Bhutan's early history is steeped in Buddhist folklore and mythology; it features tremendous deeds and beings with supernatural powers. It's said that a saint who had the ability to appear in eight different forms, one of them being Guru Rinpoche, visited Bhutan on a flying tiger and left the imprint of his body and his hat on rocks. School texts describe demons that threatened villages and destroyed temples until captured through magic and converted to Buddhism. Tales abound of ghosts who destroyed temples, and angels who rebuilt them.

Lost in the Mists of Time

Researchers have attached dates to many events and protagonists in Bhutan's vibrant history, though these often do not seem to fit together into a credible and accurate chronology. When reading Bhutanese history, it's easier to let your imagination flow. Try visualising the spirit of the happenings rather than rationalising events as historical truth. This will, in part, help prepare you for a visit to Bhutan, where spirits, ghosts, migoi (yetis), medicine men, and lamas reincarnated in three different bodies are accepted as a part of daily life.

Bhutan's medieval and modern history is better documented than its ancient history, but is no less exotic. This is a time of warlords, feuds, giant fortresses and castles, with intrigue, treachery, fierce battles and extraordinary pageantry all playing feature roles. The country's recent history begins with a hereditary monarchy that was founded in the 20th century and continued the country's policy of isolationism. It was not until the leadership of the third king that Bhutan emerged from its medieval heritage of serfdom and seclusion.

Until the 1960s, the country had no national currency, no telephones, no schools, no hospitals, no postal service and no tourists. Development efforts have now produced all these – plus airports, roads and a national system of health care. Despite the speed of modernisation, Bhutan has been famously cautious in opening its doors to tourism, TV and the internet in an effort to preserve its national identity and the environment. More recently, the exceedingly popular fourth king ensured his special place in history and the beginning of a new era for Bhutan by forsaking absolute power, introducing democracy and abdicating in favour of his son.

Early History & the Arrival of Buddhism

Archaeological evidence suggests the low-lying valleys of present-day Bhutan were inhabited as early as 1500 to 2000 BC by nomadic herders who moved their grazing animals to high pastures in summer. Many Bhutanese still live this way today. The valleys of Bhutan provided relatively easy access across the Himalaya, and it is believed that the Manas Chhu valley, in particular, was used as a migration and trade route from India to Tibet.

Some of the early inhabitants of Bhutan were followers of Bon, the animistic tradition that was the main religion throughout the Himalayan region before the advent of Buddhism. It is believed that the Bon religion was introduced in Bhutan in the 6th century AD.

Buddhism was possibly first introduced to parts of Bhutan as early as the 2nd century AD, although most historians agree that the first Buddhist temples were built in the 7th century under the instruction of the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo.

Many of the important events in the emerging country's early history involved saints and religious leaders and were therefore chronicled only in scriptures. Unfortunately, most of these original documents were destroyed in fires in the printing works of Sonagatsel in 1828 and in Punakha Dzong in 1832. Much of what was left in the old capital of Punakha was lost in an earthquake in 1897 and more records were lost when Paro Dzong burned in 1907. Therefore, much of the early history of Bhutan relies either on reports from British explorers, on legend and folklore, or the few manuscripts that escaped these disasters.

Guru Rinpoche

Guru Rinpoche (Precious Master) is one of the most important of Bhutan's historical and religious figures and his visit to Bumthang in AD 746 is recognised as the true introduction of Buddhism to Bhutan. He is a notable historical figure of the 8th century and his statue appears in almost all Bhutanese temples built after this first visit.

He is also regarded as the second Buddha possessing miraculous powers, including the ability to subdue demons and evil spirits, and his birth was predicted by Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha. His birthplace was Uddiyana in the Swat valley of what is now Pakistan. Uddiyana is known in Dzongkha as Ugyen, and some texts refer to him as Ugyen Rinpoche. He is also known as Padmasambhava. Padma is Sanskrit for 'lotus flower' and is the origin of the Tibetan and Bhutanese name Pema; sambhava means 'born from'.

He travelled in various manifestations throughout Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan, meditating in numerous caves, which are now regarded as important 'power places'. He preserved his teachings and wisdom by concealing them in the form of terma (hidden treasures) to be found by enlightened treasure discoverers called tertons. His consort and biographer, Yeshe Chhogyel, urges us not to regard Guru Rinpoche as a normal human being, because by doing so we will fail to perceive even a fraction of his enlightened qualities.

Bhutanese and Tibetans differ over a few aspects of his life; we refer here to the Bhutanese tradition.

The Story of Kurjey Lhakhang

In 746 Guru Rinpoche made his first visit to Bhutan. At this time, the Indian Sendha Gyab had established himself as the king of Bumthang, with the title Sindhu Raja. He was feuding with Naochhe (Big Nose), a rival Indian king in the south of Bhutan, when Naochhe killed the Sindhu Raja's son and 16 of his attendants. The raja was so distraught that he desecrated the abode of the chief Bumthang deity, Shelging Kharpo, who then angrily took revenge by turning the skies black and stealing the king's life force, bringing him near to death.

One of the king's secretaries thus invited Guru Rinpoche to Bumthang to use his supernatural powers to save the Sindhu Raja. The Guru came to Bumthang and meditated, leaving a jey (imprint) of his kur (body) in the rock, now surrounded by Kurjey Lhakhang.

Guru Rinpoche was to be married to the king's daughter, Tashi Khuedon. He sent her to fetch water in a golden ewer. While she was away, the Guru transformed into all eight of his manifestations and, together, they started to dance in the field by the temple. Every local deity appeared to watch this spectacle, except the stony-faced Shelging Kharpo who stayed hidden away in his rocky hideout.

Guru Rinpoche was not to be set back by this rejection, and when the princess returned he changed her into five separate princesses, each clutching a golden ewer. The sunlight flashing off these ewers finally attracted Shelging Kharpo, but before he ventured out to see what was going on, he first transformed himself into a white snow lion. On seeing the creature appear, the Guru changed into a garuda, flew up, grabbed the lion and told Shelging Kharpo in no uncertain terms to behave himself. He therefore recovered Sendha Gyab's life force, and for good measure converted both the rival kings to Buddhism, restoring the country to peace.

Shelging Kharpo agreed to become a protective deity of Buddhism; to seal the agreement the Guru planted his staff in the ground at the temple – its cypress-tree descendants continue to grow and tower over the Kurjey Lhakhang.

Further Visits by Guru Rinpoche

The Guru returned to Bhutan via Singye Dzong in Lhuentse and visited the districts of Bumthang and Mongar as well as Lhuentse. He was returning from Tibet where, at the invitation of the Tibetan king Trisong Detsen, he had introduced Nyingma Buddhism and overcome the demons that were obstructing the construction of Samye Monastery.

At Gom Kora, in eastern Bhutan, he left a body print and an impression of his head with a hat. He flew in the form of Dorji Drakpo (one of his eight manifestations) to Taktshang in Paro on a flaming tigress, giving the famous Taktshang Goemba the name 'Tiger's Nest'.

It is believed that Guru Rinpoche also made a third visit to present-day Bhutan during the reign of Muthri Tsenpo (764–817), the son of Trisong Detsen and the 39th king of Tibet.

The Eight Manifestations of Guru Rinpoche

The Guru is depicted in eight forms (Guru Tshengay). These are not really different incarnations, but representations of his eight main initiations, in which he assumed a new personality that was symbolised by a new name and appearance. Because initiation is equivalent to entering a new life, it is a form of rebirth. Therefore the eight forms follow the chronology of Guru Rinpoche's life.

He emerged as an eight-year-old from a blue lotus on Lake Danakosha in Uddiyana, and was adopted by King Indrabodhi. Then he was called Tshokye Dorji (Diamond Thunderbolt Born from a Lake). He later renounced his kingdom and went to receive teachings and ordination from the master Prabhahasti in the cave of Maratrika (near the village of Harishe in eastern Nepal), becoming Sakya Senge (Lion of the Sakya Clan). In this form he is identified with Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha.

After studying the teachings of the Vajrayana and mastering the sciences of all Indian pandits, he obtained full realisation and was able to see all the gods and deities. Then he was called Loden Chogsey (Possessor of Supreme Knowledge). He took as his consort Mandarava, the daughter of the king of Zahor (in the Mandi district of Himachal Pradesh, India). This enraged the king, who condemned them both to be burned, but through his powers the Guru turned the pyre into a lake and converted the kingdom to Buddhism. Then he was called Padmasambhava.

He returned to Uddiyana to convert it to Buddhism, but was recognised as the prince who had renounced his kingdom and was condemned to be burned along with his consort. Again he was not consumed by the fire and appeared sitting upon a lotus in a lake. This lake is Rewalsar – also called Tsho Pema (Lotus Lake) – in Himachal Pradesh, and is an important pilgrimage spot. His father, King Indrabodhi, offered him the kingdom and he became Pema Gyalpo (Lotus King), remaining for 13 years and establishing Buddhism.

When he was preaching in the eight cremation grounds to the khandromas (female celestial beings), he caught the life force of the evil deities and he turned them into protectors of Buddhism. Then he was called Nyima Yeozer (Sunbeam of Enlightenment). Later, 500 heretic masters tried to destroy the doctrine of Buddha, but he vanquished them through the power of his words and brought down a thunderbolt destroying the non-Buddhists in a flash of hail and lightning. He was then called Sengye Dradrok (Roaring Lion).

When he came to Bhutan the second time and visited Singye Dzong in Kurtoe and Taktshang in Paro, he was in the form of Dorji Drakpo (Fierce Thunderbolt). He subdued all the evil spirits hindering Buddhism and blessed them as guardians of the doctrine. In this form, Guru Rinpoche rides a tigress.

Medieval Period

The grandson of Trisong Detsen, Langdharma, ruled Tibet from AD 836 to 842. As a follower of Bon, he banned Buddhism, destroyed religious institutions and banished his brother, Prince Tsangma, to Bhutan. It is believed that many monks fled from Tibet and took refuge in Bhutan during this period. Despite the assassination of Langdharma and the reintroduction of Buddhism, Tibet remained in political turmoil and many Tibetans migrated to western Bhutan.

Between the 9th and 17th centuries, numerous ruling clans and noble families emerged in different valleys throughout Bhutan. The various local chieftains spent their energy quarrelling among themselves and with Tibet, and no important nationally recognised political figure emerged during this period.

Establishing the Bhutanese Form of Buddhism

Back in Tibet, Lama Tsangpa Gyarey Yeshe Dorji (1161–1211) founded a monastery in the town of Ralung, just east of Gyantse, in 1180. He named the monastery Druk (Dragon), after the thunder dragons that he heard in the sky as he searched for an appropriate site upon which to build a monastery. The lineage followed here was named after the monastery and became known as Drukpa Kagyu.

In the 11th and 12th centuries there was a further large influx of Tibetans into Bhutan. Many Drukpa lamas left Tibet because of persecution at the hands of the followers of rival Buddhist lineages. Most of these lamas settled in western Bhutan and established branches of Drukpa monastic orders. Western Bhutan became loosely united through the weight of their teachings. Charismatic lamas emerged as de facto leaders of large portions of the west, while the isolated valleys of eastern and central Bhutan remained separate feudal states.

One of the most important of these lamas was Gyalwa Lhanangpa, who founded the Lhapa Kagyu lineage. He established the Tango Goemba on a hill above the northern end of the Thimphu valley and built a system of forts in Bhutan similar to the dzongs found in Tibet.

Lama Phajo Drukgom Shigpo (1184–1251), a disciple of Lama Tsangpa Gyarey, came to Bhutan from Ralung and defeated Lama Lhanangpa. He and his companions developed the small Dho-Ngen Dzong on the west bank of the Wang Chhu and took control of the Tango Goemba. Lama Phajo is credited with forging the Bhutanese form of Buddhism by converting many people to the Drukpa Kagyu lineage. Other lamas resented his presence and success, and they tried to kill him through the casting of magic spells. Phajo, though, turned the spells back on these lamas, destroying several of their monasteries.

Between the 13th and 16th centuries, the Drukpa Kagyu lineage flourished and Bhutan adopted a separate religious identity. Several important Druk Kagyu teachers from Ralung were invited to preach and set up monasteries in western Bhutan. Among the visitors to Bhutan during this period was Lama Ngawang Chhogyel (1465–1540). He made several trips and was often accompanied by his sons, who constructed several monasteries. They are credited with building the temple of Druk Choeding in Paro and Pangri Zampa and Hongtsho goemba near Thimphu.

Perhaps the most famous Druk Kagyu teacher was the colourful and unconventional Drukpa Kunley (1455–1529). He is remembered today with immense affection and faith by the Bhutanese and is closely associated with the beautiful temple of Chimi Lhakhang between Lobesa and Punakha.

Hidden Treasures & Pema Lingpa

Between the 11th and 16th centuries, numerous terma (sacred texts) hidden by Guru Rinpoche in caves, rocks and lakes were discovered, as he had prophesied, by tantric lamas called tertons (treasure finders).

Pema Lingpa (1450–1521) was one of the five great tertons of Nyingma Buddhism, and the most important terton in Bhutan. The texts and artefacts he found, the dances he composed and the art he produced have significantly shaped Bhutan's cultural heritage. He is also considered to be a reincarnation of Guru Rinpoche.

He was born in the hamlet of Drangchel in Bumthang's Tang valley, near Kunzangdrak Goemba. As a boy he learned the craft of blacksmithing from his grandfather; indeed, two of the chainmails he forged are still on display at Tamshing and Thangbi goembas.

At age 25, he discovered his first terma after he dreamed a monk handed him a scroll in dakini script that gave instructions on how to find a treasure chest deep in a pool in the Tang valley. Pema eventually managed to translate the scroll but this was a huge project, because in dakini script each word stands for 1000 human words. Later, assisted by the khandromas (dakinis), he used the text as a basis for teachings. His residence at the time was in Kunzangling, which is on a cliff above the Tang valley and is now the site of the Kunzangdrak Goemba.

During Pema Lingpa's life he found a total of 34 statues, scrolls and sacred relics in Bhutan and as far away as Samye in Tibet. Many of the statues and relics he discovered are preserved in lhakhangs (inner temples) throughout Bhutan, including Bumthang's Tamshing and Kunzangdrak goembas, which he founded.

After his death he was reincarnated in three forms, consisting of ku (body), sung (speech) and thug (mind). These lineages continue to this day.

Through his six sons, one daughter and numerous reincarnations, Pema Lingpa's legacy still influences much of Bhutan. One of his grandsons, Gyalse Pema Thinley, who was also a reincarnation of Pema Lingpa, founded Gangte Goemba in the Phobjikha valley. The Gangte Trulku lineage continues there, with Kuenzang Pema Namgyal, born in 1955, as the ninth 'mind' reincarnation. The royal family of Bhutan, the Wangchuck dynasty, is also descended from this line.

The Rise of the Zhabdrung

By the 16th century the political arena was still fragmented between many local chiefs, each controlling their own territory and engaging in petty feuds with the others. There were numerous monasteries competing for superiority and the lamas of western Bhutan were working to extend their influence to the east of the country.

Everything changed in 1616 when Ngawang Namgyal (1594–1651) came to Bhutan from Ralung, the original home of the Drukpa Kagyu in Tibet. He was a descendent of Tsangpa Gyarey, the founder of Ralung Monastery. At age 12, he was recognised as the reincarnation of Pema Karpo, the prince-abbot of Ralung. This recognition was challenged by the ruler of another principality in Tibet, and Ngawang Namgyal found his position at Ralung very difficult. When he was 23, the protective deity Yeshe Goenpo (Mahakala) appeared to him in the form of a raven and directed him south to Bhutan. He travelled through Laya and Gasa and spent time at Pangri Zampa (Thimphu), which was established by his great-great-grandfather, Ngawang Chhogyel.

As Ngawang Namgyal travelled throughout western Bhutan teaching, his political strength increased. Soon he established himself as the religious ruler of Bhutan with the title Zhabdrung Rinpoche (Precious Jewel at Whose Feet One Prostrates), thereby becoming the first in the line of Zhabdrungs. He built the first of the current system of dzongs at Simtokha, just south of present-day Thimphu. While the primary function of earlier Bhutanese dzongs was to serve as invincible fortresses, the Simtokha Dzong also housed a monastic body and administrative facilities, as well as fulfilling its defensive function. This combination of civil, religious and defensive functions became the model for all of Bhutan's subsequent dzongs.

The Zhabdrung's rule was opposed by the leaders of rival Buddhist lineages within Bhutan. They formed a coalition of five lamas under the leadership of Lama Palden and attacked Simtokha Dzong in 1629. This attack was repelled, but the coalition then aligned itself with a group of Tibetans and continued its opposition. The Zhabdrung's militia thwarted the Tibetans in battle on several occasions, and the influence of the rival lineages diminished. Finally, after forging an alliance with the brother of King Singye Namgyal of Ladakh, the Zhabdrung's forces defeated the Tibetans and their coalition ally. In 1639, an agreement was reached with the Tsang Desi in Tibet, recognising Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal as the supreme authority throughout Bhutan.

The Zhabdrung further enhanced his power by establishing relations with neighbouring kings, including Rama Shah, the king of Nepal, and Raja Padmanarayan of Cooch Behar (India). It was at this time that the king of Ladakh granted the Zhabdrung a number of sites in western Tibet for the purpose of meditation and worship. These included Diraphuk, Nyanri and Zuthulphuk on the slopes of the holy Mt Kailash.

The Bhutanese administration of these monasteries continued until the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959. Other Tibetan monasteries that came under Bhutanese administration were Rimpung, Doba, Khochag and De Dzong, all near Gartok. A Bhutanese lama was sent as representative to Nepal, and Bhutanese monasteries were established at Bodhnath (Chorten Jaro Khasho) and Swayambhunath in Kathmandu. Bhutan administered Swayambhunath until after the Nepal-Tibet war of 1854–56, when it was retaken by Nepal on the suspicion that Bhutan had helped the Tibetans.

The Zhabdrung established the first sangha (community of monks) at Cheri Goemba near Thimphu. When Punakha Dzong was completed in 1635, the sangha was moved there and became the dratshang (central monk body), headed by a supreme abbot called the Je Khenpo.

Invasions from Tibet

In the meantime, strife continued in Tibet, between the Nyingmapa (known as 'Red Hat') group of Buddhists and the Gelugpa ('Yellow Hat'); the latter are headed by the Dalai Lama. The Mongol chief Gushri Khan, a patron of the Dalai Lama, led his army in an attack on Tibet's Tsang province, where he overthrew the Rinpong dynasty and established the supremacy of the Gelug lineage in the region.

In 1644, the Mongols and Tibetans, who were used to the extremely high plains of Tibet, launched an assault from Lhobrak into Bumthang, but found themselves overpowered by the forests and heat of Bhutan. Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal personally led the successful resistance and several Tibetan officers and a large number of horses were captured. Drukgyel Dzong was built at the head of Paro valley in 1647 to commemorate the victory and to prevent any further Tibetan infiltration.

One of the strongest of Tibet's Dalai Lamas was the 'Great Fifth'. During his administration, he became jealous of the growing influence of the rival Drukpa on his southern border and mounted further invasions into Bhutan in 1648 and 1649. Each attempt was launched via Phari in Tibet, from where the Great Fifth's forces crossed the 5000m-high Tremo La into Paro valley. They were repelled, and again the Bhutanese captured large amounts of armour, weapons and other spoils. Some of this booty may still be seen in the National Museum in Paro.

Ngawang Namgyal's success in repelling the Tibetan attacks further consolidated his position as ruler. The large militia that he raised for the purpose also gave him effective control of the country. Mingyur Tenpa, who was appointed by the Zhabdrung as penlop (governor) of Trongsa, undertook a campaign to unite all the valleys of the central and eastern parts of the country under the Zhabdrung's rule, which he accomplished by about 1655. At this time the great dzongs of Jakar, Lhuentse, Trashi Yangtse, Shongar (now Mongar), Trashigang and Zhemgang were constructed.

A Bhutanese Identity Emerges

The Zhabdrung realised that Bhutan needed to differentiate itself from Tibet in order to preserve its religion and cultural identity. He devised many of Bhutan's customs, traditions and ceremonies in a deliberate effort to develop a unique cultural identity for the country.

As a revered Buddhist scholar, he had both the astuteness and authority to codify the Kagyu religious teachings into a system that was distinctively Bhutanese. He also defined the national dress and instituted the tsechu (series of dances) celebrations.

The Zhabdrung created a code of laws that defined the relationship between the lay people and the monastic community. A system of taxes was developed; these were paid in kind in the form of wheat, buckwheat, rice, yak meat, butter, paper, timber and clothing. The people were subject to a system of compulsory labour for the construction of trails, dzongs, temples and bridges. These practices lasted almost unchanged until the third king eliminated them in 1956.

In the 1640s, the Zhabdrung created the system of Choesi, the separation of the administration of the country into two offices. The religious and spiritual aspects of the country were handled by the Zhabdrung. The political, administrative and foreign-affairs aspects of the government were to be handled by the desi (secular ruler), who was elected to the post. The office of the Zhabdrung theoretically had the greater power. Under the system at that time, the Zhabdrung was the spiritual ruler and the Je Khenpo was the Chief Abbot and official head of the monastic establishment. The Je Khenpo had a status equal to the desi and sometimes held that office.

The first desi was Tenzin Drugyey (1591–1656), one of the monks who came with Ngawang Namgyal from Ralung Monastery. He established a system of administration throughout the country, formalising the position of penlop as that of provincial governor. There were initially three districts: Trongsa in the centre, Paro in the west and Dagana in the south. The penlops became the representatives of the central government, which was then in Punakha. There were three officers called dzongpens (lords of the dzong) who looked after the affairs of the subdistricts of Punakha, Thimphu and Wangdue Phodrang.

Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal went into retreat in Punakha Dzong in 1651. He didn't emerge again, and although it is likely that he passed away very early in the period of retreat, his death remained concealed until 1705. It is believed that the four successive desis who ruled during this period felt that the continued presence of the Zhabdrung was necessary to keep the country unified and Tibet at bay. Nonetheless, Tibet mounted seven attacks on Bhutan between 1656 and 1730.

Civil Wars

When the Je Khenpo finally announced the death of the Zhabdrung in 1705, he said that three rays of light emanated from the Zhabdrung's body, representing the ku sung thug (body, speech and mind) of Ngawang Namgyal. This indicated that the Zhabdrung would be reincarnated in these three forms, though only the reincarnation of the Zhabdrung's mind was considered to be the head of state. Because the position of zhabdrung was a continuing one, it was necessary for the mind incarnation to be reborn after the death of the previous incarnation.

This structure resulted in long periods when the zhabdrung was too young to rule and the desi often became the de facto ruler. Because the desi was an elected position, there was considerable rivalry among various factions for the office. These factions also took advantage of uncertainty over which of the three incarnations of the Zhabdrung was the 'true' incarnation. None of the successive incarnations had the personal charisma or political astuteness of Ngawang Namgyal.

The next 200 years were a time of civil war, internal conflicts and political infighting. While there were only six mind incarnations of the Zhabdrung during this period, there were 55 desis. The longest-serving desi was the 13th incumbent, Sherab Wangchuk, who ruled for 20 years; and the most important was the fourth, Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye, who ruled from 1680 to 1694. Few of the rulers finished their term; 22 desis were assassinated or deposed by rivals.

The political situation became so unstable that some of the rival factions appealed to the Tibetans for assistance. In 1729 and 1730 Tibet took advantage of Bhutan's instability and invaded the country three times. The lamas in Tibet initiated a truce that eventually ended the hostilities. The rival Bhutanese factions submitted their case to the Chinese emperor in Beijing for mediation. The issue was only finally resolved when several of the Bhutanese protagonists died, leaving the currently recognised mind incarnation of the Zhabdrung as the ruler. At the same time, formal diplomatic relations were established between Bhutan and Tibet, which the late historian Michael Aris said 'helped to guarantee the fact of Bhutanese independence'.

Involvement of the British

In his book, Lands of the Thunderbolt, the Earl of Ronaldshay wrote: '…it was not until 1772 that the East India Company became conscious of the existence, across its northern frontier, of a meddlesome neighbour'. The first contact the British had with Bhutan was when the claimants to the throne of neighbouring Cooch Behar (in present-day West Bengal) appealed to the East India Company to help drive the Bhutanese out of their kingdom.

Because the East India Company was a strictly commercial enterprise, its officers agreed to help when the deposed ruler of Cooch Behar offered to pay half of the revenues of the state in return for assistance. In December 1772, the British governor of Bengal, Warren Hastings, sent Indian troops and guns to Cooch Behar and, despite suffering heavy losses, routed the Bhutanese and restored the king to the throne. However, Cooch Behar paid a very high price for this assistance. Not only did its rulers pay Rs50,000, but in 1773 they also signed a treaty ceding substantial powers and future revenue to the East India Company.

The British pushed the Bhutanese back into the hills and followed them into Bhutan. The British won another major battle in January 1773 at the garrison of Chichacotta (now Khithokha) in the hills east of what is now Phuentsholing. A second battle was fought near Kalimpong in April 1773. The Bhutanese troops were led by the 16th desi but, after the second defeat, he was deposed by a coup d'état.

First Treaty with the British

The new desi wanted to make an agreement with the British and appealed to the Panchen Lama in Tibet for assistance. The Panchen Lama then wrote what the British described as 'a very friendly and intelligent letter' that was carried to Calcutta (now called Kolkata) by an Indian pilgrim. The British, although more eager to establish relations with Tibet than to solve the issue of Bhutan, agreed to comply with the Tibetan request. The result was a peace treaty between Bhutan and the British signed in Calcutta on 25 April 1774. In this treaty the desi agreed to respect the territory of the East India Company and to allow the company to cut timber in the forests of Bhutan. The British returned all the territory they had captured.

The British in India attached their own names, derived from Sanskrit, to the titles used by the Bhutanese. They called the Zhabdrung the 'dharma raja', and the desi 'deb raja'.

Exploration by Western Travellers

Some of the most interesting stories of Bhutan, and much of Bhutan's recorded history, came from the descriptions provided by early European explorers. These records provide an insight into what they observed and also reveal the extraordinary attitudes of some of the envoys Britain sent to negotiate with Bhutan.

George Bogle

The first British expedition arrived in Bhutan in 1774, just after the first British treaties with Bhutan and Tibet were signed. The Court of Directors of the East India Company sent a mission to Tibet via Bhutan to find out about goods, 'especially such as are of great value and easy transportation'. The expedition team, led by George Bogle, planted potatoes wherever they went, providing a new food crop for Bhutan and a lasting legacy of this mission. They spent five months in Thimphu and then travelled on to Tibet. The written account of this mission provides the first Western view into the isolated kingdom of Bhutan. Bogle found the Bhutanese 'good-humoured, downright, and so far as I can judge, thoroughly trustworthy'. He did, however, note that the practice of celibacy by many monks led to 'many irregularities' and the cold resulted in 'an excessive use of spirituous liquors'.

Alexander Hamilton & Samuel Turner

In the next few years two small expeditions travelled to Bhutan. Dr Alexander Hamilton led a group to Punakha and Thimphu in 1776, and another in 1777, to discuss Bhutanese claims to Ambari Falakati (a town northwest of Cooch Behar) and to consolidate transit rights through Bhutan to Tibet that had been negotiated by Bogle's mission.

The next major venture into Bhutan was in 1783, when Samuel Turner led a grand expedition with all the accoutrements of the British Raj. They travelled through the duars (southern Bhutanese hills) in palanquins (sedan chairs) and followed Bogle's route to Thimphu. They also visited Punakha and Wangdue Phodrang before crossing to Tibet. Among the members of the 1783 expedition was Samuel Davis, who was a draftsman and surveyor. His journal and outstanding paintings provide one of the earliest views of Bhutan. Much of Davis' material is presented in Views of Mediaeval Bhutan by Michael Aris.

The Humiliation of Ashley Eden

Minor British expeditions to Bhutan were made in 1810, 1812, 1815 and 1837, for the most part in order to settle border disputes and conflict over the duars. The Ashley Eden expedition attempted to settle these issues.

The British had managed to extend their influence into Sikkim, making it a British protectorate, and subsequently decided to send a mission to Bhutan to establish a resident British representative and encourage better communication. Among the members of Eden's expedition was Captain HH Godwin-Austin of the Indian topographical Survey. Godwin-Austin had explored (present-day) Pakistan's Baltoro Glacier in 1861 and on some maps K2, the second-highest peak in the world, is named after him.

Despite reports of political chaos in Bhutan, Ashley Eden, the secretary of the government of Bengal, set out from Darjeeling in November 1864 to meet the desi (or 'deb raja'). Ignoring numerous messages from the Bhutanese that the British mission was not welcome, Eden pushed on past Kalimpong, through Daling, Haa and Paro, reaching Punakha on 15 March.

It's not clear whether it was more by accident or by design, but Eden's party was jeered, pelted with rocks, made to wait long hours in the sun and subjected to other humiliations. Both Bhutanese and British pride suffered badly. As Eden describes it in Political Missions to Bootan: 'The Penlow [penlop] took up a large piece of wet dough and began rubbing my face with it; he pulled my hair, and slapped me on the back, and generally conducted himself with great insolence.'

Eden exacerbated the situation by sending the Lhengyal Shungtshog a copy of a draft treaty with terms that he had been instructed to negotiate. His actions implied that this was the final version of the treaty that the Bhutanese were to sign without any discussion. The Bhutanese took immediate exception to Eden's high-handedness and soon presented him with an alternative treaty that returned all the duars to Bhutan. One clause in the treaty stated: 'We have written about that the settlement is permanent; but who knows, perhaps this settlement is made with one word in the mouth and two in the heart. If, therefore, this settlement is false, the Dharma Raja's demons will, after deciding who is true or false, take his life, and take out his liver and scatter it to the winds like ashes.'

Reading this, it's little wonder that Eden feared for the safety of his party. He signed the treaty, but under his signature added the English words 'under compulsion', which, naturally, the Bhutanese could not read.

Eden's party crossed the Cheli La from Haa into the Paro valley in February and had an extremely difficult time in the deep snow. Some years later, John Claude White suggested that Eden might have been given incorrect directions, perhaps on purpose. It is astounding that, even having admitted failure, Eden still viewed his as a 'friendly mission'. His report certainly was a major factor in British annexation of the duars. He advocated a punitive policy to teach the Bhutanese that they would not be allowed to 'treat our power with contempt'. He later went on to build the toy train in Darjeeling.

John Claude White

There were no formal expeditions to Bhutan for more than 40 years after Eden's, but the Survey of India sent several agents disguised as lamas and pilgrims to explore Bhutan and Tibet in 1883 and 1886.

By 1905, the Bhutanese and British were friends due to the assistance that the penlop of Trongsa, Ugyen Wangchuck, had provided the 1904 Younghusband expedition to Lhasa. John Claude White, a British political officer, came to present the insignia of Knight Commander of the Indian Empire to the penlop. White had been a member of the 1904 expedition and was an old friend of Ugyen Wangchuck.

White and his large party travelled from Gangtok, in Sikkim, into Haa and Paro, en route to the investiture ceremony in Punakha. Later, White and his party were guests of Ugyen Wangchuck at his new palace of Wangdichholing in Bumthang. The expedition later returned with the first photographs of dzongs and the court of Bhutan.

In 1906, White made a reconnaissance through eastern Bhutan to southern Tibet. He made a third trip in 1907 when he was invited as the British representative to the coronation of Ugyen Wangchuck as the first king of Bhutan. A summary of White's account appeared in the April 1914 issue of the National Geographic, and made Bhutan known to the world for the first time.

Other British Political Officers

Between 1909 and 1947, the British government dealt with Bhutan in the same way as it did with other Indian princely states, but it never specifically defined its relationship with Bhutan. Starting with CA Bell in 1909, several British political officers visited Bhutan and presented the king with decorations. In 1921 the Earl of Ronaldshay, who was described as a 'closet Buddhist', travelled to Bhutan as a guest of the first king. He travelled from Gangtok to Paro, where he was met with great fanfare. The party visited Taktshang Goemba and witnessed the Paro tsechu, but never met the king, who was in Punakha, ill with influenza.

The Duar Wars & the Rise of Ugyen Wangchuck

The area of plains between the Brahmaputra River up to and including the lowest of the hills of Bhutan was known as the duars (literally, 'doors or gates'). The western part of this area, known as the Bengal Duars, had been annexed by the third desi, Mingyur Tenpa, in the late 17th century and the Bhutanese considered it their territory. The eastern part, the Assam Duars, had long been administered in a complex rental agreement between Bhutan and Assam.

After the Burmese war (1825–26), the British took over the peculiar land rental arrangement for the Assam Duars, along with what were described as 'very unsatisfactory relations of the Assamese with the Bhutanese'. Disagreements over payments and administration between Britain and Bhutan escalated into military skirmishes. Other than the area's strategic importance, the British were attracted to the duars because they were excellent tea-growing country.

The British annexed the two easternmost duars in 1840 and the rest of the Assam Duars in September 1841, agreeing to pay Bhutan an annual compensation of Rs10,000. Lord Auckland wrote to the deb and dharma rajas that the British were '…compelled by an imperative sense of duty to occupy the whole of the duars without any reference to your Highnesses' wishes, as I feel assured that it is the only course which is likely to hold out a prospect of restoring peace and prosperity to that tract of country.'

Perhaps more revealing is a letter from Colonel Jenkins, the agent of the governor-general, outlining the need for taking over the Assam Duars. He wrote: 'Had we possession of the Dooars, the Bhootan Government would necessarily in a short time become entirely dependent upon us, as holding in our hands the source of all their subsistence.'

The Trongsa Penlop Gains Control

During this period the Trongsa penlop, Jigme Namgyal (1825–82), established effective control of the country through a series of shrewd alliances. This was the first time peace had prevailed since the time of the first Zhabdrung. Jigme Namgyal was working to strengthen his power and that of the central government when he had an inconvenient visit from the British government representative Ashley Eden.

Although the British considered Eden's mission a failure, and reprimanded him for his conduct, they continued the dispute with Bhutan over payment for the Bengal Duars. The Bhutanese, in turn, were furious the British had renounced the treaty Eden had signed. In November 1864, the British summarily annexed the Bengal Duars, gaining effective control of the entire south of Bhutan. The Trongsa penlop mounted a carefully planned counterattack. His troops, protected by shields of rhinoceros hide, captured two British guns and drove the British forces out of Bhutan in January 1865.

The British regrouped and recaptured various towns, including Samtse (then called Chamurchi). A fierce battle at Dewangiri on 2 April essentially ended the war, with the British destroying all the buildings and slaughtering their captives. Negotiations continued through the summer. Eventually the Bhutanese returned the captured guns and accepted a treaty. The treaty of Sinchula was signed, under duress, by the Bhutanese on 11 November 1865. In it the Bhutanese ceded the duars to Britain forever and agreed to allow free trade between the two countries.

Through this treaty, Bhutan lost a major tract of valuable farmland and a large portion of its wealth. Its borders became the foot of the hills bordering the plain of India. It is often said that Bhutan's border is where a rock rolled down the hill finally stops. Among the important landmarks the Bhutanese lost were the town of Ambari Falakati, northwest of Cooch Behar, the town of Dewangiri (now called Deothang) in the east and the territory on the east bank of the Teesta River, including what is now the town of Kalimpong.

Back in Bhutan's heartland there were continuing civil wars, but Jigme Namgyal retained his power and in 1870 was enthroned as the 51st desi. The next 10 years were again a time of intrigue, treachery, power broking and continual strife. The penlop of Paro and the dzongpens of Punakha and Wangdue Phodrang conspired to challenge the position of Desi Jigme Namgyal and his successor, who was his half-brother. After he retired as desi, Jigme Namgyal remained in firm control of the country and in 1879 appointed his 17-year-old son, Ugyen Wangchuck, as Paro penlop.

After Jigme Namgyal died, his son consolidated his own position following a feud over the post of penlop of Trongsa. At the age of 20, Ugyen Wangchuck marched on Bumthang and Trongsa and in 1882 was appointed penlop of Trongsa, while still retaining the post of penlop of Paro. Because his father had enhanced the powers of the office of the Trongsa penlop, this gave him much more influence than the desi. When a battle broke out between the dzongpens of Punakha and Thimphu, Ugyen Wangchuck tried to mediate the dispute.

He sent in his troops after unsuccessful negotiations and his forces defeated the troops loyal to both dzongpens and seized control of Simtokha Dzong. The monk body and the penlop of Paro tried to settle the conflict and in 1885 arranged a meeting at the Changlimithang parade ground in Thimphu. During the meeting a fight broke out, the representative of the Thimphu dzongpen was killed and the dzongpen fled to Tibet. Following the battle, Ugyen Wangchuck emerged as the most powerful person in the country, assumed full authority, installed his own nominee as desi, and reduced the post to a ceremonial one.

The First Dragon King

In order to re-establish Bhutan's sovereignty and help consolidate his position, Ugyen Wangchuck developed closer relations with the British. He accompanied Francis Younghusband during his invasion of Tibet in 1904 and assisted with the negotiations that resulted in a treaty between Tibet and Britain. The British rewarded the penlop by granting him the title of Knight Commander of the Indian Empire. In 1906, the then Sir Ugyen Wangchuck was invited to Calcutta to attend the reception for the Prince of Wales and returned to Bhutan with a better appreciation of the world that lay beyond his country's borders.

In 1907, the desi died and Ugyen Wangchuck was elected as the hereditary ruler of Bhutan by a unanimous vote of Bhutan's chiefs and principal lamas. He was crowned on 17 December 1907 and installed as head of state with the title Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King). This coronation signalled the end of the desi system and the beginning of a hereditary monarchy – among the youngest in existence today. King Ugyen Wangchuck continued to maintain excellent relations with the British, partly in an effort to gain some security from the increasing Chinese influence in Tibet.

The Treaty of Punakha

British-Bhutanese relations were enhanced by the treaty of Punakha, which was signed in 1910. This treaty stated that the British government would 'exercise no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan'. It was agreed, though, that Bhutan would 'be guided by the advice of the British Government in regard to its external relations'. The compensation for the duars was doubled to Rs100,000 per year and Bhutan agreed to refer disputes with Cooch Behar and Sikkim to the British for settlement.

Bhutan still refused to allow the appointment of a British resident, and continued to maintain a policy of isolation aimed at preserving its own sovereignty in an era of colonisation. In 1911, King Ugyen Wangchuck attended the great durbar (royal court) held by King George V at Delhi and was given the additional decoration of Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India.

The Second King

Ugyen Wangchuck died in 1926 and was succeeded by his 24-year-old son, Jigme Wangchuck. He ruled during the time of the Great Depression and WWII, but these catastrophic world events did not affect Bhutan because of its barter economy and isolation.

Jigme Wangchuck refined the administrative and taxation systems and brought the entire country under his direct control. He made Wangdichholing Palace in Bumthang his summer palace, and moved the entire court to Kuenga Rabten, south of Trongsa, in the winter.

After India gained independence from Britain on 15 August 1947, the new Indian government recognised Bhutan as an independent country. In 1949 Bhutan signed a treaty with independent India that was very similar to its earlier treaty with the British. The treaty reinforced Bhutan's position as a sovereign state. India agreed not to interfere in the internal affairs of Bhutan, while Bhutan agreed to be guided by the government of India in its external relations. The treaty also returned to Bhutan about 82 sq km of the duars in the southeast of the country, including Dewangiri, that had been annexed by the British.

The Third King & the Modernisation of Bhutan

King Jigme Wangchuck died in 1952. He was succeeded by his son, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, who had been educated in India and England and spoke fluent Tibetan, English and Hindi. To improve relations with India he invited the Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, to visit Bhutan in 1958.

When the Chinese took control of Tibet in 1959, it became obvious that a policy of isolationism was not appropriate in the modern world. The king knew that in order to preserve Bhutan's independence, the country had to become a member of the larger world community. In 1961, Bhutan emerged from centuries of self-imposed isolation and embarked on a process of planned development.

Bhutan joined the Colombo Plan in 1962. This gave it access to technical assistance and training from member countries in Southeast Asia. The first 'five-year plan' for development was implemented in 1961 and India agreed to help finance and construct the large Chhukha hydroelectric project in western Bhutan. Not all Bhutanese approved of the pace of change. There were clashes between rival power groups and the prime minister, Jigme Palden Dorji, who was a leading proponent of change, was assassinated on 5 April 1964.

Bhutan joined the Universal Postal Union in 1969 and became a member of the UN in 1971. In the same year, Bhutan and India established formal diplomatic relations and exchanged ambassadors.

The king's domestic accomplishments were also impressive. In 1953 he established the Tshogdu (National Assembly) and drew up a 12-volume code of law. He abolished serfdom, reorganised land holdings, created the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) and police force, and established the High Court. However, as he led Bhutan into the modern world, he emphasised the need to preserve Bhutanese culture and tradition.

The Fourth King & the Introduction of Democracy

King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck died in 1972 at age 44. He was succeeded by his 16-year-old son, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Like his father, he was educated in India and England, but he also received a Bhutanese education at the Ugyen Wangchuck Academy in Paro. He pledged to continue his father's program of modernisation and announced a plan for the country to achieve economic self-reliance. This plan took advantage of Bhutan's special circumstances – a small population, abundant land and rich natural resources. Among the development goals set by the king was the ideal of economic self-reliance and what he nicknamed 'Gross National Happiness' (GNH). GNH is not a simple appraisal of the smiles on the faces of the populace; rather it encompasses explicit criteria to measure development projects and progress in terms of society's greater good. A more sustainable happiness for the individual is believed to derive from such an approach.

The coronation of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck as the fourth Druk Gyalpo on 2 June 1974 was a major turning point in the opening of Bhutan, and was the first time that the international press was allowed to enter the country. A total of 287 invited guests travelled to Thimphu for the event, and several new hotels were built to accommodate them. These hotels later provided the basis for the development of tourism in Bhutan.

The fourth king emphasised modernisation of education, health services, rural development and communications. He continued the reforms begun by his father in the areas of administration, labour and justice, including the introduction of a secret ballot and the abolishment of compulsory labour. He was the architect of Bhutan's policy of environmental conservation, which gives precedence to ecological considerations over commercial interests. He promoted national identity, traditional values and the concept of 'One Nation, One People'.

In 1988, the royal wedding solemnised the king's marriage to the sisters Ashi Dorji Wangmo, Ashi Tshering Pem, Ashi Tshering Yangdon and Ashi Sangay Choedon. In 1998, he gave up absolute power, sharing authority with the National Assembly and Council of Ministers.

In December 2005, the 50-year-old king announced a plan to abdicate the throne in favour of his eldest son, Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, and help move the country from an absolute monarchy to a democratic constitutional monarchy in 2008. He is quoted as saying 'Monarchy is not the best form of government because a king is chosen by birth and not by merit'.

The Fifth King & the First Elected Parliament

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck did not wait until 2008. He formally abdicated in December 2006, bestowing all his authority to his eldest son, who was already travelling to every corner of the country to explain the new constitution, the upcoming election, and their beloved fourth king's dramatic decision. This peaceful ceding of power in favour of a parliamentary democracy stood in stark contrast to that other Himalayan former monarchy, Nepal.

In December 2007, the first elections for the new parliament were held for the 25-member upper house, called the National Council. This was followed in March 2008 with the first election for the 47-member National Assembly (lower house). With royal encouragement, the sparse population spread over a rugged country managed a remarkable 80% turnout. This election became a landslide victory for Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT; Bhutan Peace & Prosperity) party, which won 45 of the 47 seats. The People's Democratic Party (PDP) won the other two seats.

The unprecedented sight of the former king crowning the new king with the raven crown was witnessed on 6 November 2008 at the official coronation of 27-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. The momentous occasion took place in the Golden Throne room of Thimphu's Trashi Chho Dzong in front of national and international dignitaries. The following day, the fifth king gave his coronation speech to a packed Changlimithang Stadium, in which he pledged: 'As the king of a Buddhist nation, my duty is not only to ensure your happiness today but to create the fertile ground from which you may gain the fruits of spiritual pursuit and attain good Karma.'

A New Parliament & A New Prince

In 2013 it was time for the second election and, in a climate of economic uncertainty, the PDP was swept into power, winning 32 seats to the DPT's 15. The new government wasted little time in coming to grips with the country's social and economic situation. The prime minister openly and pragmatically admitted that the mantra of Gross National Happiness sometimes overshadowed problems of low living standards, unemployment and corruption which needed addressing.

In February 2016, the country went into royal overdrive with the birth of the new heir to the throne, Gyalsey (Prince) Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck. A few months later, the proud parents, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Gyaltsuen (Queen) Jetsun Pema, hosted British royalty in the form of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.