Up until the early 20th century Bhutan was a loose confederation of fiefs. It was unified in the 17th century under a Tibetan lama named Shabdrung (Zhabdrung) Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651), considered by most Bhutanese as father of their country. During his reign the earliest fortified dzongs were built at strategic location 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.

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.

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.

Administrative Integration in Bhutan and Conflict with Tibet (1651- 1728)

After Namgyal’s death in 1651, the druk desi system deteriorated as regional leaders began to separate from the central authority. To keep Bhutan from disintegrating, Ngawang Namgyal's death in 1651 apparently was kept a carefully guarded secret for fifty-four years. Initially, Ngawang Namgyal was said to have entered into a religious retreat, a situation not unprecedented in Bhutan, Sikkim, 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. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

Ngawang Namgyal's son and stepbrother, in 1651 and 1680, respectively, succeeded him. 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 reincarnation 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 in 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, and intense rivalries developed among the ponlop of Tongsa and Paro and the dzongpon of Punakha, Thimphu, and Wangdiphodrang. *

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.

Civil Conflict in Bhutan (1728-72)

In 1720 the Chinese invaded Tibet and established a kind of suzerainty over Bhutan. Friction between Bhutan and Indian Bengal culminated in a Bhutanese invasion of Cooch Behar in 1772, followed by a British incursion into Bhutan, but the Tibetan lama's intercession with the governor-general of British India improved relations.

In 1728, Civil war ensued when the "first reincarnation" of Ngawang Namgyal, Jigme Dakpa, was recognized as the shabdrung in 1728. A rival claimant, however, was promoted by opposition forces supported by Tibet. The Tibetan-backed forces were defeated by Jigme Dakpa's supporters, but the political system remained unstable. Regional rivalries contributed to the gradual disintegration of Bhutan at the time the first British agents arrived. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

In the early eighteenth century, Bhutan had successfully developed control over the principality of Cooch Behar. The raja of Cooch Behar had sought assistance from Bhutan against the Indian Mughals in 1730, and 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 British troops, and, in effect, Cooch Behar became a dependency of the British East India Company.

Europeans in Bhutan

The first recorded Westerners to visit Bhutan were a pair of Portuguese Jesuits who arrived in the kingdom in 1627 on their way to Tibet. Around the time of the first war with Tibet in 1629, two Portuguese Jesuits — the first recorded Europeans to visit — passed through Bhutan They met with Ngawang Namgyal, presented him with firearms, gunpowder, and a telescope, and offered him their services in the war against Tibet, but the shabdrung declined the offer. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

In an early description of Bhutan, British adventurer Captain Boileau Pemberton wrote in 1838: “The whole of Bootan territory presents a succession of the most lofty and rugged mountains on the surface of the Earth. The consequence is that the travelers appears to be shut out on every side the rest of the world.”

The 18th century diplomat George Bogle (1746-1781) was the first European to establish diplomatic relations with Tibet and to attempt recognition by the Chinese Qing dynasty. On the Bhutanese, twrote: “ The simplicity of their manners, their slight intercourse with strangers, and a strong sense of religion, preserve the Bhutanese from many vices to which more polished nations are addicted. They are strangers to falsehood and ingratitude. Theft and every other species of dishonesty to which the lust of money gives birth are little known...The more I see of the Bhutanese, the more I am pleased with them. The common people are good-humoured, downright, and, I think, thoroughly trusty. The statesmen have some of the art which belongs to their profession.

British Become Involved in Bhutan in the 18th Century

In 1774 a British mission arrived in Bhutan to promote trade with India after the British East India Company repelled a Bhutanese invasion of the princely state of Cooch Behar in India in 1772 that was resolved with a peace treaty in 1774.

Under the Cooch Behari agreement with the British, a British expeditionary force drove the Bhutanese garrison out of Cooch Behar and invaded Bhutan in 1772-73. The druk desi petitioned Lhasa for assistance from the Panchen Lama, who was serving as regent for the youthful Dalai Lama. In correspondence with the British governor general of India, however, the Panchen Lama instead castigated the druk desi and invoked Tibet's claim of suzerainty over Bhutan. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

Failing to receive help from Tibet, the druk desi signed a Treaty of Peace with the British East India Company on April 25, 1774. Bhutan agreed to return to its pre-1730 boundaries, paid a symbolic tribute of five horses to Britain, and, among other concessions, allowed the British to harvest timber in Bhutan. Subsequent missions to Bhutan were made by the British in 1776, 1777, and 1783, and commerce was opened between British India and Bhutan and, for a short time, Tibet. In 1784 the British turned over to Bhutanese control Bengal Duars territory, where boundaries were poorly defined. As in its other foreign territories, Bhutan left administration of the Bengal Duars territory to local officials and collected its revenues. Although major trade and political relations failed to develop between Bhutan and Britain, the British had replaced the Tibetans as the major external threat. *

Bhutan, Britain, Tibet and India in the 19th Century

In the 19th century, Britain sought to establish relations with Tibet and incorporate it into its sphere of influence. This posed a threat to Bhutan, who had traditionally viewed the Tibetans as their enemies. but this problem was successfully eliminated by Penlop Ugyen Wangchuck (1862-1926), who played a role as a mediator between British India and Tibet. Wangchuck eventually became the first hereditary monarch of Bhutan in 1907.

Meanwhile, British efforts to open trade with Bhutan during the 18th and 19th century largely failed. Britain occupied Assam, just south of Bhutan, in 1826 and extended British rule into the Brahmaputra Valley which lies just to the north of Assam. This eventually led to conflict with Bhutan. The Bhutanese frequently attacked the relatively flat areas of British-controlled Assam and Bengal along Bhutan’s southern border. At various times during the 19th century, Bhutan ceded territory to the British [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007; “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009]

After several years of minor skirmishes in the duars (passages in the foothills) of Assam, Britain declared war. The Duar War (also known as the Anglo-Bhutanese War) lasted five months, from late 1864 into 1865. The scattered Bhutanese forces were unable to mount an effective resistance. In the 1865 Treaty of Sinchula, Bhutan surrendered Assam and Dewangiri, a portion of southeastern Bhutan, in exchange for an annual payment of fifty thousand rupees.

Disputes Between Bhutan and the British

Boundary disputes plagued Bhutanese-British relations. To reconcile their differences, Bhutan sent an emissary to Calcutta in 1787, and the British sent missions to Thimphu in 1815 and 1838. The 1815 mission was inconclusive. The 1838 mission offered a treaty providing for extradition of Bhutanese officials responsible for incursions into Assam, free and unrestricted commerce between India and Bhutan, and settlement of Bhutan's debt to the British. In an attempt to protect its independence, Bhutan rejected the British offer. Despite increasing internal disorder, Bhutan had maintained its control over a portion of the Assam Duars more or less since its reduction of Cooch Behar to a dependency in the 1760s. After the British gained control of Lower Assam in 1826, tension between the countries began to rise as Britain exerted its strength. Bhutanese payments of annual tribute to the British for the Assam Duars gradually fell into arrears, however. The resulting British demands for payment and military incursions into Bhutan in 1834 and 1835 brought about defeat for Bhutan's forces and a temporary loss of territory. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

The British proceeded in 1841 to annex the formerly Bhutanese-controlled Assam Duars, paying a compensation of 10,000 rupees a year to Bhutan. In 1842 Bhutan gave up control to the British of some of the troublesome Bengal Duars territory it had administered since 1784.

Charges and countercharges of border incursions and protection of fugitives led to an unsuccessful Bhutanese mission to Calcutta in 1852. Among other demands, the mission sought increased compensation for its former Duars territories, but instead the British deducted nearly 3,000 rupees from the annual compensation and demanded an apology for alleged plundering of British-protected lands by members of the mission. Following more incidents and the prospect of an anti-Bhutan rebellion in the Bengal Duars, British troops deployed to the frontier in the mid-1850s. The Sepoy Rebellion in India in 1857-58 and the demise of the British East India Company's rule prevented immediate British action. Bhutanese armed forces raided Sikkim and Cooch Behar in 1862, seizing people, property, and money. The British responded by withholding all compensation payments and demanding release of all captives and return of stolen property. Demands to the druk desi went unheeded, as he was alleged to be unaware of his frontier officials' actions against Sikkim and Cooch Behar.

Duar War (1864-65)

Britain sent a peace mission to Bhutan in early 1864, in the wake of the recent conclusion of a civil war there. The dzongpon of Punakha — who had emerged victorious — had broken with the central government and set up a rival druk desi while the legitimate druk desi sought the protection of the ponlop of Paro and was later deposed. The British mission dealt alternately with the rival ponlop of Paro and the ponlop of Tongsa (the latter acted on behalf of the druk desi), but Bhutan rejected the peace and friendship treaty it offered. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991*]

Britain declared war in November 1864. Bhutan had no regular army, and what forces existed were composed of dzong guards armed with matchlocks, bows and arrows, swords, knives, and catapults. Some of these dzong guards, carrying shields and wearing chainmail armor, engaged the well-equipped British forces. *

The Duar War (1864-65) lasted only five months and, despite some battlefield victories by Bhutanese forces, resulted in Bhutan's defeat, loss of part of its sovereign territory, and forced cession of formerly occupied territories. Under the terms of the Treaty of Sinchula, signed on November 11, 1865, Bhutan ceded territories in the Assam Duars and Bengal Duars, as well as the eighty-three-square-kilometer territory of Dewangiri in southeastern Bhutan, in return for an annual subsidy of 50,000 rupees. *

After the Duar War in the Late 19th (1864-65) and Its Aftermath

Following Britain’s victory in the 1865 Duar and the signing the Treaty of Sinchulu, the land occupied by the British in 1864 was formally annexed by Britain in return for the annual subsidy mentioned above, which was dependent upon Bhutan keeping the peace. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

In the 1870s and 1880s, renewed competition among regional rivals — primarily the pro-British ponlop of Tongsa and the anti-British, pro-Tibetan ponlop of Paro — resulted in the ascendancy of Ugyen Wangchuck, the ponlop of Tongsa. From his power base in central Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuck had 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. British power was becoming more extensive to the south, and in the west Tibet had violated its border with Sikkim, incurring British disfavor. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991*]

After 1,000 years of close ties with Tibet, Bhutan faced the threat of British military power and was forced to make serious geopolitical decisions. The British, seeking to offset potential Russian advances in Lhasa, wanted to open trade relations with Tibet. Ugyen Wangchuck saw the opportunity to assist the British and in 1903-4 volunteered to accompany a British mission to Lhasa as a mediator. For his services in securing the Anglo-Tibetan Convention of 1904, Ugyen Wangchuck was knighted and thereafter continued to accrue greater power in Bhutan. *

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Council of Bhutan (, National Portal of Bhutan, the Bhutan government’s main site (, 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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