The Past and Present of Bhutan

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The history of Bhutan dates back to the Stone Age, with evidence of human habitation in the region dating back to 2000 BCE. The country’s strategic location between Tibet and India has made it an important center for trade and commerce throughout history.

Early History

The earliest records of Bhutan’s history come from the 9th century, when Guru Rinpoche, a Buddhist master, came to the region and introduced Buddhism. He is credited with establishing the Nyingma School of Buddhism, which is still practiced in Bhutan today.

In the 12th century, a Tibetan lama named Phajo Drugom Zhigpo introduced the Drukpa Kagyu School of Buddhism, which became the dominant form of Buddhism in Bhutan. The Drukpa Kagyu School placed greater emphasis on the role of the monarchy in the country’s religious life, and this remained an important feature of Bhutanese society for centuries.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Bhutan was a collection of small principalities ruled by independent rulers known as dzongpons. These rulers were responsible for maintaining law and order and collecting taxes.

Unification under Ngawang Namgyal

In the 16th century, a charismatic leader named Ngawang Namgyal began a campaign to unify Bhutan under a single ruler. He established a capital in Punakha and built a network of dzongs, or fortified monasteries, which he used as military bases.

Ngawang Namgyal is revered in Bhutanese history as both a political and religious leader. He is credited with bringing peace and stability to the region and laying the foundation for the modern state of Bhutan.

The Arrival of the British

In the late 19th century, Bhutan became a pawn in the “Great Game” of empire-building between Britain, China, and Russia. The British, who had already established control over India, saw Bhutan as a buffer state between their colony and China.

In 1865, the British signed the Treaty of Sinchulu with Bhutan, which established British control over Bhutan’s foreign relations. This treaty was followed by a series of others, which gradually eroded Bhutan’s sovereignty and left the country heavily dependent on India.

The Wangchuck Dynasty

In 1907, a Bhutanese nobleman named Ugyen Wangchuck was elected as the country’s first hereditary king. He established the Wangchuck dynasty, which has ruled Bhutan ever since.

Under the Wangchuck kings, Bhutan began a program of modernization and development. The country opened its borders to tourists and foreign investment, and established diplomatic relations with other countries.

Despite these changes, the Wangchuck kings have maintained Bhutan’s traditional religious and cultural practices. The country’s national identity is closely tied to Buddhism, and the monarchy remains an important symbol of Bhutanese unity and stability.

Recent History

In recent years, Bhutan has continued its program of modernization while also seeking to preserve its unique cultural heritage. The country has embraced democracy, holding its first democratic elections in 2008, and has made significant progress in areas such as education, healthcare, and environmental conservation.

Bhutan’s commitment to preserving its environment has earned it global recognition. The country has pledged to remain carbon-neutral and has become a leader in sustainable development.

Despite these achievements, Bhutan faces significant challenges, including poverty, unemployment, and political instability in the region. The country’s leaders will need to navigate these challenges in order to continue to build a prosperous and stable future for Bhutan.

Bhutanese Culture and Tradition

Bhutanese culture and tradition derive from a combination of Tibetean Buddhist and indigenous Bon religion. Buddhism first reached Bhutan from Tibet in the 7th century. Mahayana Buddhism, also known as the Great Vehicle, is the dominant religion in Bhutan, practiced by over 75% of the population. The government of Bhutan promotes what is known as the Gross National Happiness approach, which emphasizes the importance of cultural preservation and environmental conservation.

The Bhutanese traditional dress, known as the Gho for men and Kira for women, is a unique feature of Bhutan’s cultural heritage. The dress code is enforced for government employees during office hours, and Bhutanese people often wear it during important festivals and events. The folk dances of Bhutan, such as the Dzongkha and Boedra, are an essential part of the country’s cultural heritage, and the performances of such dances are a key component of many festivals.

Political History of Bhutan

The political history of Bhutan can be traced back to the 17th century when the country was ruled by various Buddhist monasteries. This era in Bhutanese history is known as the Zhabdrung era. In 1907, the first king of Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuck, ascended to the throne and established the Wangchuck dynasty.

Bhutan remained an independent nation throughout its history and never came under foreign rule. It maintained a policy of isolationism until the 1960s when the third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, introduced modernization policies in the country. In 2008, Bhutan transitioned to a democratic constitutional monarchy, and Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck became the fifth king of Bhutan.

The Role of Monks in Bhutanese Society

Monks have played an integral role in Bhutanese society for centuries. The majority of Bhutanese monks are trained in monasteries within Bhutan and nearby regions like Tibet. They receive religious education and training in Buddhist philosophy, meditation, and scriptures.

Monks perform important religious ceremonies and rituals, and they are also involved in various aspects of society, including education and social welfare programs. Bhutan’s traditional governance system has close ties with Buddhism, and monks have played a role in advising kings and government officials on policy matters.

Women’s Rights in Bhutan

Women in Bhutan have had a traditionally patriarchal society, but there have been significant developments in recent years towards gender equality. Bhutan’s constitution guarantees equal rights and opportunities for all, regardless of gender.

In the past decade, the government of Bhutan has made significant efforts to increase women’s participation in politics and promote gender equality. Women have been appointed to key positions in government and have representation in the judiciary and other public institutions.

Despite these efforts, challenges remain, including limited access to education, healthcare, and economic opportunities for women in rural areas. Cultural attitudes towards gender roles and stereotypes also continue to present challenges to progress towards gender equality.

Environmental Conservation in Bhutan

Environmental conservation is a cornerstone of Bhutan’s cultural heritage and national identity. The government of Bhutan has long recognized the importance of maintaining a healthy environment and has instituted policies to protect Bhutan’s forests, wildlife, and natural resources.

Bhutan has committed to maintaining at least 60% of its land covered in forest in perpetuity, and the country is known for its innovative approach to environmental conservation, such as the concept of Gross National Happiness, which prioritizes the well-being of the environment, society and culture. Bhutan is also a leading advocate for climate action on the global stage, promoting sustainable development and renewable energy throughout the world.

Key Figures

Several key figures have played a significant role in shaping the Bhutanese history as it is seen today. From the ancient era to modern times, these individuals have contributed to the development and functioning of the Bhutanese society, culture, and politics. Here are some of the most prominent key figures in Bhutan’s history:

1. Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal

Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal is considered to be the founder of the Bhutanese state and the country’s most important historical figure. He was a Tibetan lama who fled to Bhutan in the 17th century and unified the Bhutanese people under a central authority. He established the dual system of governance that shared power between the religious and secular authorities, which remains in practice to this day.

Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal is also credited with the introduction of the unique Bhutanese cultural identity, which has been shaped by a combination of Buddhism, animism, and secular traditions. He is revered in Bhutan as a spiritual leader, and his legacy continues to influence Bhutan’s political and cultural landscape.

2. Ugyen Wangchuck

Ugyen Wangchuck was the first king of Bhutan and is known as the father of modern Bhutan. He came to power in December 1907, after unifying the feuding regional lords and establishing a monarchy to replace the dual system of governance. He also signed a treaty with British India that ensured Bhutan’s sovereignty and prevented outside interference in the country’s internal affairs.

Under Ugyen Wangchuck’s leadership, Bhutan underwent significant reforms including the establishment of a central government, a legal system, and an army. He also made efforts to modernize the country while maintaining its unique cultural identity. Ugyen Wangchuck’s legacy as a wise and just ruler continues to be revered in Bhutan, and his descendants have continued to serve as the kings of Bhutan.

3. Jigme Dorji Wangchuck

Jigme Dorji Wangchuck was the third king of Bhutan and is known as the father of modernization. He came to power in 1952 after the sudden death of his father, and his reign was marked by significant reforms and modernization efforts. He established Bhutan’s first parliament, the National Assembly, and introduced a series of laws and policies aimed at modernizing the country’s infrastructure, economy, and education system.

Jigme Dorji Wangchuck was also responsible for opening Bhutan to the outside world and initiating diplomatic relations with other countries. He recognized the importance of preserving Bhutan’s unique cultural identity while also embracing modernity, and his vision has influenced Bhutanese policy making ever since.

4. Jigme Singye Wangchuck

Jigme Singye Wangchuck was the fourth king of Bhutan and is known for his philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which prioritizes the happiness and well-being of the Bhutanese people over economic growth. He introduced a series of reforms aimed at achieving GNH, including the establishment of a new constitution and the decentralization of government power. He also made efforts to preserve Bhutan’s environment and cultural heritage, which are integral components of GNH.

Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated the throne in 2006, allowing for a peaceful transition to a democratic government. His contributions to Bhutanese society continue to be celebrated, and his philosophy of GNH has gained international recognition as a model for sustainable development.

5. Dasho Tashi Phuntshog

Dasho Tashi Phuntshog, also known as the father of Bhutan’s modern education system, was a Bhutanese civil servant who played a crucial role in laying the groundwork for a modern education system in Bhutan. He established Bhutan’s first school, the National School, in 1961, and went on to serve as the Minister of Education and later as the Prime Minister.

Under Dasho Tashi Phuntshog’s leadership, Bhutan’s education system expanded rapidly, and he introduced a bilingual policy that ensured students were taught both English and Dzongkha, the national language. He also made efforts to preserve Bhutan’s traditional knowledge and culture, which are now integral components of Bhutan’s education curriculum. Dasho Tashi Phuntshog’s contributions to Bhutan’s education system continue to be celebrated, and he remains a revered figure in the country’s history.


Bhutan is located in the eastern Himalayas and shares its borders with India to the south and China to the north. The history of Bhutan starts from the 8th century when Guru Rinpoche, a Buddhist master, introduced Buddhism to Bhutan. Buddhism became a significant and integral part of Bhutanese culture and traditions, shaping the country’s history and identity.

Before the arrival of Buddhism, Bhutan was divided into various small principalities, and each principality was ruled by tribal chiefs. These tribal chiefs were engaged in constant struggles and wars for power and supremacy. The arrival of Buddhism brought with it the establishment of a strong central authority, which helped to unify the country.

The first ruler of Bhutan was Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck, who was the founder of the Wangchuck dynasty. He became the ruler of Bhutan in 1907, and his descendants have ruled the country ever since. His rule brought peace and stability to Bhutan, and he is regarded as the father of modern Bhutan.

The Arrival of Buddhism

Buddhism was introduced to Bhutan in the 8th century by Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava, the founder of the Nyingma school of Buddhism. He is regarded as the second Buddha and is considered to be the patron saint of Bhutan. Guru Rinpoche is said to have arrived in Bhutan from Tibet, and he is credited with bringing Buddhism to Bhutan.

Under the influence of Buddhism, Bhutan developed a unique cultural identity and way of life. The Bhutanese people adopted Buddhist practices and traditions, which helped them to establish a deep and abiding relationship with nature. This relationship with nature is considered by many to be the foundation of Bhutanese culture and way of life.

The Rise of Monarchy

Before the arrival of Buddhism, Bhutan was divided into various small principalities, each ruled by tribal chiefs. There was no central authority, and the tribal chiefs were engaged in constant struggles and wars for power and supremacy.

With the arrival of Buddhism, a strong central authority was established, which helped to unify the country under a single ruler. This marked the beginning of the rise of the monarchy in Bhutan.

The first ruler of Bhutan was Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck, who was installed as the first hereditary king of Bhutan in 1907. His rule brought peace and stability to Bhutan, and he is regarded as the father of modern Bhutan.

The Establishment of the Wangchuck Dynasty

Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck was a powerful and influential figure in Bhutanese history. He was appointed as the hereditary ruler of Bhutan by the British during their rule in India. Under his leadership, Bhutan was able to preserve its independence and autonomy, even as its neighbors India and China were colonized by foreign powers.

Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck’s reign saw the establishment of the Wangchuck dynasty, which has ruled Bhutan ever since. The Wangchuck dynasty is one of the oldest continuing monarchies in the world, and its rulers have played a pivotal role in shaping Bhutanese history and identity.

The Modernization of Bhutan

Under the rule of the Wangchuck dynasty, Bhutan has undergone a remarkable transformation from an isolated and feudal society into a modern, democratic, and progressive nation. Bhutan opened up to the world in the 1960s, and since then, it has made significant strides in modernizing its infrastructure and economy.

In 2008, Bhutan transitioned to a parliamentary democracy, with the fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicating the throne in favor of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. This transition to democracy was a critical milestone in Bhutan’s modern history, and it has helped to strengthen Bhutan’s position in the international community.

The Gross National Happiness

Bhutan’s commitment to preserving its unique cultural identity, tradition, and environment has attracted worldwide attention. Bhutan’s commitment to prioritizing the well-being of its citizens over economic growth is reflected in its policy of Gross National Happiness (GNH). GNH is a holistic and sustainable approach to development that goes beyond economic growth to encompass spiritual, social, and environmental well-being.

The concept of GNH is rooted in Bhutanese culture and tradition, and it reflects the country’s belief that economic growth alone cannot guarantee the happiness and well-being of its citizens. GNH has garnered a lot of interest from the international community, and it has become a model for sustainable development for countries around the world.

Bhutan’s Foreign Policy

Bhutan’s foreign policy is based on the principle of non-interference and respect for sovereignty. Bhutan has maintained cordial relations with its neighbors, India and China, for centuries. However, Bhutan’s strategic location has made it a target for foreign powers, and it has been the subject of territorial disputes.

India has played a vital role in Bhutan’s defense and security, and the two countries maintain close ties. China has also sought to establish diplomatic relations with Bhutan, but the issue of the Sino-Bhutan border remains unresolved. Bhutan has pursued a cautious foreign policy, seeking to preserve its independence and sovereignty while maintaining friendly relations with its neighbors.


Bhutan’s history is rich and varied, shaped by its unique cultural identity and traditions. Buddhism has played a central role in Bhutanese culture and has helped to establish a deep and abiding relationship with nature. The rise of the monarchy in Bhutan brought peace and stability to the country and marked the beginning of Bhutan’s modern history. The Wangchuck dynasty has played a pivotal role in shaping Bhutan’s history and identity, and the country’s commitment to GNH and sustainable development has made it a model for countries around the world. Bhutan’s foreign policy reflects its commitment to preserving its independence and sovereignty while maintaining friendly relations with its neighbors.

Impact and Significance

Bhutan, a small landlocked country in South Asia, has a long and complex history that has shaped its identity and culture. The country’s history is marked by a series of events and influences that have had a profound impact on its people, shaping its society and culture in ways that are unique and distinct from its neighbouring countries.

Buddhism and its impact on Bhutan

Buddhism is an integral part of Bhutanese culture and has played a significant role in shaping the country’s history. The arrival of Buddhism in Bhutan in the 7th century AD marked a significant turning point for the country, as it brought about a new way of life and a distinct spiritual identity. The teachings of Buddhism emphasise compassion, non-violence, and the importance of living a virtuous life, which has had a profound impact on the Bhutanese people.

The influence of Buddhism can be seen in all aspects of Bhutanese life, from the architecture of the country’s many temples and monasteries, to the daily practices of the Bhutanese people. The country’s unique Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, which measures the well-being and happiness of the Bhutanese people, is also deeply rooted in Buddhist philosophy.

The role of religion in politics

Religion has played a significant role in Bhutanese politics throughout the country’s history. Prior to the establishment of the monarchy in the 20th century, religious leaders had a significant amount of power and influence in Bhutan. The country was ruled by religious leaders known as Druk Desis, who governed Bhutan under the authority of the Zhabdrung Rinpoche, the spiritual leader of Bhutan.

The arrival of the Wangchuck dynasty in the early 20th century marked a significant change in Bhutanese politics. The monarchy, under the leadership of the first king, Ugyen Wangchuck, sought to balance the power of the religious authorities and establish a modern and centralised government. The monarchy continued to draw on the spiritual and cultural traditions of the country to create a unique identity for Bhutan that emphasised the importance of Buddhism and the well-being of the Bhutanese people.

The arrival of democracy

In the 20th century, Bhutan began the process of transitioning from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional democracy. The fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, initiated a series of reforms that aimed to modernise the country’s political and economic systems while preserving its unique culture and identity.

In 2008, Bhutan held its first-ever democratic elections, which marked a significant milestone in the country’s history. The establishment of a democratic system of government has provided the Bhutanese people with a greater say in how their country is run and has allowed for a more open and participatory political system.

However, the country’s transition to democracy has not been without its challenges. The new political system has had to balance the demands of democracy with the unique cultural and religious traditions of Bhutan. The country’s leaders have had to find a way to reconcile the ideals of democracy with the teachings of Buddhism, which emphasise the importance of harmony and non-violence.

Bhutan’s unique approach to development

Bhutan is known for its unique approach to development, which emphasises the well-being and happiness of its people over economic growth. The country’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, which measures the well-being and happiness of the Bhutanese people, is seen as an alternative to traditional measures of economic development, such as GDP.

The GNH index takes into account a range of factors, including cultural diversity, environmental sustainability, good governance, and social justice. This approach to development has attracted attention from around the world, leading some to describe Bhutan as a model for sustainable development.

In conclusion, Bhutan’s history is marked by a series of events and influences that have shaped its identity and culture. The impact of Buddhism, the role of religion in politics, the arrival of democracy, and Bhutan’s unique approach to development have all contributed to the country’s unique and distinct character. As Bhutan continues to navigate the challenges of the 21st century, it will be interesting to see how the country’s history and traditions continue to shape its path forward.

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