History of Bhutan

A mixture of legends and myths, derived mainly from religious texts forms Bhutanese history. Religion occupies a major portion of the country’s history, followed by the series of wars fought – with the Tibetans in the North, the East Indian Company in the South and internal strife. Its ancient history, tells of a largely self-sufficient population which had limited contact with the outside world until the turn of the century.

Religious figures, such as Guru Rimpoche (Padmasambhava), who came from India in the 8th century at the invitation of Sindhu Raja (then a chieftain of Bumthang,) find a prominent seat in Bhutanese history. Guru Rimpoche was instrumental in establishing several sacred religious sites, which are important places of pilgrimage for the Buddhist world today.

In the years that followed, several saints and religious figures who visited Bhutan helped shape Bhutan’s history and develop its religion.

The Zhabdrung

It could be said that the arrival of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1616 from Tibet, heralded the beginning of the most dynamic era in Bhutanese history. A great leader of the Drukpa school of Mahayana Buddhism, Zhabdrung unified the country and established the foundations for national governance and the Bhutanese identity.

An important legacy that he left behind was the dual system of government – the temporal and theocratic – with Je Khenpo (chief abbot) as the religious head and the temporal leader known as the Desi. This system of Governance was followed till the turn of the 19th century, until the birth of the Wangchuck dynasty and establishment of hereditary Monarchy.

In what could justifiably be called as one of Bhutan’s most historic moments, Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck, who was then the Trongsa Penlop (Governor) and the most powerful Bhutanese Leader of the time was unanimously elected as the first hereditary King of Bhutan. The occasion happened in an extraordinary Assembly of the clergy, the official administration, and representatives of the people from all parts of Bhutan. It was December 17, 1907.