Brief History of Bhutan

For centuries, the country did not have a name for the outside world. It’s lofty natural barriers had wrapped the country in a cloak of mysticism and mystery. Some Tibetan chronicles referred to it with exotic names as “the Southern Valley of Medicinal herbs”, and the “Lotus Garden of the Gods”. To the Bhutanese, the country was always “Druk Yul” literally meaning “The Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon”.

The name Bhutan appears to have derived from the ancient Indian term “Bhotanta” which means the end of the land of the Bhots. Bhot was the Sanskrit term for Tibetans. Bhutan‘s distant past is surrounded by mystery since books and documents were gradually lost over the years in fires and earthquakes, which destroyed Dzongs where the historical records were stored. A prominent event in what little exists of Bhutanese history is the legendary flight of Guru Padmasambhava from Tibet in 747 AD. Guru Rinpoche, as he is today popularly called, is considered the second Buddha in Tibetan Buddhism. According to legend, Guru Rinpoche miraculously flew through the air from Tibet to Bhutan, and arrived in Paro valley at the Taktshang (Tiger’s nest). Today a monastery exists perched precariously on the cliff’s face as an indelible mark of the Guru’s visit. Guru Rinpoche is the founder of the tantric strain of Mahayana Buddhism practiced in Bhutan. He is also worshipped as the father of the Nyingmapa School of religion.

Although the strength of Buddhism was a powerful cohesive, the country was not unified under one central authority. For centuries Bhutan was ruled by local lords who were in ongoing states of war against each other. Finally, in the early 17th century, Shabdrung Nawang Namgyal, a Tibetan Lama of the Drukpa School, came to Bhutan and ended the long period of rivalry between these feudal lords. He established the Drukpa sect of Buddhism, which is still prevalent today. Shabdrung, meaning “ at whose feet one submits” established himself as the country’s supreme leader and vested civil powers in a high officer known as the Druk Desi. The Je Khenpo, another leader was charged with the religious affairs of the country. The country was divided into regions and a comprehensive system of law was codified.

The Shabdrung built a chain of Dzongs throughout the country, which served as the seat of Government and as fortresses that guarded each valley during the times of battles. The Shabdrung died in 1651. In the ensuing two centuries, the country was again dissolved into regional fiefdoms with intermittent civil wars. At the end 18th century, the Trongsa Penlop Ugyen Wangchuck, who then controlled the eastern and central region suppressed all his rivals and again united the country. An assembly of representatives of the monastic community, civil servants and the people unanimously crowned Ugyen Wangchuck the first king of Bhutan in 1907. The monarchy has thrived ever since and the present king, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck commands the overwhelming support of his people.


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