History in brief: Never colonized. The discoveries of stone implements and monoliths are proofs that there has been settlement in Bhutan since pre-historic times. Since then till now, Bhutan has never been colonized or ruled by any other than our own. Since then till the arrival of Guru Rinpoche in the 8th century, there are very less records. There are allusions to number of temples being built in the 7th century – most probably the first advent of Buddhism in the country and a prince being exiled into the mountains of Bhutan. But it was only after arrival of Guru Rinpoche that the Buddhism began to spread within the county as it began to assimilate the Nature Worship beliefs into the mainstream Buddhism. Many of the deities and objects of this pre-Buddhist shamanistic beliefs along with the rituals were incorporated into the Buddhism and adapted to work with basic principles of the Buddhism, evolving into the Tantric form of Buddhism.
It was still provincial land then, with many chieftains looking after their small territories, those of which were influenced by different lama personalities and their related schools of Buddhism particularly between 12th – 15th century, some of which originated from Tibet. One such school of tantric Buddhism was the Drukpa Kagyu School.
Drukpa Kagyu School, which was brought to Bhutan in the 15th century by Phajo Drugom Zhigpo after it had been founded in Tibet in the 12th century by Tshangpa Gyarey Yeshey Dorje. It became the most dominant school of Buddhism after Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal came about in the 17th century as its leader, which led to unification of the country as the provincial rulers came to be under central rule. It was the influence as the spiritual head that first led to the Zhabdrung having power of some of the western provinces from where he unified the rest of the country. Besides the influence of being a spiritual head, he used stronghold of the fortresses called the ‘dzongs’ to extend his influence. Once a region was brought under control, whether through spiritual and peaceful means or diplomacy or martial pressure, Zhabdrung created stronghold in form of Dzong, from where his influence was extended eastwards.
By mid 17th century, Zhabdrung established the ‘choesi’ (or the ‘dual’) system of the government with Punakha as its capital. Under this dual system, there was a spiritual – the Je Khenpo and temporal head – the desi. This form of the government continued to the start of the 20th century. It was quite effective for the first century or so, but it began to fail as the regional governors became more powerful than the central government and they began to fight among themselves to install their puppet in the central government. One of the most powerful governors to emerge by late 1800s was governor of Trongsa – the Trongsa Penlop Ugyen Wangchuck. By then, he was not only recognized within the country as the most powerful entity and governor, despite a separate central government but was also deferred to by the British at the south and Tibetans to the North. In fact, he was knighted by the British Empire in 1905 as the Knight Commander of British Empire for forging relations between the British and Tibetans. So, it was a tribute to his contributions when in 1907 the people, clergy, representatives of different sections of the society chose Ugyen Wangchuck as the first King of Bhutan. Since the start of the monarchy, there has been unprecedented peace and prosperity in the Kingdom. Before monarchy, there was strife within the country besides fighting off numerous invasions from Tibet and having a war with the British (in 1865) besides number of battles after certain failed mission with them.
It was Ugyen Wangchuck’s diplomacy that the opposing forces outside the country were converted besides overcoming his rivals within the country. After Sir Ugyen Wangchuck was chosen, in his lifetime – the ‘man of destiny’ as he is called continued the process of unification at social level as well. His son Jigme Wangchuck reduced medieval taxes besides doing away with certain class distinction – the work which was continued by the ‘father of modern Bhutan’ – the 3rd King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. It was during his rule that the Bhutan consciously began to leave the age old policy of isolation and reach out to the world along with the process of modernization. It was during his time that Bhutan joined United Nations, besides number of international organizations. His son and successor – the Great Fourth besides continuing the path of modernization, set forth new paradigm in path of development in form of the Gross National Happiness, which encompasses the democracy that he gifted to the people of Bhutan. He continues to witness these successions of initiations as his son (to whom he handed over the powers of ruling King in 2005) the present King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck. There has been numerous interventions by the present King in form of “national guard” movement called the ‘dessung’ – a citizen voluntary organization, investments of state earnings (through Druk Holding Investments and their subsidiary companies), ongoing initiation into conscription and subsequent choice of national service area. His Majesty the 5th King is known for excellent handling the pandemic and associated responses (including leading to one of the highest levels of vaccination drives).
Bhutan maintains close diplomatic relations with India, stemming from time of British India and is part of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) The relations with China continues to warm up as the border talks have continued over past decade. Bhutan has diplomatic relations with 54 countries, which doesn’t include United States with whom Bhutan maintains informal “friendly and close” relations.
Names of the country: The name ‘Bhutan’ comes from the Sanskrit word ‘bhu-uttan’ or the “highlands” and after being used by British extensively including on the early map of the regions (evolving from ‘Bootan’), it came to be the internationally accepted names. The Bhutanese themselves have always called their county ‘Drukyul’ and continues to do so. While the ‘Drukyul’ has been popularly translated as the ‘country of the peaceful dragon’ by many travel books, it actual comes from the name of the school of Buddhism Drukpa Kagyupa, which is called the Dragon School and the name Drukyul was meant to mean ‘the country of the Dragon School” and the Bhutanese as ‘Drukpas’ the followers of the Dragon School.
- General information of Bhutan on Wikipedia: Bhutan
- General information of Bhutan on Britannica: Kingdom of Bhutan
- Specialized state services of Bhutan: Bhutan Portal