Bhutan, History of

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  • Text in bold print indicates PoD.


Origins and early settlement

  • Bhutan's early history is steeped in mythology and remains obscure. It may have been inhabited as early as 2000 B.C., but not much was known until the introduction of Tibetan Buddhism in the ninth century A.D. when turmoil in Tibet forced many monks to flee to Bhutan.
  • It is suggested by archeological evidence that the mountain valleys of Bhutan have been inhabited for several thousand years. Study of the Bhutanese people reveals that they are related to their Tibetan cousins to the north, as they share physical, cultural and linguistic traits. Some time in the past a significant migration of Tibetans must have crossed the Himalayan passes to create the ancient core of this people.
  • A more certain prehistoric period has been theorized by historians as that of the state of Lhomon (southern darkness) or Monyul (dark land, a reference to the Monpa aboriginal peoples of Bhutan), possibly a part of Tibet before Buddhism was introduced.
  • Monyul is thought to have existed between 500 B.C. and A.D. 600. The names Lhomon Tsendenjong (southern Mon sandalwood country) and Lhomon Khashi (southern Mon country of four approaches), found in ancient Bhutanese and Tibetan chronicles, may also have been used by some Bhutanese scholars when referring to their homeland.
  • Some scholars believe that during the early historical period the inhabitants were fierce mountain aborigines, the Monpa, who were of neither the Tibetan nor the Mongol stock that later overran northern Bhutan. The people of Monyul practiced the shamanistic Bön religion, which emphasized worship of nature and the existence of good and evil spirits. During the latter part of this period, historical legends relate that the mighty king of Monyul invaded a southern region known as the Dooars, subduing the regions of modern Assam, West Bengal, and Bihar.

Arrival of Buddhism

  • The introduction of Buddhism occurred in the seventh century, when the Tibetan king Srongtsen Gampo (627-49), a convert to Buddhism, ordered the construction of two Buddhist temples, one at Bumthang in central Bhutan and the other at Kyichu in the Paro Valley. Buddhism replaced but did not eliminate the Bon religious practices that had been prevalent in Tibet until the late sixth century. Instead, Buddhism absorbed Bon and Widipedia:Padmasambhava|Padmasambhava]] (known in Bhutan as Guru Rimpoche), came to Bhutan from India at the invitation of one of the numerous local kings. After reportedly subduing eight classes of demons and converting the king, Guru Rimpoche moved on to Tibet. Upon his return from TibetS, he oversaw the construction of new monasteries in the Paro Valley and set up his headquarters in Bumthang. According to tradition, he founded the Nyingmapa sect (also known as the "old sect" or Red Hat sect) of Mahayana Buddhism, which became for a time the dominant religion of Bhutan. Guru Rimpoche plays a great historical and religious role as the national patron saint who introduced the tantras, manuals describing forms of devotion to natural energy, to Bhutan. Following the guru's sojourn, Indian influence played a temporary role until increasing Tibetan migrations brought new cultural and religious contributions.
  • There was no central government during this period. Instead, small independent monarchies began to develop by the early ninth century. Each was ruled by a deb (king), some of whom claimed divine origins. The Kingdom of Bumthang was the most prominent among these. At the same time, Tibetan Buddhist monks had firmly planted their religion and culture in Bhutan, and members of joint Tibetan-Mongol military expeditions settled in the fertile valleys. By the eleventh century, all of Bhutan was occupied by Tibetan-Mongol military forces.

The 12th Century

  • In the 12th century, the Drukpa Kagyupa school was established and remains the dominant form of Buddhism in Bhutan today. The country's political history is intimately tied to its religious history and the relations among the various monastic schools and monasteries.

The 17th Century

  • This religious change, however, did not change the social scene until 1616, when the existing warring tribes were gathered under the leadership of a Tibetan lama and military leader, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. He had escaped political foes in Tibet in 1616 and began to fortify himself militarily, beginning the consolidation of Bhutan. He defeated three Tibetan invasions, subjugated rival religious schools, codified an intricate and comprehensive system of law, and established himself as shabdrung over a system of ecclesiastical and civil administrators becoming the temporal and spiritual leader of Bhutan. He built impressive fortresses or dzongs, notably Simtokha Dzong, which guarded the entrance to Thimphu Valley. The Shabdrung was an insightful leader, using cultural symbols and military force to develop a Bhutanese national identity, including a number of sacred dances that are still performed at the annual tsechu festivals. After his death, infighting and civil war eroded the power of the shabdrung for the next 200 years until in 1885, Ugyen Wangchuk was able to consolidate power.
    • Tibetan armies invaded Bhutan around 1629, in 1631, and again in 1639, hoping to stop Ngawang Namgyal's popularity before it spread too far. The invasions were thwarted, and the Drukpa subsect developed a strong presence in western and central Bhutan, leaving Ngawang Namgyal supreme.
    • Emboldened by his successes, Ngawang Namgyal led his armies eastward along the Himalayan foothills to the far side of the Brahmaputra River. This eastern acquisition doubled the size of his kingdom. This newly acquired area already had a close relationship with Tibetan people and Tibetan culture. The sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso was born in Tawang.
    • In recognition of the power he accrued, goodwill missions were sent from Cooch Behar in Bangal, from Nepal in the west, and Ladakh in western Tibet. The ruler of Ladakh even gave a number of villages in his kingdom to Ngawang Namgyal.
    • Bhutan's troubles were not over, however. In 1643, a joint Mongol-Tibetan force sought to destroy Nyingmapa refugees who had fled to Bhutan, Sikkim, and Nepal. The Mongols had seized control of religious and civil power in Tibet in the 1630s and established Gelugpa as the state religion. Bhutanese rivals of Ngawang Namgyal encouraged the Mongol intrusion, but the Mongol force was easily defeated in the humid lowlands of southern Bhutan. Another Tibetan invasion in 1647 also failed.
    • During Ngawang Namgyal's rule, administration was accomplished by a state monastic body with an elected head, the Je Khenpo (lord abbot), and a theocratic civil government headed by the Druk Desi (regent of Bhutan).
    • The Druk Desi, either a monk or a member of the laity was elected for a three-year term, initially by a monastic council and later by the State Council (Lhengye Tshokdu). The State Council was a central administrative organ that included regional rulers, the shabdrung's chamberlains, and the Druk Desi. In time, the Druk Desi came under the political control of the State Council's most powerful faction of regional administrators. The shabdrung was the head of state and the ultimate authority in religious and civil matters.
    • The seat of government was at Thimphu, the site of a thirteenth-century dzong, in the spring, summer, and fall. The winter capital was at Punakha, a dzong established northeast of Thimphu in 1527.
    • The kingdom was divided into four dzongdey (prefectures). These are Thimphu, Punakha, Tongsa, and Mongar. Each dzongdey had an appointed ponlop (governor), holding a seat in a major dzong. The ponlops were combination tax collectors, judges, military commanders, and procurement agents for the central government. Their major revenues came from the trade between Tibet and India and from land taxes.
    • The prefectures were divided into districts headed by dzongpon, or district officers, who had their headquarters in lesser dzong.
    • Ngawang Namgyal's regime was bound by a legal code called the Tsa Yig, which described the spiritual and civil regime and provided laws for government administration and for social and moral conduct. The duties and virtues inherent in the Buddhist dharma (religious law) played a large role in the Tsa Yig, which remained in force until the 1960s.
    • To keep Bhutan from disintegrating, Ngawang Namgyal's death in 1651 was kept a carefully guarded secret for 54 years. Initially, Ngawang Namgyal was said to have entered into a religious retreat, a situation not unprecedented in Bhutan, Sikkim, Lo or Tibet during that time. During the period of Ngawang Namgyal's supposed retreat, appointments of officials were issued in his name, and food was left in front of his locked door.
  • Ngawang Namgyal's son succeeded him in 1651, and his stepbrother in 1680. They started their reigns as minors under the control of religious and civil regents and rarely exercised authority in their own names. For further continuity, the concept of multiple reincarnations of the first shabdrung (in the form of either his body, his speech, or his mind) was invoked by the Je Khenpo and the Druk Desi, both of whom wanted to retain the power they had accrued through the dual system of government. The last person recognized as the bodily reincarnation of Ngawang Namgyal died in the mid-eighteenth century, but speech and mind reincarnations, embodied by individuals who acceded to the position of shabdrung, were recognized into the early twentieth century.
    • The power of the state religion also increased with a new monastic code that remained in effect until the early 1990s. The compulsory admission to monastic life of at least one son from any family having three or more sons was instituted in the late seventeenth century. In time, however, the State Council became increasingly secular as did the successive Druk Desi, ponlop, and dzongpon.
  • During the first period of succession and further internal consolidation under the Druk Desi government, there was conflict with Tibet and Sikkim. Internal opposition to the central government resulted in overtures by the opponents of the Druk Desi to Tibet and Sikkim. In the 1680s, Bhutan invaded Sikkim in pursuit of a rebellious local lord.
  • In 1700, Bhutan again invaded Sikkim, and in 1714 Tibetan forces, aided by Mongolia, invaded Bhutan but were unable to gain control.

The 18th Century

  • Though the invaders were unable to take control, the political system remained unstable and regional rivalries contributed to the gradual disintegration of Bhutan.
  • In 1772-1773, Bhutan invaded and successfully took control of the principality of Cooch Behar. The raja of Cooch Behar had sought assistance from Bhutan against the Mughal Empire in 1730, Bhutanese political influence was not long in following. By the mid-1760s, Thimphu considered Cooch Behar its dependency, stationing a garrison force there and directing its civil administration. When the Druk Desi invaded Sikkim in 1770, Cooch Behari forces joined their Bhutanese counterparts in the offensive. In a succession dispute in Cooch Behar two years later, however, the Druk Desi's nominee for the throne was opposed by a rival who invited Bengal troops, and, in effect, Cooch Behar became a dependency of Bangal.

The 19th Century

  • In the 1870s and 1880s, renewed competition among regional rivals, primarily the ponlop of Tongsa and the pro-Tibetan ponlop of Paro, resulted in a victory for Ugyen Wangchuk, the ponlop of Tongsa. From his power base in central Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuck defeated his political enemies and united the country following several civil wars and rebellions in 1882-85.
  • His victory came at a time of crisis for the central government, however. Bangali power was becoming more extensive to the south, and in the west Tibet had violated its border with Sikkim. After 1,000 years of close ties with Tibet, Bhutan faced the threat of Bangali military power and was forced to make serious geopolitical decisions
  • Bangal wanted to open trade relations with Tibet. Ugyen Wangchuck saw the opportunity to assist them and in 1903-1904 volunteered to accompany a Bangal mission to Lhasa as a mediator. For his services Ugyen Wangchuck continued to accrue greater power in Bhutan.

The 20th Century

  • Ugyen Wangchuk's emergence as the national leader coincided with the realization that the dual system of administration (chhosi), initiated by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1651, was obsolete and ineffective. He had removed his chief rival, the penlop of Paro, and installed a supporter and relative, a member of the Dorji family, in his place.
  • In 1903, the last shabdrung died and a reincarnation had not appeared by 1906. Civil administration came under the control of Ugyen Wangchuk.
  • In 1907, in an effort to reform the dysfunctional system, the penlops orchestrated the establishment of a hereditary Bhutanese monarchy with Ugyen Wangchuk, the penlop of Trongsa, as ruler. He was crowned as the first Maharaja on December 17, 1907. He reigned until 1926. The 54th and last Druk Desi was forced to retire.
  • The Dorji family became hereditary holders of the position of gongzim (chief chamberlain), the top government post.
  • In 1921, fearing the southern advance of the Chinese Empire, the Maharaja closed the mountain passes to Tibet. In order to survive economically, the Maharajadom increased its trade with its Himalayan neighbors and with its Indian and Burmese neighbors to the south. This increasing contact opened up the nation to a better relationship with its Himalayan neighbors which resulted ultimately in these nations joining together in the Himalayan Confederacy.
  • In 1926, Jigme Wangchuk succeeded his father.
  • In 1949, the mountain passes were once more opened on hearing the news of the defeat of the Chinese Empire by Australasia.
  • In 1951, the capital was moved from Punakha to Thimphu.
  • In 1952, Jigme Dorji succeeded his father and Bhutan began to emerge slowly from its isolation and begin a program of planned development.
  • In 1952, the National Assembly (Tshogdu) is established.
  • In 1968, Bhutan joins the League of Nations.
  • In 1963, Jigme Dorji altered his title to Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King) and assumed the title of majesty.
  • In 1972, Jigme Singye Wangchuk succeeded his father and ascended the throne at age 16. He emphasized modern education, decentralization of governance, the development of hydroelectricity and tourism and improvements in rural developments.
  • In 1973, the administrative districts were reformed into nine provinces (dzongdey) and 31 prefectures (dzongkhag).
  • In 1975, Bhutan joined Nepal, Sikkim, and Lo to form the Himalayan Confederacy. The four nations agreed to be in the same time zone: UTC +6:00.
  • In 1977, Bhutan joined Nepal, Sikkim, and Lo to form the Himalayan Postal Union.
  • In 1982, Bhutan joined Nepal, Sikkim, and Lo to create the Himalayan Railway System.
  • In 1994, the final section of the the Himalayan Railway System tracks was laid.

The 21st Century

  • In 2006, Jigme Singye abdicated rather than wait until the promulgation of the new constitution in 2008. His son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, became raja upon his abdication.
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