The name “Bhutan” is derived from the compound “bhotente,” meaning the “borderland of Bhot.” Bhot is term used to describe Tibet and Bhotia describes ethnic Tibetans and Tibetan-related people.The Bhutanese call their country Druk-Yul ("Land of the Thunder Dragon"), with “yul” meaning “land” and “druk” being the name of the thunder dragon. The association with dragons is connected with the early evolution of Tibetan Buddhist sects. Bhutanese (singular and plural) is a noun and an adjective used describe the people and citizens of Bhutan and having to do with Bhutan. The ruling monarch of the country carries the title Druk Gyalpo or "Dragon King."

Most Bhutanese refer to their country as Druk-yul, the original and still official name. The Bhutan was name given to it by the British, is the name used for most official and international business and reference. “Bhotente” is derived from the ancient Indian term "Bhotania," which means "end of the land of the Bhots". "Bod" is the Tibetan name for Bhutan. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Country name: conventional long form: Kingdom of Bhutan
conventional short form: Bhutan
local long form: Druk Gyalkhap
local short form: Druk Yul
Capital: Thimphu (Tashi Chho Dzong)
[Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Bhutan was originally known by many names including Lho Jong (‘The Valleys of the South’), Lho Mon Kha Shi (‘The Southern Mon Country of Four Approaches’), Lho Jong Men Jong (‘The Southern Valleys of Medicinal Herbs’) and Lho Mon Tsenden Jong (‘The Southern Mon Valleys where Sandlewood Grows’). Mon was a term used by the Tibetans to refer to Mongoloid, non-Buddhist peoples that populated the Southern Himalayas. The country came to be known as Druk Yul or The Land of the Drukpas sometime in the 17th century. The name refers to the Drukpa sect of Buddhism that has been the dominant religion in the region since that period. [Source: Tourism Council of Bhutan tourism.gov.bt ]

Brenda Amenson-Hill wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: Bhutan’s “association with the dragon is explained by the evolution of the early sects of Buddhism in Tibet and its adjoining territories. It was the Indian saint Padma Sambhava, "the lotus-born," known in Tibet as Guru Rimpoche or "precious teacher," who was primarily responsible for the introduction of Buddhism into Bhutan, Sikkim, and Tibet in the A.D. eighth century. [Source: Brenda Amenson-Hill, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992 |~|]

Historical Themes in Bhutan

Bhutan is situated in the southeast section of the Himalayas, between Tibet and India. Archaeological evidence suggests that the aboriginal Bhutanese migrated from Tibet before 2000 B.C. Bhutan was divided into feudal kingdoms until the 17th century. [Source: “Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments”, Thomson Gale, 2008]

Bhutan is the last of the major independent Himalayan Buddhist kingdoms that once included Tibet, Sikkim and Ladakh, all of which have been swallowed up by China or India, Nepal is a Himalayan Hindu kingdom. During most of its history, Bhutan was ruled as a theocracy by warlords. It had few resources or little else to offer outsiders and was largely left alone. As is true with other Himalayan kingdom, the rugged terrain discouraged invaders. Much of what is known about Bhutan from before the 17th century is based on legend.

"In the Thunder Dragon Kingdom, adorned with sandalwood, the protector who guards the teachings of the dual system; he, the precious and glorious ruler, causes dominion to spread while his unchanging person abides in constancy, as the doctrine of the Buddha flourishes, may the sun of peace and happiness shine on the people." These few words — the text of the national anthem of Bhutan — sum up much about the spirit and culture of a society that sprang from an aboriginal people and was enriched by Tibetan, Mongol, and Indo-Burman migrants. Buddhism has been a pervasive influence in Bhutan throughout most of its history and has long been the state religion and source of civil law. Unified Bhutan has had two forms of monarchy: from the sixteenth century to the early twentieth century, a dual system of shared civil and spiritual rule; and since 1907 the hereditary monarchy of the Wangchuck family. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

A serious internal threat to Bhutan's traditional identity started peacefully in the 1950s and 1960s among the growing Nepalese minority, which represented 28 percent or more of the population in the early 1990s and emerged as a violent "prodemocracy" movement in the late 1980s. The 1990s promised to be a crucial period for the monarchy as it continued to foster economic and administrative reform amid efforts to retain traditional culture and to assuage minority unrest.

Bhutan’s Location and Its History

Bhutan is the last Himalayan Buddhist kingdom to remain independent. The others have been taken over by China or India. According to Associated Press: “These two Asian giants have already swallowed the other Buddhist kingdoms, like Sikkim or Tibet, that once thrived across the Himalayan range.” Bhutan was never colonized. The Bhutanese rebelled against Tibetan and British attempts to take over their kingdom, Britain was able to get control over much of the Himalayan region with the help of Nain Singh, a Bhutanese who often traveled in disguise, who provided British mapmakers with important data.

Once one of the many independent Himalayan kingdoms and principalities, Bhutan, like Nepal, is situated between two Asian powers, India and China, which, at best, have had an uneasy standoff politically and militarily for nearly half a century. Bhutan's independence has long been at issue in the geopolitical maneuverings between Tibet (and later China) and India. In the late twentieth century, Bhutan has fended off this external threat with conscientiously planned economic development.

Northern Bhutan lies just south of the Tibetan plateau, with the Himalayas dividing and occupying both regions. Southern Bhutan is covered by difficult-to-penetrate forested mountains, jungles and rain forests that serve as a barrier between Bhutan and India. Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: “For all its rugged independence, Bhutan is plagued by a sense of vulnerability that comes from being the last bastion of Himalayan Buddhism. The others have vanished, among them Ladakh (dismantled in 1842 and later absorbed into India), Tibet (invaded by China in 1950), and the neighboring kingdom of Sikkim. In 1975, just three years after Jigme Singye Wangchuck took the throne at age 16, a rising tide of Nepali immigrants voted independent Sikkim out of existence, annexing it to India. Was Bhutan next? Wangchuck moved to defend Bhutan’s prime asset, its Buddhist identity. “Being a small country, we do not have economic power,” he explained to a New York Times reporter in 1991. “We do not have military muscle. We cannot play a dominant international role because of our small size and population, and because we are a landlocked country. The only factor … which can strengthen Bhutan’s sovereignty and our different identity is the unique culture we have.”

Isolation and Shangri-La

Bhutan remained in self-imposed isolation for centuries and is still wary of outside influence and the impact of globaliaation. To reduce foreign influence and protect its ancient culture, Bhutan maintains an isolationist policy, allowing only a few outsiders and tourists into the country each year.

Bhutan is linguistically rich with over nineteen languages and dialects spoken in the country. The richness of the linguistic diversity can be attributed to the geographical location of the country with its high mountain passes and deep valleys. These geographical features have traditionally forced the inhabitants of the country and communities with in it to live in relative isolation, and this encourages the creation and endurance of languages and dialects and also helped Bhutanese culture to endure and maintain its uniqueness, [Source: Tourism Council of Bhutan, tourism.gov.bt]

Alistair Scrutton of Reuters wrote:Bhutan, known as the “Land of the Thunder Dragon” has been happy to promote a Shangri-la image with its snow-capped peaks and largely untouched forests. People must still wear the traditional knee-length robes in public. Bhutan is known for its “Gross National Happiness” index, that measures personal well-being and the environment rather than focusing on economic growth. [Source: Alistair Scrutton, Reuters, October 13, 2011]

“It has been reluctant to open up to the rest of the world. Tourism was only allowed in the 1970s, and when the first car arrived in the 1950s many people thought it was a fire-eating dragon. The capital’s attempts to have traffic lights were thwarted by residents complaining they were unsightly.

Gavin Rabinowitz of Associated Press wrote: “Most Bhutanese believe it is the kings who have allowed the small nation to survive with their culture and sovereignty intact while sandwiched between 1.1 billion Indians to the south and 1.3 billion Chinese to the north. These two Asian giants have already swallowed the other Buddhist kingdoms, like Sikkim or Tibet, that once thrived across the Himalayan range. [Source: Gavin Rabinowitz, Associated Press, November 6, 2008]

Henry Chu wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Bhutan has fiercely guarded its independence and held itself aloof from the rest of the world, establishing ties with only a handful of nations, which do not include the United States. Its population of fewer than 700,000 citizens lives in an area barely twice the size of Vermont. Most are devout practitioners of a form of Buddhism believed to have been introduced to Bhutan in the 8th century by a guru who arrived on the back of a flying tiger.” [Source: Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times, March 21, 2008]

Brief History and Timeline of Bhutan

Recorded history in Bhutan began in the eighth century A.D. with the introduction of Tibetan-style Buddhism. From the 12th to the 17th century, Tibet ruled Bhutan. Under the leadership of the Tibetan lama Shabdrung (Zhabdrung) Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651), Bhutan acquired a comprehensive system of laws that contained threats presented by rival religious leaders, civil administrators and warlords. This system functioned until Namgyal's death. Without the stewardship of a strong, central leader, Bhutan disintegrated and for around 200 years its history was characterized by political chaos, rivalry and conflict between as numerous regional governors and local administrators, all vying for their shares of power. [Source: Cities of the World, The Gale Group Inc., 2002 ==]

Following Britain’s victory in the 1865 Duar War, Britain and Bhutan signed the Treaty of Sinchulu, under which Bhutan would receive an annual subsidy in exchange for ceding land to British India. Ugyen Wangchuck — who had served as the de facto ruler of an increasingly unified Bhutan and had improved relations with the British toward the end of the 19th century — was named king in 1907. Three years later, a treaty was signed whereby the British agreed not to interfere in Bhutanese internal affairs, and Bhutan allowed Britain to direct its foreign affairs. Bhutan negotiated a similar arrangement with independent India in 1949. The Indo-Bhutanese Treaty of Friendship returned to Bhutan a small piece of the territory annexed by the British, formalized the annual subsidies the country received, and defined India's responsibilities in defense and foreign relations. Under a succession of modernizing monarchs beginning in the 1950s, Bhutan joined the UN in 1971 and slowly continued its engagement beyond its borders. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

In 2005, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck unveiled the draft of Bhutan's first constitution, which introduced major democratic reforms. The King abdicated the throne in 2006 in favor of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. In 2007, India and Bhutan renegotiated their treaty, eliminating the clause that stated that Bhutan would be "guided by" India in conducting its foreign policy, although Thimphu continues to coordinate closely with New Delhi. In 2008, Bhutan held its first parliamentary election in accordance with the constitution. Bhutan experienced a peaceful turnover of power following a parliamentary election in 2013, which resulted in the defeat of the incumbent party. In 2018, the incumbent party again lost the parliamentary election. Of the more than 100,000 ethnic Nepali — predominantly Lhotshampa — refugees who fled or were forced out of Bhutan in the 1990s, about 6,500 remain displaced in Nepal.

Timeline of Bhutan’s history according to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”: “
1616. Bhutan is unified by Shabdrung (Zhabdrung)Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651) who makes comprehensive laws and local administrations.
1907. The hereditary monarchy is created.
1949. The Indo-Bhutan Treaty of friendship is signed, and Bhutan receives full independence.
1952. Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (the "architect of modern Bhutan") becomes king.
1953. The National Assembly is established.
1960. Trading is entirely oriented toward India.
1965. The king forms the Royal Advisory Council.
1972. Jigme Singye Wangchuk becomes king.
1974. Bhutan begins to encourage tourism.
1983. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation is established. <=>
1998. The king devolves some of his executive powers to the cabinet.
[Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002 <=>]

Early History of Bhutan

Very little is known of Bhutan's early history. It is believed to have been inhabited beginning around 2000 B.C. by migrants from Tibet. Stone tools and megaliths (stone monuments) have been found in Bhutan, some of which have been dated to 2000-1500 B.C.. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Bhutan’s early history is obscure and recorded mostly in myths. Not much was is known until the introduction of Tibetan Buddhism in the A.D. 9th century. Nearly all the historic records of early Bhutan were destroyed by fire, flood, earthquake, and war.

Although knowledge of prehistoric Bhutan has yet to emerge through archaeological study, stone tools and weapons, remnants of large stone structures, and megaliths that may have been used for boundary markers or rituals provide evidence of civilization as early as 2000 B.C. The absence of neolithic mythological legends argues against earlier inhabitation. A more certain prehistoric period has been theorized by historians as that of the state of Lhomon (literally, southern darkness) or Monyul (dark land, a reference to the Monpa aboriginal peoples of Bhutan), possibly a part of Tibet that was then beyond the pale of Buddhist teachings. 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 credence and have been used by some Bhutanese scholars when referring to their homeland. Variations of the Sanskrit words Bhota-ant (end of Bhot, an Indian name for Tibet) or Bhu-uttan (meaning highlands) have been suggested by historians as origins of the name Bhutan, which came into common foreign use in the late nineteenth century and is used in Bhutan only in English-language official correspondence. The traditional name of the country since the seventeenth century has been Drukyul- -country of the Drokpa, the Dragon People, or the Land of the Thunder Dragon — a reference to the country's dominant Buddhist sect. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

Some scholars believe that during the early historical period the inhabitants were fierce mountain aborigines, the Monpa, who were of neither the Tibetan or Mongol stock that later overran northern Bhutan. The people of Monyul practiced the shamanistic Bon 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 Duars, subduing the regions of modern Assam, West Bengal, and Bihar in India. *

Arrival of Tibetan People

Beginning around the A.D. 8th or 9th century, what is now Bhutan was settled by Tibetans migrating southwards from the Tibetan plateau, which is just over the Himalayas from northern Bhutan. They presumably arrived on high passes that range between 4,572 meters (15,000 feet) to more than 6,096 meters (20,000 feet) between Tibet and Bhutan or came by more circuitous routes via what is now Nepal, Sikkim and Arunchal Pradesh, India. Some historians say this migration was in fact an organized invasion, with Tibetan troops defeating ruling Hindu maharajas (princely chief) to seize control of the region. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009]

Tibetans and Tibetan Buddhism arrived in what is now Bhutan in the 9th century A.D. when upheaval in Tibet forced many monks to flee to Bhutan. By the A.D. 12th century, the Drukpa Kagyupa school was established and remains the dominant form of Buddhism in Bhutan today. Bhutan’s political history is closely linked with its religious history and the relations and rivalry between Buddhist various schools and monasteries that are Tibetan in origin. Under The Tibetan lama Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651) many fortified villages (dzongs) were established. [Source: Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2009, Gale]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: “Buddhism was originally introduced from India in the 8th century, although the Buddhism of today's Bhutan is very much Tibetan in character. The forebears of the Bhotes (or Bhotias) came from Tibet, probably in the 9th century, when Tibetans invaded the area and met little resistance from the indigenous Tephu tribe. In the middle of the fifteenth century, Zhabdrung Ngawang Nangyal, a Tibetan lama exercising temporal as well as spiritual power, united the country and built most of the fortified villages (dzongs). His successors in power established a dual system, separating the temporal ruler (Desi or deb raja) and the spiritual ruler (Je Khempo or dharma raja). [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007 =|=]

Arrival of Tibetan Buddhism in Bhutan

Buddhism was introduced into Bhutan in the A.D. 7th century when the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo built 108 Buddhist temples across the Tibetan and Himalayan region, including two in what is now Bhutan. A century later Padmasambhava, a Buddhist saint also known as Guru Rinpoche and widely considered to be the Second Buddha., was invited to Tibet and Bhutan. The Bhutanese believe he traveled throughout the region subduing opposing deities by performing cham and converting them to eternal protectors of Buddhism.

Initially Bonism — the native pre-Buddhist religious tradition of Tibet — was the dominant religion in the region that would come to be known as Bhutan. Tibetan king Srongtsen Gampo (reigned A.D. 627-49), a convert to Buddhism, ordered the construction of two Buddhist temples, at Bumthang in central Bhutan and at Kyichu in the Paro Valley. Buddhism replaced but did not eliminate the Bon religious practices that had also been prevalent in Tibet until the late sixth century. Instead, Buddhism absorbed Bon and its believers. As the country developed in its many fertile valleys, Buddhism matured and became a unifying element. It was Buddhist literature and chronicles that began the recorded history of Bhutan. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

In A.D. 747, a Buddhist saint, Padmasambhava (known in Bhutan as Guru Rimpoche and sometimes referred to as the Second Buddha), 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 Tibet, 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 revealed 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 small entities. At the same time, Tibetan Buddhist monks (lam in Dzongkha, Bhutan's official national language) had firmly rooted their religion and culture in Bhutan, and members of joint Tibetan-Mongol military expeditions settled in fertile valleys. By the eleventh century, all of Bhutan was occupied by Tibetan-Mongol military forces. *

Bhutan and Buddhism, See Religion

Rivalry Between Tibetan Buddhist Sects in Bhutan

During Bhutan’s early history it was divided into numerous fiefdoms that battled and maneuvered for survival and dominance. Each fiefdom developed its own linguistic, religious, and cultural characteristics, As time went these distinctions — along with geographical barriers such as mountains, rivers and jungles — helped to isolate these fiefdoms from its neighbors and they developed their own identity.

By the tenth century, Bhutan's political development was heavily influenced by its religious history. Following a period in which Buddhism was in decline in Tibet in the eleventh century, contention among a number of subsects emerged. The Mongol overlords of Tibet and Bhutan patronized a sequence of subsects until their own political decline in the fourteenth century. By that time, the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat school had, after a period of anarchy in Tibet, become a powerful force resulting in the flight to Bhutan of numerous monks of various minor opposing sects. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

Among these monks was the founder of the Lhapa subsect of the Kargyupa school, to whom is attributed the introduction of strategically built dzong (fortified monasteries). Although the Lhapa subsect had been successfully challenged in the twelfth century by another Kargyupa subsect — the Drukpa — led by Tibetan monk Phajo Drugom Zhigpo, it continued to proselytize until the seventeenth century. The Drukpa subsect, an unreformed Nyingmapa group in Tibet, spread throughout Bhutan and eventually became a dominant form of religious practice. Between the twelfth century and the seventeenth century, the two Kargyupa subsects vied with one another from their respective dzong as the older form of Nyingmapa Buddhism was eclipsed. *

Phajo Drugom Zhigpo and the Drukpa-Kargyu Buddhist Tradition

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Drukpa-Kargyu Buddhist tradition was first introduced to Bhutan in the 13th century by Phajo Drugom Zhigpo, who travelled to the southern land (Bhutan) from Ralung, Tibet to propagate the teaching, as prophesized by Tsangpa Gyaray Yeshe Dorji, the founder of Drukpa-Kargyu tradition. [Source: Bhutan National Commission for UNESCO, 2012]

“The sites identified and included in this list are the places blessed by Phajo Drugom Zhigpo and also centers of the Drukpa-Kargyu School established by Phajo Drugom Zhigpo and his descendants in the different regions of the western Bhutan. It was from these centers that the influence of the Drukpa-Kargyu School in the region gradually gained strength by prevailing over groups of other Buddhist traditions. Later in the 17th century, these sites took the significant roles becoming strategic footholds during the consolidation and unification of the country under the one rule by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal who is believed to be the re-birth of Tsangpa Gyaray and also an emanation of Avalokitesvara.

“These sites include the key twelve sites of Phajo Drugom Zhigpo; four Dzongs (fortress), four Drags (cliff) and four Phugs (caves) scattered within Thimphu, Paro, Punakha and Gasa districts. Phajo Drugom Zhigpo meditated at these sites to fulfill his wish to salvage sentient beings from sufferings through teaching of Drukpa Kargyu. The story saying that he visited the twelve sites following the visionary instruction by Guru Rinpoche, the great Buddhist saint in the 8th century who is considered as the second Buddha, gives further spiritual importance to the sites. Dzongs and monasteries were built in and around some of these sacred sites by successors of the Drukpa-Kargyu tradition lineage.

Creation of Bhutan in the 17th Century

Bhutan was unified in the 17th century under a Tibetan lama named Shabdrung (Zhabdrung) Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651), considered by most Bhutanese as the father of their country. During his reign the earliest fortified dzongs were built at strategic locations for as protection from Tibetan invaders.

Ngawang Namgyal is referred to as "Zhabdrung Rinpoche" (which translates to "the precious jewel at whose feet one submits"). He set up Tibetan-style rule with a dual system of administration headed by a spiritual leader and a civil government leader. Ngawana Namgyal, subjugated rival religious schools, codified an intricate and comprehensive system of law, and established himself as ruler (shabdrung) over a system of ecclesiastical and civil administrators. This system endured until 1907 when a hereditary monarchy was established.

After arriving in Bhutan from Tibetm Ngawang Namgyel consolidated his power and defeated three Tibetan invasions. His system of rule eroded after his death and the country fell into in-fighting and civil war between the various local rulers. This continued until the Trongsa Poenlop Ugyen Wangchuck was able to gain control and with the support of the people establish himself as Bhutan’s first hereditary King in 1907. His Majesty Ugyen Wangchuck became the first Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King) and set up the Wangchuck Dynasty that still rules today. [Source: Tourism Council of Bhutan tourism.gov.bt ]

Bhutan assumed a distinct political identity under Ngawang Namgyel, who established his authority as a monarch, taking the title of Dharma Raja. The early Dharma Rajas were both political rulers and spiritual leaders. Over time they gradually relinquished governmental power and responsibilities to ministers known as the Deb Rajas while Bhutan split in smaller autonomous or semi-autonomous feudal states the provincial governors (ponlops). The current king, Druk Gyalpo Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, is the fifth in a line of rulers descended from a territorial governor who was elected to become the hereditary king in 1907. The Dharma Raja today is the spiritual leader — a kind of Dalai Lama — of the Drukpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, which is Tibetan Buddhist monastic order of Bhutan. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

Throughout much of its history, Bhutan was governed under dual monarchy comprised of Dharma Raja (spiritual ruler) and Deb Raja (temporal ruler). For much of its early history the Deb Raja held little real power, as the provincial governors (ponlops) became quite strong. After the death Ngawana Namgyal, infighting and civil war eroded the power of the shabdrung for the next 200 years when in 1885, Ugyen Wangchuck was able to consolidate power and cultivated closer ties with the British in India. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed, Columbia University Press]

Unifictaion of Bhutan Under Ngawang Namgyal, 1616-51

Fleeing a power struggle in Tibet, Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651) arrived in Bhutan in 1616.. A former military leader who was later given the title Shabdrung (Zhabdrung), he encouraged wealthy fiefdoms in Bhutan to help him construct a series of dzongs (fortresses) in the valleys of western Bhutan to deter Tibetan raids. Namgyal established a new government, in which he served as the spiritual leader while governmental authority was vested in the druk desi (similar to a prime minister). Within a few decades most of the surrounding fiefdoms were absorbed into Namgyal’s government.

Arthur Lubow wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: Ngawang Namgyal is revered today as a saint. He settled in western Bhutan, where his particular brand of Buddhism, known as the Drukpa school, was already well entrenched. The charismatic Zhabdrung, as he is known, repelled Tibetan armies, subdued feudal lords within Bhutan and began the system of dzongs — the fortresses that combine religious and civil jurisdiction in each district. The characteristic style of Bhutanese architecture, with its bay windows and elevated, pitched roofs, as well as the country's religious rituals and unique dress style (the kimono-like gho for men and kira for women), stemmed from the Zhabdrung's desire to distinguish the country from its expansion-minded neighbor Tibet. [Source: Arthur Lubow, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2008]

Ngawang Namgyal arrived in Bhutan seeking freedom from the domination of the Gelugpa subsect of Tibetan Buddhism led by the Dalai Lama in Lhasa. After a series of victories over rival subsect leaders and Tibetan invaders, Ngawang Namgyal took the title shabdrung (At Whose Feet One Submits, or, in many Western sources, dharma raja), becoming the temporal and spiritual leader of Bhutan. Considered the first great historical figure of Bhutan, he united the leaders of powerful Bhutanese families in a land called Drukyul. He promulgated a code of law and built a network of impregnable dzong, a system that helped bring local lords under centralized control and strengthened the country against Tibetan invasions. Many dzongs built during his rule still stand today [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

The mummified body of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal is kept enshrined in Machey Lhakhang, a temple in Punakha District in Punakha, Bhutan.which can be visited only by the two guardian lamas, the king and chief abbot. The high point of some important ceremonies is when sacred scarves drawn from around the neck of the body are draped around the king or a maybe a high lama or descendant of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal.

Life of Ngawang Namgyal, 1616-51

Ngawang Namgyal (also spelled Namgyel; 1594-1651) is known colloquially as The Bearded Lama. He was born at Ralung in the Tsang region of western Tibet, north of the Gasa district of Bhutan, in monastery that has traditionally been the seat of the Drukpa (Red Hat) sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Ralung monastery is one of the most sacred places in Tibet. The Drukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism established itself here here in 1180 under Tsangpa Gyare (1161-1211), 1st Gyalwang Drukpa, a disciple of Lingje Répa who founded the Drukpa Lineage. The school is still influential with numerous followers in southern, northern, and eastern Tibet as well as Bhutan. [Source: Wikipedia]

Ngawang Namgyal was the son of the Drukpa lineage-holder Mipham Tenpa'i Nyima (1567-1619), and Sönam Pelgyi Butri, daughter of the ruler of Kyisho in Tibet. On his father's side, Ngawang Namgyal descended from the family line of Tsangpa Gyare, the founder of the Drukpa Lineage. In his youth, Ngawang Namgyal was enthroned as the eighteenth Drukpa (throne-holder) and "hereditary prince" of the Ralung kingdom, and recognized there as the reincarnation of the Gyalwang Drukpa — the Drukpa equivalent of the Dalai Lama.

Ngawang Namgyal recognition and enthronement at Ralung as the Drukpa incarnation was, opposed by Lhatsewa Ngawang Zangpo, an influential follower of Drukpa Pema Karpo who promoted the recognition of a rival candidate — Gyalwang Pagsam Wangpo, an illegitimate son of the Chongje Depa, Lhatsewa and supporters of the Chongje Depa conducted an enthronement ceremony for Pagsam Wangpo as the incarnation of the Gyalwang Drukpa at Tashi monastery. The Chongje Depa then persuaded the Tsang Desi,the most powerful ruler in Tibet and patron of the rival Karma Kagyu sect, to support the recognition of Pagsam Wangpo as Gyalwang Drukpa.

For a time,Ngawang Namgyal continued to live at the main Drukpa seat of Ralung, as — irrespective of who was entitled to be considered the Gyalwang Drukpa — Ngawang Namgyal was the main Drukpa hereditary lineage-holder and legitimate throne-holder at Ralung Monastery, the traditional seat of the Drukpa Lineage. However, following a misunderstanding Ngawang Namgyal had with an important Karma Kagyu lama, the Tsang Desi demanded that compensation be paid, and that the sacred religious relics of Ralung should be surrendered and given to the rival Gyalwang Drukpa incarnate, Gyalwa Pagsam Wangpo.

Tsang Desi prepared to send a military force to arrest Ngawang Namgyal. Under these circumstances and reportedly following visions in which the chief guardian deities of Bhutan offer him, Namgyal fled to western Bhutan, establishing a new base there and founding Cheri Monastery at the head of Thimphu valley. In 1629, Ngawang Namgyal built Simtokha Dzong at the entrance to Thimphu valley; from where he could exert control over trade between the powerful Paro valley to the west and Trongsa valley to the east.

Tibetan Invasions, 1616-51

Tibetan armies invaded Bhutan around 1629, in 1631, and again in 1639, hoping to throttle 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. In recognition of the power he accrued, goodwill missions were sent to Bhutan from Cooch Behar in the Duars (present-day northeastern West Bengal), Nepal to the west, and Ladakh in western Tibet. The ruler of Ladakh even gave a number of villages in his kingdom to Ngawang Namgyal. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

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.

Tibetan forces were seeking to seize a precious relic, the Ranjung Kharsapani, the self-created image of Avalokiteshvara from the first vertebra of Tsangpa Gyarey, now kept inside crystal glass. Rangjung Kharsapani. Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal’s victory over the Tibetans is commemorated with the Punakha Drubchen festival in Punakha.

After Namgyal’s armies stopped a Tibetan invasion in 1639, he was given the title shabdrung , an honorific indicating spiritual leadership in the Drukpa sect. Namgyal’s victories over Tibetan and Mongol armies strengthened his authority and control over local fiefdoms.

Bhutan Administration Under Ngawang Namgyal, 1616-51

Ngawang Namgyal's administration operated under 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 new legal code, which remained in force until the 1960s.

During Ngawang Namgyal's rule, administration comprised 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, also known as deb raja in Western sources). The druk desi was either a monk or a member of the laity — by the nineteenth century, usually the latter; he was elected for a three-year term, initially by a monastic council and later by the State Council (Lhengye Tshokdu). [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

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 three regions (east, central, and west), each with an appointed ponlop, or governor, holding a seat in a major dzong. Districts were headed by dzongpon, or district officers, who had their headquarters in lesser dzong. The ponlop 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.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Council of Bhutan (tourism.gov.bt), National Portal of Bhutan, the Bhutan government’s main site (gov.bt), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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