Bhutan - History

Facts & Stats | History | Culture | Geography | Religion | Current Events | Links & Resources

The early history of Bhutan is shrouded in mystery. What little is known comes from archeological remains of stone tools and weapons, remnants of large stone buildings and megaliths (large stones), and from fragmented reports in the Tibetan Chronicles. From these remains, it is assumed that the area was inhabited by pre-historic tribal peoples as early as 2000 B.C. These peoples are referred to as the Monpa and their origin is uncertain. The Tibetan Chronicles tell of a state called Monyul ( Dark Land) which existed between 500 B.C. and 600 A.D. The people of this state practiced the Bon religion, as was done in Tibet, and thus may have been of Tibetan origin. Bon worship (see section on religion) is a shamanistic religion focused on the worship of nature and natural forces and on the belief in good and evil spirits which affect every aspect of life. The Tibetan Chronicles record that, around 400 A.D., the Monpa people invaded areas of India which are today the states of Assam, West Bengal and Bihar; whether these were simply raids or whether the Monpa controlled these territories is not known. Other names found in the Chronicles for Bhutan are Lhomon Khashi (Southern Mon country of four approaches) and Lhomon Tsendenjong (Southern Mon sandalwood country).

Some scholars believe that the modern English name of the country, Bhutan, came from the Indian Sanskrit words Bhota-ant (end of Bhot, an old word for Tibet) or Bhu-uttan (highlands). This name became common in the 19 th century in the English language. The inhabitants themselves refer to their country as Drukyul (country of the Drokpa, the Dragon People, or the Land of the Thunder- Dragon).

The recorded history of Bhutan begins with the introduction of Buddhism in the seventh century A.D. At that time, the Tibetan king, Srongtsen Gampo, brought Buddhism to the area by building two Buddhist temples, at Bumthang in Central Bhutan and at Kyichu in the Paro Valley. As in Tibet, Buddhism did not replace Bon, but existed alongside it; the two traditions interacted and affected each other for centuries. In 747 A.D. the Buddhist saint, Padmasambhava (Guru Rimpoche), came to Bhutan from India at the invitation of a local ruler. According to legend, he subdued “eight classes of demons” (probably references to the Bon spirits) and converted the king to the Tantric (secretive or esoteric) form of Buddhism (see section on religion). He then traveled to Tibet where he introduced Tantric Buddhism there as well. When he returned from Tibet, he helped construct new monasteries in the Paro Valley, founding the Nyingmapa sect (Red Hat or Old Sect) of Buddhism. This became the dominant sect in Bhutan as it was in Tibet.

During this early period, there was no central government; instead small independent monarchies developed, each ruled by a king (deb), some of whom claimed divine origins. The most prominent of these kingdoms was that of Bumthang. However, Tibetan Buddhist monks came to dominate the religious life of Bhutan beginning in the 9 th century and they were followed by Tibetan-Mongol military forces. By the 11 th century, the entire land had been occupied by these Tibetan-Mongol military forces. Tibetan control or influence over Bhutan remained important until the 17 th century when an independent government emerged.

During the years of Tibetan control or influence the original Nyingmapa sect of Buddhism was gradually overtaken and replaced by two newer subsects of the Kargyupa school (see section on religion for more details): the Lhapa and the Drukpa. The Lhapa sect is the one which built the characteristic Bhutanese dzong (fortified monasteries) and it continued to be strong until the 17 th century. The Drukpa had arrived in Bhutan in the 12 th century as well and gradually replaced the Lhapa sect as well as the original Nyingmapa sect. Essentially, the Drukpa sect rejected the reforms brought to Buddhism in Tibet by the reforming Gelukpa (Yellow Hat sect, the one to which the Dalai Lama belongs) and continued the tradition of married monks, secretive Tantric practices, reincarnated lamas, military prowess, and an emphasis on demonic and beneficent spirits.

In the 17 th century, a Drukpa monk, Ngawang Namgyal, fleeing the domination of the Gelugpa sect led by the Dalai Lama in Tibet, founded a theocratic government in Bhutan. He led a series of battles with both rival subsects and Tibetan invaders. After defeating these groups, he took the title of Shabdrung (At whose feet one submits), becoming both the spiritual and secular leader of Bhutan. He united the various rulers and powerful families, naming the land Drukyul, promulgated a code of law, and built a network of Dzong throughout the country to protect it against rebellion and invasion.

Between 1629 and 1647, Tibetan or Tibetan/Mongol forces invaded the newly independent state 5 times; each time they were defeated and Ngawang Namgyal’s power increased. He received envoys from India, Nepal and Ladakh, the latter even giving him control of several villages. Two Portuguese Jesuits, the first Europeans to visit, went through Bhutan on their way to Tibet. They met with Ngawang, presented him with guns and gunpowder, a telescope, and even offered their services in the war against Tibet; this help was declined.

Ngawang set up a dual secular/religious government. The religious arm was headed by the Je Khenpo (Lord Abbott) elected by the heads of the monasteries; the secular arm was headed by the druk desi (regent of Bhutan), who was elected by the State Council. The State Council was comprised of regional rulers, Ngawang’s representatives, and the Drukdesi, while the shabdrung (Ngawang) was the head of state and ultimate authority in both religious and civil matters. There were two capitals: the spring, summer and fall capital at Thimphu and the winter capital in Punakha. Ngawang’s legal code provided laws for both social and moral conduct and was based on the Buddhist dharma (teachings). This code remained in effect until a modern law system was adopted in the 1960s.

When Ngawang Namgyal died in 1651, the government feared that the newly united country would disintegrate and that Tibet would once more invade. Thus, the government kept his death a secret for 54 years, claiming that he had entered a religious retreat (this had been done for leaders in Tibet, including the 5 th Dalai Lama), issuing edicts and appointments in his name and leaving food before his locked door. He was succeeded first by his son in 1651 and then by his stepbrother in 1680. Each began his career as a minor controlled by religious and civil regents (similar to the situation regarding the Dalai Lamas in Tibet). However, the Je Khenpo and the Druk Desi, both of whom wanted to retain the power they had under Ngawang and fearing that this power would go to the regents, claimed that Ngawang had a threefold reincarnation in three different people, each representing a different aspect of his body, mind and speech. The last person recognized as the bodily reincarnation of Ngawang died in the mid-eighteenth century, but the speech and mind incarnations were recognized into the early 20 th century. The beauty of this system was that the Shabdrung could be one of any of these three people. The power of the state religion increased in the late 17 th century with the passing of an edict stating that one son from each family having three or more sons, must become a monk.

In spite of the idea of multiple incarnations, Bhutan faced a number of disagreements, leading to civil war in 1728 and to renewed invasions by Tibet. The first reincarnation of Ngawang, Jigme Dakpa, claimed the title of Shabdrung in 1728; this touched off a civil war with opposition forces supported by Tibet. These forces were defeated, but regional rivalries created an unstable situation which worsened with the arrival of the British in India.

In 1730, the raja (ruler) of Cooch Behar (an Indian kingdom) asked for Bhutanese help against the Indian Mughals. Bhutanese interference was successful and by 1760, Bhutan considered Cooch Behar its dependency, stationed military forces there, and controlled its civil administration. However, a succession dispute in 1772 resulted in the invasion of British troops and Cooch Behar became a dependency of the British East India Company, which then drove the Bhutanese out of Cooch Behar. When the Druk desi appealed for aid from Tibet, the Panchen Lama, acting as regent for the Dalai Lama, not only refused to assist Bhutan but reasserted Tibet’s claim to rule Bhutan. To forestall Tibet, the Drukdesi signed a Treaty of Peace with the British East India Company on April 25, 1774. In this treaty, Bhutan returned to its pre-1730 boundaries, paid a tribute of 5 horses and allowed Britain to harvest timber in Bhutan. This was followed by a series of additional British missions to Bhutan and the opening of commerce between them. In 1784, the British allowed Bhutan to control the Bengal Duars territory although the borders of this regions were ill-defined. Boundary disputes were a constant problem in British-Bhutanese relations and a number of attempts were made to resolve them. Bhutan was to pay an annual tribute to Britain in return for control of Bengal Duars but soon ceased making this payment. In 1834-1835, Britain invaded Bhutan, defeated Bhutanese forces and, in 1841 and 1842, annexed the disputed territory of Duars, in return promising an annual payment of 10,000 rupees to Bhutan.

The situation further declined when, in 1852, Bhutan sent a mission to Calcutta asking for increased compensation for the lost territory. This backfired as the East India Company cut the compensation by 3,000 rupees and demanded an apology for alleged plundering of British-protected lands. More incidents resulted in British troops being deployed to the frontier. However, the First Indian War of Independence (called the Sepoy Mutiny in British sources) in 1857-1858, prevented further action. Bhutan took advantage of this lapse in British activity in India by raiding Sikkim and Cooch Behar in 1862; the British responded by withholding the annual payment and demanding the return of property and the release of captured peoples. The Bhutan government, involved in a power struggle, ignored these demands and rejected a proffered peace treaty in 1864. The British responded by declaring war in November 1864. Bhutan had no regular army, only Dzong guards armed with matchlocks, bows and arrows, swords, knives and catapults. In spite of this lack of adequate arms, Bhutan did have some battlefield victories, but was defeated after 5 months of fighting. On November 11, 1865, Bhutan signed the Treaty of Sinchula in which she ceded the territory of the Assam and Bengal Duars, and the territory of Dewangiri in Southeastern Bhutan, in return for an annual subsidy of 50,000 rupees.

The next 20 years saw increasing British pressure on Bhutan, Sikkim and other nearby areas as well as competition among regional rivals in Bhutan, especially between the pro-British and the pro-Tibet leaders. By 1885, Ugyen Wangchuck, the ruler of Tongsa had defeated his rivals and united the country. Fearful of further British encroachment in Bhutan, Ugyen decided to assist the British who, seeking to counter Russian attempts to open up Tibet, sent the Younghusband expedition to Lhasa in 1903. Ugyen accompanied the British expedition to Tibet as a mediator and was knighted by Britain for his services in securing the Anglo-Tibetan Convention of 1904. Ugyen’s emergence as the national leader of Bhutan thus spelled the end of the dual system of rule by incarnations of Ngawang. The last Shabdrung died in 1903; the last druk desi was forced to retire in 1907 and, despite subsequent recognitions of reincarnations of Ngawang, the system came to an end. In November, 1907, an assembly of Buddhist monks, government officials and heads of important families met and officially ended the Shabdrung system and elected Ugyen Wangchuck as the first hereditary monarch, the Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King). At the same time, the Dorji family became hereditary holders of the position of gongzim (chief chamberlain). This new system was approved by the British who wanted political stability on their northern frontier.

The British expedition to Tibet had an unexpected consequence. China, fearing that Tibet would be detached from its control, invaded Tibet in 1910 and asserted political authority. The Dalai Lama (the 13 th Dalai Lama) fled to India. The Chinese claimed not only Tibet but also Bhutan, Nepal and Sikkim; this claim pushed the Bhutanese closer to the British to protect themselves against these Chinese claims. On January 8, 1910, a new Bhutanese-British treaty, the Treat of Punakha, was signed. In this treaty, Britain agreed to increase their annual stipend to 100,000 rupees and “to exercise no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan.” In return, Bhutan agreed “to be guided by the advice of the British Government in regard to its external relations.” In the face of this treaty, and with its own government collapsing, China dropped its claim to control Bhutan, Nepal and Sikkim.

Ugyen Wangchuck, the first Druk Gyalpo or hereditary Dragon King, set the stage for modernization in Bhutan. He introduced Western-style schools, improved internal communications, encouraged trade and commerce with India and revitalized the Buddhist monastic system. In 1926, he was succeeded by his son, Jigme Wangchuck (1926-1952) who continued centralization and modernization policies, building schools, hospitals and roads. Monasteries were brought under royal control but the country remained fairly isolated in international affairs.

As discussion took place between Britain and India for India’s independence, the position of whether Bhutan would become an Indian state or retain its independence, was left up to the Bhutanese to decide once India had her independence. Thus, on August 8, 1949, Bhutan signed the Treaty of Friendship between the Government of India and the government of Bhutan. In this treaty, India agreed not to interfere in Bhutan’s internal affairs, to pay an annual subsidy of 500,000 rupees per year, and to return the area of Dewangiri to Bhutan. In return, Bhutan agreed to be guided by India in foreign relations. Thus, when China took over Tibet in 1951, Bhutan closed its frontier with Tibet and sided with India. To counter possible Chinese encroachment, Bhutan began a new modernization program under its third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1952-1972) and his European educated wife, cousin of the king of Sikkim. He took steps towards creating a Constitutional Monarchy by creating the National Assembly (the Tshogdu) in 1953, although the King retained veto power. He enacted land reform measures including the abolition of slavery and serfdom, separated the executive and judicial branches of government, constructed roads linking India with central Bhutan, and made Dzongkha the national language. He also established a national museum in Paro, and a national library, archives and stadium in Thimphu. In 1958, the position of Chamberlain, the hereditary position of the Dorji family, was upgraded to Prime Minister (lonchen). All of these reforms strengthened the role of the central government.

However, in 1964 a crisis occurred and the Prime Minister was assassinated while the King was in Switzerland for medical care. The Prime Minister had antagonized both the army and the religious establishments by forcing the retirement of army officers and reducing the power of state supported religious institutions. Army members were arrested, tried and executed for this plot. The crisis, which was also a political struggle between the Dorji family (the hereditary Prime Minister’s family) and the King’s family (many believe it was competition for influence between the Dorjis and the King’s Tibetan mistress and her father), continued with an assassination attempt on the life of the king in July, 1965. However, the Dorjis were not implicated in this plot and the would-be assassins were pardoned by the King.

Other modernization attempts continued with the creation of Thimphu as the year-round capital in 1966 and, in 1968 more power was given to the National Assembly, and the King renounced his veto power. Bhutan also sought to become more involved in the world, signed the Colombo Plan for Cooperative, Economic, and Social Development in Asian and the Pacific and, in 1971 was admitted to the United Nations. India continued to provide substantial amounts of development aid to help maintain Bhutan as a stable buffer state.

In July, 1972, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, then 17 years old, became the fourth Druk Gaylpo. The close ties between the Dorji and Wangchuck families, strained under his father, were improved with the assistance of his mother, the sister of the Prime Minister. He appointed his two elder sisters along with his mother, as his advisors and soon set about a program of further modernization. Educated in India and Britain, the new king was very accessible and traveled throughout his country and abroad. Interested in economic development, and in international affairs, he presented the monarchy as progressive and symbolic of national unity. In 1979, he married four sisters who were descendants of two of the Shabdrung, the rulers of the old system of government, thus typing the monarchy to the old system as well as to the modern world.

Jigme Singye Wangchuck has also been concerned with the preservation of Bhutan cultural identity in a program called “one nation, one people” (driglam namzha). This movement stressed the standardization and popularization of Dzongkha, the preservation of folksongs, the wearing of national dress (once compulsory, now optional but encouraged) and archery contests (archery is the national sport of Bhutan). In 1989 Nepali ceased to be a language of instruction in schools and Dzongkha was mandated in all schools. Bhutan participated in the Olympics and other international games.

The biggest problem of the 1980s and 1990s has been that of the Nepalese minority in Bhutan. Concerns about the role this growing minority could play were heightened in 1975 when a plebiscite in neighboring Sikkim resulted in the ousting of the 300 year old Sikkimese monarchy and the incorporation of Sikkim as the 22 nd Indian state when the Nepalese majority outvoted the Sikkimese minority. The Bhutanese Nepali minority was increasingly influenced by the radical politics of recent immigrants from India and Nepal. Bhutan took several steps to curb Nepali independence. In 1985, the government promulgated the Citizenship Act which provided that only those Nepalese immigrants who had resided in Bhutan for 15 or 20 years could be considered for citizenship. Increasing Nepalese immigration and charges of discrimination resulted in a number of protests, battles with police, assassinations, and arrests of Nepalese in the 1990s. The Nepalese, backed by the ruling party in Nepal, have made increasing demands for the recognition of a separate Nepalese identity in Bhutan. This has been met with government oppression, increased border controls with India, restrictions on internal travel and the formation of citizens’ militias in the troubled southern areas.

Today Bhutan is beginning to market itself as a tourist spot but with reservations as to the number of tourists allowed as it wishes to preserve its unique ecology and life-style.

return to top