The ancient history of Bhutan is shrouded in mystery, as few records survive, but early Tibetan manuscripts talk of states called Monyul and Lhomon in the area now covered by Bhutan. The Buddhist history of Bhutan is known with more certainty as a written history was maintained after Mahayana Buddhism was introduced into the country in the 7th century by the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo.
Widespread conversion to Buddhism followed some time after. According to local legend, the Indian ascetic Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) converted the Bhutanese people after subduing eight classes of demons and converting the local king. For the next thousand years, Bhutan existed as a series of rival monarchies in separate mountain valleys.
Bhutan first became a coherent political entity around the 17th century as Tibetan lamas established a centralised administrative and political structure over the area. Bhutan was officially unified under Ngawang Namgyal, who subdued rival Buddhist sects and founded the first of Bhutan’s dzongs (fortress monasteries).
Amazingly, Namgyal’s death in 1651 was kept secret for 54 years to prevent the kingdom from fragmenting. His heirs ruled Bhutan until the 18th century, when the British Empire started nibbling away at its southern borders, seizing Bhutanese territory and imposing tithes on the Bhutanese rulers.
In 1907, the Tibetan diarchal system, with power split between equal political and spiritual leaders, was abandoned and a hereditary monarchy was established, with Ugyen Wangchuck elected as the first Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King). His successors introduced some elements of modern government, but it was only when Jigme Dorji came to power in 1952 that Bhutan modernised in any meaningful way.
Tourism to Bhutan began in 1974, after the Bhutanese government agreed to open its formerly restricted territory to outside visitors. In 1991, Bhutan’s policy of a daily tourist fee was introduced, allowing visits only on organised trips arranged through local agencies, to protect Bhutan’s traditional culture from outside influences.
Bhutan is still nominally a monarchy, governed by the 5th Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, but an elected parliament makes most decisions. The move to democracy was not without problems, and many refugees fled to Nepal in the 1990s, where they continue to live in a legal limbo. Bhutan has also become entangled in conflicts between Assamese and Bodo separatist guerrillas and the government of India.
Did you know?
• Rather than measuring prosperity in GDP (Gross Domestic Profit), Bhutan measures prosperity by the happiness of its people, or GDH (Gross Domestic Happiness).
• The Bhutan constitution requires 60% of the country to remain under forest cover.
• Bhutan was the first country in the world to recognise the rights of the environment in its constitution.