History of Bhutan

The Name

Our country is known as Bhutan to the outside world. The name is believed to have its basis in the Sanskrit word Bhu-Uttan, meaning Highland or Head of India, or Bhotsant, meaning End of Tibet. For the Bhutanese, we know our country as Druk Yul, literally meaning the Dragon Country. Druk Yul has its origins in the Drukpa Kagyupa school of Buddhism.


There are very little written sources on the history of Bhutan. It is inferred from findings of ancient stone tools and megaliths as well as sites associated with the previous lives of the Buddha that Bhutan could have been populated since 2000 BC.

Buddhism gains prominence

Bhutanese Buddhism belongs to the Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) tradition. Our recorded history is found principally in religious documents where the beginnings of the introduction of Buddhism in Bhutan are chronicled. It starts from the 7th century with the construction of the first Buddhist temples in Paro (west) and Bumthang (central). A century later, the arrival of Guru Rimpoche, revered as the second Buddha, marked the beginning of Buddhism gaining a stronghold in the country. Oral stories of Guru Rimpoche’s travels within Bhutan tell of a land of local deities and powerful demons, and where mountains, rivers and trees were worshipped as part of what is known as the Bon religion. During this period and in the next two centuries or so, there are various accounts of the origin of noble families, particularly in central and eastern Bhutan, who ruled these parts of the country. At this time, not much is known about our history except that Bhutan seems to have been divided into little kingdoms’ ruled by nobilities.

Religious schools and nobilities

A significant occurrence from the 11th Century is the arrival of important religious figures from Tibet and the spread of their schools of Buddhism. The descendents of these religious figures formed hereditary lineages that combined religious authority with secular powers. They often married into old noble families, thereby increasing their standing. The influence of these different schools mainly the powerful but short-lived dominance of the Lhapa Kagyupa school, the rise of the Drukpa Kayupa school, and the prominence of the Nyingmapa school depicts a country open to different influences of not only religious but secular consolidation. One of the greatest religious figures at this time was Terton (treasure revealer) Pema Lingpa, renowned as a great Buddhist teacher, creator of numerous sacred dances, and predestined to reveal several religious texts and objects hidden by Guru Rimpoche. The Bhutanese royal family is a descendent of Terton Pema Lingpa.

Political consolidation

A landmark event that occurred in the 17th Century was the arrival of the Zhabdrung to Bhutan from Tibet. Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel was the prince-abbot at Ralung monastery, the Drukpas’ main monastery in Tibet. He arrived in Bhutan in 1616. The Zhabdrung is revered as a divine being as well as credited with Bhutan’s emergence as a nation. He consolidated different religious factions, won the allegiance of people from different regions, including old ruling families, and promulgated a code of laws that regulated judicial aspects, and social and economic life. He combined religious and secular powers, creating a theocratic state. This amalgamation was physically reflected in the Dzongs that the Zhabdrung built Semtokha, Punakha, Wangdue Phodrang, Paro which were seats of religious and secular powers. He established a dual system of government (chosi) wherein a supreme abbot (Je Khenpo) headed the monastic body and a secular ruler (Desi) administered the political affairs. The country was divided into regions administered by regional governors (Penlops), and chiefs of Dzongs (Dzongpons). This structure of government was to remain till the enthronement of the first Hereditary King of Bhutan in 1907.

On the tenth day of the third month of the Iron Rabbit Year (1651), the Zhabdrung entered into retreat in the Punakha Dzong, from which he never reappeared.

The 18th and 19th Centuries

Bhutan came into contact with British power in India for the first time in the 18th Century. In 1772, after a Bhutanese incursion into the State of Cooch Bihar in India, the regent of Cooch Bihar sought the support of the East India Company. The Company was victorious and also captured two Bhutanese forts in the foothills. After an intercession, an Anglo-Bhutanese Treaty was signed in 1774 which provided for a return to the boundaries that existed prior to the incursion. This was followed by several British missions to Bhutan. Relations started to deteriorate between the Company and Bhutan as minor disputes kept occurring along the border. The plains between the river Brahmaputra in India and the lowest hills of Bhutan were known as Duars (doorway or gate). The Bhutanese administered the seven Assam Duars under a rental agreement with the Assamese. When the British occupied Assam in 1828, the points of tension increased and led to the British annexation of the Assam Duars in 1841. Tensions further escalated and culminated in the Duar war of 1864 wherein the British annexed all the Duars. A successful Bhutanese counter-offensive was led by the Penlop of Trongsa, Jigme Namgyel (father of the first King of Bhutan). This was quickly followed by a counter-attack, and subsequently ended in the Treaty of Sinchula. Under the Treaty, Bhutan ceded 2,750 sq. miles of lowland and the British agreed to pay an annual compensation of Rs. 50,000. From then on, political relations improved. In fact, the then Penlopof Trongsa (who later became the first King of Bhutan) provided valuable support to the British in their relationship with Tibet.

Establishment of Hereditary Monarchy

After the dual system of governance was established, 55 Desis have ruled the country. Only a few of them completed their terms as others were assassinated or deposed by rivals, just as Penlopsand Dzongpons plotted and fought against each other for power. It was a period of civil strife in which a man from the Dungkar Choje (religious nobility) in Lhuntse (eastern Bhutan), descendent of Terton Pema Lingpa, emerged as an important figure and became the 50th Desi of Bhutan. Upon his death, his son, Ugyen Wangchuck, rose in ranks with shrewdness, skills, and leadership that extended beyond Bhutan’s borders. He is credited with consolidating the many political fractions that had built up and with bringing peace in the country after centuries of internal strife. By the end of the 19th Century, he had emerged the undisputed leader of Bhutan and was unanimously elected as the first Hereditary King of Bhutan in 1907.


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