Tsewang Lhamo (tshe dbang lha mo) was the daughter of the chieftain of Garje (sga rje), an area in far southern Dege that has long been a Nyingma stronghold. Tsewang Lhamo’s birthdate and childhood activities are unknown.
In her teens she married the crown prince of Dege, Sawang Zangpo (sa dbang bzang po, 1768-1790). Sawang Zangpo was a sickly child and when he became a young man his counselors exhorted him to not wait to marry and produce an heir. The two were married in 1783 when the royal groom was sixteen years old. They had four children, only two of whom survived infancy. Their only son, Tsewang Dorje Rigdzin (tshe dbang rdo rje rig ‘dzin, b.1786) would later go on to inherit the throne from his parents. The other child was a girl, Tamdrin Wangmo (rta mgrin dbang mo, b. 1787).
Both Sawang Zangpo and Tsewang Lhamo were very devout. Several primary sources remark on Sawang Zangpo’s habit of wearing the white robes of a lay tantrist to religious events. In 1788 the royal couple traveled to U-Tsang for pilgrimage and to present themselves to the leaders of the Ganden Podrang (dga’ ldan pho brang), the Government of the Tibetan state. While visiting Samye Monastery (bsam yas) they met the great Nyingma treasure revealer and scholar Jigme Lingpa (‘jigs med gling pa, 1729-1798), with whom they had been in prior contact.
Jigme Lingpa immortalized their meeting in a passage in his “outer” autobiography. His account does not shy away from criticizing the fact that the large royal party demanded corvée labor from the locals where Jigme Lingpa was staying; however, he concludes with kind words about the royal couple. As translated by Janet Gyatso, he wrote, “In general, even though one’s mind is moistened with a renunciatory attitude, if one doesn’t have any thought of respecting the local rules and so forth, the ‘truth of reality’ will not (be obtained) … But anyway they [the king and queen of Dege] were not the same as those from other kingdoms that are filled with barbarians and miscreants.”
Jigme Lingpa wrote a trilogy of epistles to the royal family and they are included in his Collected Works. The first of the three is addressed to the king Sawang Zangpo, the second to the prince, and the third to the queen Tsewang Lhamo. Her letter contains sixteen verses and is complemented by a brief auto-commentary that unpacks each verse one by one. The letter to the queen is encouraging and cites several instances of doctrine and history to prove that women are capable and even intrinsically enlightened beings.
One of the verses about bodhicitta offers Tsewang Lhamo a role model from Buddhist story literature. In a verse contrasting the compassion of the śrāvakas and bodhisattvas, Jigme Lingpa mentions Drowai Pelmo (‘gro ba’i dpal mo), a previous rebirth of the Buddha who was a female dancer and benefitted beings through various illusions she created through dance. Jigme Lingpa enjoins the young queen to show love for her subjects with the same creativity and effectiveness.
Several of the verses in the epistle are concerned with aspects of Secret Mantra that espouse gender equality, if not female superiority. For example, verse eleven reads, “The mantra pitika professes a speedy [path] and special methods that surpass ordinary methods. [Particularly crucial to mantra is] the glorious lady of illusion, who overcomes delusory illusions. She is praised as the treasury of the gnosis of bliss-emptiness. These praises also ornament you!” The “glorious woman of illusion” refers to tantric yoginis, and by extension to Drowai Pelmo; and is explicitly applied to Tsewang Lhamo. “Glorious lady of illusion” also connotes abstract realities such as enlightened consciousness. The colophon to the work refers to Tsewang Lhamo as an emanation of Ngangtsul Jangchub Gyelmo (ngang tshul byang chub rgyal mo), a wife of the Tibetan prince Mutik Tsenpo (mu tig btsan po), second son of Tri Songdetsen (khri srong lde’u btsan, 742-796) and a consort of Padmasambhava.
Early in Tsewang Lhamo’s association with the Dege royal family the Thirteenth Karmapa, Dundul Dorje (karma pa 13 bdud ‘dul rdo rje, 1733-1797), is said to have had a visionary experience in which it was revealed that Tsewang Lhamo was an emanation of a form of the female Buddha Tārā.
Tsewang Lhamo’s life took a dramatic – though not completely unforeseeable – turn in 1790 when her husband died. Their son, the crown prince Tsewang Dorje Rigdzin, was only four years old at the time and therefore Tsewang Lhamo became his regent. Nevertheless, her activities quickly began to exceed the definition of a regent and many contemporaneous texts portray her as a monarch in her own right.
Tsewang Lhamo’s reign followed a few decades after Dege’s golden age in the 1720s, 30s, and 40s, which was characterized by territorial expansion, the award of titles and monies from the Qing Empire, and an efflorescence of cultural production in the capital, especially in the form of printing projects. Among these, Dege’s iconic dharmarāja, Tenpa Tsering (bstan pa tshe ring, 1678-1738) commissioned the printing of a new edition of the Kangyur in 103 volumes and it was completed in 1733. The next king Puntsok Tenpa (phun tshogs bstan pa, d.1751) completed another major printing project: the carving of an edition of the Tengyur in 213 volumes, completed in 1744. The blocks for both canons were housed in the new Dege Printing House.
After a fifty-year lull in such a high level of cultural production, Tsewang Lhamo used the resources at her disposal as the queen of Dege to revive major printing endeavors. She published over forty volumes of texts, the foremost being the only xylographic edition of the Nyingma Gyubum (snying ma rgyud ‘bum), or Collected Tantras of the Nyingma, in Tibetan history. The editor of this collection was her primary chaplain, Getse Mahāpaṇḍita Gyurme Tsewang Chokdrub (dge rtse paN chen ‘gyur med mchog grub 1761-1829). Getse’s Collected Works contain many writings that have a direct connection to Tsewang Lhamo and in the aggregate are the best source on her life and times. For instance, he composed a detailed commentary on Jigme Lingpa’s epistle to Tsewang Lhamo.
She also sponsored the carving of a xylographic edition of the Collected Works of her first guru, Jigme Lingpa, in nine volumes, and an expansion of the Dege edition of the Collected Writings of Longchenpa (which was begun in the 1750s). These two printing projects were inspired by another of her Nyingma gurus, the First Dodrubchen, Jigme Trinle Ozer (rdo grub chen 01 ‘jigs med phrin las ‘od zer; 1745-1821). He was the foremost disciple of Jigme Lingpa and was in Dege intermittently for many years after the passing away of Jigme Lingpa in 1798. Getse’s Autobiography includes an account of the festivities that accompanied his initial arrival in the capital and the various occasions that Dege sent him to neighboring polities on diplomatic missions.
Several English language sources report that Tsewang Lhamo and Do Drubchen were lovers. While this idea is doubtlessly rooted in oral traditions, without concrete evidence, one should be cautious against seeing this aspersion as an indication of intense sectarian or social rivalry surrounding Tsewang Lhamo and associates. She also constructed many large statues, including a one of Padmasambhava in a chapel in the state cathedral that housed her husband’s reliquary.
The sources are unclear about when Tsewang Dorje Rigdzin became the chief ruler of Dege and the nature of Tsewang Lhamo’s disengagement from the throne. Nevertheless it appears that the 1808 war in Upper Dza (‘dza stod) precipitated her departure from the capital. Getse reports celebrating the lunar new year of early 1809 in the capital with Tsewang Lhamo. His Autobiography states that Tsewang Lhamo became seriously ill in 1812 and he spent one month at her side in the royal palace in Wonto (dbon stod), which is located outside of the capital district. Tsewang Lhamo died soon after, in late 1812 or early 1813.