920) saw the Muhammadan at work at Lhasa. It is said that he persuaded him to leave Lhasa and come to Bhutan in a roundabout way. As a strong ally of the first King, the Dzongpon popularly known as Apay Agay also accompanied the first King on the Younghusband Expedition to Tibet in December 1903.
Another British report contains additional details about the gunsmith. As the medical officer of the Sir Francis Younghusband’s Expedition to Tibet in 1904, Dr L.A. Waddell corroborates that in the late 19th century the human resources at the arsenal in Lhasa included two Muslim craftsmen from India. In his reports, he said the gunsmiths were producing good copies of the British Martini Henry rifle, a regulation military weapon.
While details of the Muhammadan’s life in Thimphu are yet to surface, it is likely that he was from Kashmir. At that time, Kashmiri merchants were among the few merchants allowed to settle in Lhasa.
The capital city of Srinagar earned the name Bandook Khar Mohalla or the Gunsmith’s Quarter. Today, Kashmiri gunsmiths are a rare breed. In two days, these gunsmiths can craft a single-barrel shotgun and in six days produce a fine double-barrel.
Before 1903, Bhutan was already producing fine quality rifles. Records of a Tibetan nobleman’s comments about the rifle filed in the British report states: “Regarding the manufacture of arms in Bhutan, the Tibetan noble Pha-Le-Sre (vide F.C.R. 42 of the 16th January 1903 and subsequent reports), states that, when he was in Bhutan a few years ago, he saw a number of good rifles at Paro and Ten-Phuk, superior to those that are being made at Lhasa. These rifles are said by the Bhutanese to be of the same kind as those used by British soldiers, so they may be of the Martini patterns.”
According to the report, while the rifles were made in Thimphu, the bullets were made in Paro. The report states: “bullets are manufactured at Paro from lead which is obtained from the Duars Tea Gardens.” It also states that the iron for the manufacture of these guns was most probably imported by way of Buxar or the Duars.
In 1905, during J.C. White’s maiden journey to Bhutan, he visited the Haa Dumcho Dzong. In the Dzong, which is no longer there, he saw a rifle that caught his attention: “the most notable article was a Westley Richards rifle, with a Whitworth barrel dated 1864, which the local blacksmith had covered into a muzzle loader.” It is not clear whether it was the handiwork of the Thimphu Dzongpon’s Muhammadan.
Both the Westley Richards and Whitworth rifles were made in England by companies founded in the 19th century. The Whitworth single shot muzzle loader is known for its excellent long-range accuracy. Designed by the British Engineer, Sir Joseph Whitworth, it is regarded as the world’s first sniper rifle.
During Mr. White’s second visit to Bhutan in 1907, he saw another gun crafted in Thimphu. It is most probably an imitation of the Muhammadan gun and from the Thimphu Dzongpon’s arsenal.
“They allowed us to see an extremely short double barrel rifle which had been made on the premises, and as far as looks went, a wonderful imitation of a double express rifle. The stock was of a beautifully polished walnut, all the engraving had been exactly copied, even the name of Walter Locke and Co: had been put on, though I am bound to say this last was a little quaint and difficult to read. They told us that 20 more of these rifles had been made and taken with the Jongpen to Punakha.” Some of these over under short double barrel guns can still be seen today. At that time, the Punakha Dzongpon was Dasho Wangchu.
On his second visit to Bhutan, Mr. White went to Drugyel Dzong. An officer on his entourage, Captain H. G. Hyslop, took the only extant photo of the Dzong before it was razed to the ground. The photo shows the armory of the Dzong with the Dzongpon Samten Ozer squatting on the floor with the arms including rows of matchlocks neatly stacked behind him.
In 1888, Messrs. Walter Locke & Company Ltd opened shop in India with stores in Calcutta and Lahore. The scope of the company was importation and handling of guns and sporting goods. The company was the first one to introduce to India a good sound gun within the 100-rupee limit.
The earliest reference to firearms in Bhutan dates from the 17th century. In the 19th century there were at least 600 matchlocks in the country. Visitors to Bhutan in the 19th century always remarked that the walls of every hall of public office had matchlocks and shields hanging from them. In times of war, the guns and shields were used to arm the retainers.
In 1627, when two Portuguese Jesuits met Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (1594-1651), they gifted him matchlock muskets, cannon and gunpowder. This has been recorded both in Zhabdrung’s biography and in Father Estevao Cacella’s 1627 diary. The diary documents the journey he made with his colleague Father Joao Cabral to Bhutan where they stayed nearly eight months.
Bhutan’s matchlocks were not the best. In the words of British officers they were: “wretched clumsy weapons many of them being too heavy for one man to fire, and they consequently use them on a comrade’s shoulder.” Another visitor, Pemberton, remarked that the gunpowder found in Bhutan is inferior; worse than those manufactured by the natives of India.
When Bhutan fought the British in the 1864-65 Duar war, its arsenal consisted of matchlocks and other weapons. The effective range of matchlocks would be up to 400 yards. However, the ones used during the Duar wars carried a greater distance. In one instance, a matchlock killed a man at 800 yards.
A 1906, “A Short Military Report on Bhutan” recorded that the bullets in the country comprised bits of iron or lead roughly beaten into a circular shape. The Intelligence Branch that filed the report said that: “Bhutanese, however are not good, though they are certainly careful shots.” This was because they never practiced. The once confidential report states that the Bhutanese can hardly be expected to be the first to shoot. This was because of the scarcity of ammunition. The conclusion was that it would be difficult to find a Bhutanese who had fired 100 shots in his life. During that period, Bhutan had 600 matchlocks but with limited ammunition. It took at least three men to fire the matchlock and the Bhutanese had no confidence in firearms because they were scarcely used.
In Thimphu, the Indian Muslim gunsmith crafted at least 20 replicas of the Walter Locke rifles that the Punakha Dzongpon took with him to Punakha. Besides his craft, that are most probably hanging on the walls of our monasteries with other matchlocks as votive objects, we know nothing of the man.