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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.

Researchers have attached dates to many events, 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, 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 certainly no tourists. Development efforts have now produced all these – plus a national assembly, airport, roads and a national system of health care. Despite the speed of modernisation, Bhutan has maintained a policy of careful, controlled growth in an effort to preserve its national identity. The government has cautiously accepted tourism, TV and the internet and is set to embark on perhaps its biggest challenge – democracy.

Early history

Many of the important events in the country’s early history involved saints and religious leaders and were therefore chronicled only in scriptures. 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 on reports from British explorers, on legend and folklore, and the few manuscripts that escaped these disasters.

Archaeological evidence suggests Bhutan was inhabited as early as 1500–2000 BC by nomadic herders who lived in low-lying valleys in winter and moved their 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 River valley was used as a migration route from India to Tibet.

Some of the early inhabitants of Bhutan were followers of Bon (known as Ben cho in Bhutan), 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 probably first introduced to parts of Bhutan as early as the 2nd century, although most historians agree that the first Buddhist temples were built in the 7th century AD.

The kingdom of Cooch Behar, in what is now West Bengal, influenced Bhutan from the early days. The rulers of Cooch Behar established themselves in Bhutan, but their influence faded in the 7th century AD as the influence of Tibet grew along with the introduction of Buddhism.

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Visits of guru rinpoche

In AD 746 Sendha Gyab (also known as Sindhu Raja), the king of Bumthang, became possessed by a demon, and it required a powerful tantric master to exorcise it. He sent for the great teacher Padmasambhava, better known as Guru Rinpoche (Precious Master). The Guru captured the demon and converted it to Buddhism. For good measure, he also converted the king and his rival, restoring the country to peace.

The Guru returned to Bhutan via Singye Dzong in Lhuentse and visited the districts of Bumthang, Mongar and Lhuentse. He was returning from Tibet where, at the invitation of Trisong Detsen, he had introduced Nyingma Buddhism and overcame 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 monastery the name ‘Tiger’s Nest’.

It is believed that Guru Rinpoche also made a third visit to Bhutan during the reign of Muthri Tsenpo (764–817), the son of Trisong Detsen.

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Medieval period

The grandson of Trisong Detsen, Langdharma, ruled Tibet from AD 836 to 842. 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 re-introduction 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.

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The bhutanese form of buddhism

Back in Tibet, Lama Tsangpa Gyarey Yeshe Dorji (AD 1161–1211) founded a monastery in the town of Ralung, just east of Gyantse, in AD 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 the rival Gelug lineage. 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 (monastery) on a hill above the northern end of the Thimphu valley and established 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 established 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 establishing the Bhutanese form of Buddhism by converting many people to the Drukpa Kagyu school. Other lamas resented his presence and success, and they tried to kill him through magic spells. Phajo turned the spells back on the lamas, destroying several of their monasteries.

Between the 13th and 16th centuries, the Drukpa Kagyu lineage flourished and Bhutan adopted a separate religious identity. More lamas from Ralung were invited to Bhutan to teach and build monasteries and many Bhutanese nobles are descended from Lama Phajo.

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 established several goembas. They are credited with building the temple of Druk Choeding in Paro and Pangri Zampa and Hongtsho goembas near Thimphu. Another visitor was Lama Drukpa Kunley, the ‘divine madman’, who established Chime Lhakhang near Punakha.

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. The tertons were important religious figures; the best known of these was Pema Lingpa, who recovered his first terma from the lake of Membartsho near Bumthang in 1475. Pema Lingpa constructed several monasteries in Bumthang and is one of the most important figures in Bhutanese history.

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Rise of the zhabdrung

By the 16th century the political arena was still fragmented between many local chiefs, each controlling his 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. In his early years he studied religion and art and is said to have been a skilled painter. He was a descendent of Tsangpa Gyarey, the founder of Ralung. At age 12 he was recognised as the reincarnation of Pema Karpo, the prince-abbot of Ralung Monastery. 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), thus becoming the first in the line of zhabdrungs. He built the first of the present 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 later 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 defeated the Tibetans 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 in 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. 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 NepalTibet war of 1854–56, when it was retaken by Nepal on the suspicion that Bhutan had helped the Tibetans.

During his reign, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal ordered the construction of many monasteries and dzongs throughout Bhutan. Of these, the dzongs at Simtokha, Paro, Wandue Phodrang, Punakha and Trongsa are still standing. He 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.

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Invasions from tibet

In the meantime, strife continued in Tibet, between the Nyingma (known as ‘red hat’) group of Buddhists and the Gelugpas (‘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 Gelugpas 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. Much of the armour and many weapons that were taken during this battle are on display in Punakha Dzong. 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 Drukpas 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. Legend relates that the Zhabdrung built a thos, a heap of stones representing the kings, or guardians of the four directions, to subdue the Tibetan army. You may not find this one, but similar thos can still be seen in the courtyards of many of Bhutan’s goembas.

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.

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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 festival.

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 greater power, including the authority to sign documents relating to an important matter within the government. 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.

In 1668 Mingyur Tenpa was enthroned as the third desi. He ruled for 12 years, during which time he extended the boundaries of Bhutan westwards to Kalimpong, which is now part of India.

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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. But 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’.

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Relations with cooch behar

In 1730 the 10th desi assisted Gya Chila, the ruler of Cooch Behar, to defeat invaders and to settle a family feud; Bhutan was then allowed to station a force in that southern kingdom. In 1768 the desi tried to suppress the influence of the religious establishment in Bhutan and to strengthen his own influence outside of the country. He established alliances with the Panchen Lama in Tibet and with King Prithvi Narayan Shah of Nepal. In 1772 the Bhutanese invaded Cooch Behar to help settle a feud over succession. They won, and kidnapped the crown prince and the queen of Cooch Behar. The Bhutanese also captured Raja Dhairjendra Narayan, the king of Cooch Behar, in the same year.

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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 Cooch Behar 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 personally led by the 16th desi but, after the second defeat, he was deposed by a coup d’état.

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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 East India Company wasted no time in sending a trade mission to Tibet. In May 1774 George Bogle led a party through Bhutan to Tibet. The group spent a few weeks in Thimphu waiting for permission to go to Tibet, and eventually reached the seat of the Panchen Lama in Tashilhunpo in October. The written account of this mission provides the first Western view into the isolated kingdom of Bhutan.

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’. Raja is Sanskrit for ‘king’; therefore the dharma raja was the king who ruled by religious law and the deb raja was the king who delivered wellbeing or material gifts. Deb is a corruption of the Sanskrit word deva or devata (the giver).

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 and to consolidate transit rights through Bhutan to Tibet that had been negotiated by Bogle’s mission.

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The problem of the duars

The political intrigue and civil wars continued in Bhutan, and there were numerous skirmishes over boundaries and trading rights. The British were engaged in the Burmese war of 1825–26. As a result of this war, the British gained control of Assam, the territory that forms the eastern half of Bhutan’s southern border.

The area of plains between the Brahmaputra River up to and including the lowest of the hills of Bhutan was known as the duars, which means 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, 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’. Major disagreements between Britain and Bhutan resulted. In 1826 the British and Bhutanese came into conflict over the ownership of the duars. Other than the area’s strategic importance, the British were attracted to the duars because they were excellent tea-growing country. However, they were also a malarial jungle, and the British had a very difficult time keeping their troops healthy.

Bhutan’s existing agreement with the Assamese allowed the British to occupy the region from July to November, and the Bhutanese to occupy it the remainder of the year in return for payment in horses, gold, knives, blankets, musk and other articles. The new arrangement meant that Bhutan sent the payment to the British, who accused the Bhutanese of delivering piebald horses and other defective goods. The Bhutanese insisted that middlemen working for the British had substituted inferior goods.

Disagreements over payments and administration escalated. In 1836 the British mounted an attack on Dewangiri (now Deothang), in the east, to force the surrender of fugitives who had committed crimes in British territory. The dzongpen refused to comply and attacked the British detachment. The British won that battle and annexed Dewangiri and the entire Banska Duar. The following year, however, at the request of the desi, they agreed to return control of the duar to the Bhutanese.

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 governor-general’s agent, 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.

This was the time of the Afghan War and the Anglo–Sikh wars. The British Indian administration had little time to worry about Bhutan, and major and minor conflicts and cross-border incursions continued. Although the British were making plans to annex the Bengal Duars, they were not able to follow through. Their troops were kept busy trying to suppress the Indian uprising of 1857, which was a movement against British rule in India.

Bhutan took advantage of the instability in the region and mounted numerous raids in the Bengal Duars. To compensate for their losses, the British deducted large sums from payments they owed the Bhutanese. In 1861 the Bhutanese retaliated by raiding Cooch Behar, capturing a number of ele­phants and kidnapping several residents, including some British subjects.

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The trongsa penlop gains control

At this time the incumbent zhabdrung was a youth of 18, and the affairs of state were handled by the Lhengyal Shungtshog (Council of Ministers), which consisted of the Trongsa and Paro penlops, several dzongpens and other officials. There was constant infighting and intrigue between the Paro and Trongsa penlops, both of whom were vying for power through attacks, conspiracy and kidnapping. When one gained control, he appointed a desi and enthroned him; soon the other penlop gained control, ejected the opposing desi and placed his own representative on the throne.

Through a series of shrewd alliances the Trongsa penlop, Jigme Namgyal (1825–82), gained the upper hand and established effective control of the country. 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 visitor.

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The humiliation of ashley eden

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.

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.

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The duar war of 1865 & the rise of ugyen wangchuck

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 the penlop of Trongsa, 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. Michael Aris’ book The Raven Crown gives a detailed description of this extraordinary period.

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.

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The first 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 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 the country’s borders.

In 1907 the secular ruler, 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). He continued to maintain excellent relations with the British, partly in an effort to gain some security from the increasing Chinese influence in Tibet.

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The treaty of punakha

British-Bhutanese relations were enhanced in 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 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 held by King George V at Delhi and was given the additional decoration of Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India.

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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 their 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.

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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, early in his reign, 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.

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The national assembly

The Tshogdu, or National Assembly, meets twice a year. It has 150 members, all of whom serve three-year terms and fall into three categories. The largest group, with 105 members, consists of the chimis, representatives of Bhutan’s 20 dzongkhags (administrative districts). Each household has a vote in village elections and the gups (village headmen or headpersons) elect the chimi. The zhung dratshang (clergy) elect 10 monastic representatives and another 35 representatives are senior civil servants nominated by the government. These appointees include the dzongdags (district governors), ministers, secretaries of various government departments and other high-ranking officials.

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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 king has emphasised modernisation of education, health services, rural development and communications. He was the architect of Bhutan’s policy of environmental conservation, which gives precedence to ecological considerations over commercial interests. 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 promotes national identity, traditional values and the concept of ‘One Nation, One People’. Bhutan’s six development goals, as expressed by the king are: self-reliance; sustainability; efficiency and development of the private sector; people’s participation and decentralisation; human-resource development; and regionally balanced development.

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 2005 the 49-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. At the time of research, a draft, 34-point constitution was being circulated around the country by the crown prince seeking opinion and support and is expected to be ratified by referendum. The constitution reinforces the king’s idea of having a democratic government committed to increasing GNH and not just gross national product (GNP). Bhutan’s well-planned journey to democracy rests on this constitution’s acceptance.

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In the early 20th century many Nepalis migrated to Bhutan and settled in the south of the country. They now comprise much of the population in that region, to the extent that the term Lhotshampa (southern Bhutanese) is almost synonymous with Nepali-speaker.

Although the Nepali-speakers are from many ethnic groups, the majority of them are Hindus, with traditions that are different from those of the Drukpas who live in the north of the country. Some Nepalis asserted that they faced discrimination from the Drukpas and demanded political changes as long ago as the 1950s, when the now-defunct Bhutan State Congress Party was formed.

From the 1950s the Bhutanese government took steps to integrate the ethnic Nepalis. For the first time they were granted citizenship, represented in the National Assembly, admitted into the bureaucracy and Nepali was taught as a third language in primary schools in southern Bhutan. Also, recognition was given to the festivals, customs, dress and traditions of the Lhotshampas. The Nepalis remained culturally distinct from the Bhutanese of the northern valleys. However, up until the 1980s, there seemed to be little or no conflict between the Drukpas and the Lhotshampas.

Major problems didn’t really emerge until the late 1980s. At that time, the government began to focus on preserving what it saw as Bhutan’s threatened national identity. It introduced a policy of driglam namzha (traditional values and etiquette) under which all citizens had to wear the national dress of gho and kira at schools, government offices and official functions. At the same time, as part of the implementation of the ‘New Approach to Education’, study of the Nepali language was eliminated from the school curriculum. Resentment began to stir among some Nepalis in the south, exacerbated by what the government now concedes was overzealous enforcement of the policies by some district officials.

Mindful of the country’s extremely porous border – and Bhutan’s attractiveness because of its fertile land, low population and free health and education facilities – in 1988 the government conducted a nationwide census. This was aimed partly at identifying illegal immigrants, defined as those who could not prove family residence before 1958. Thousands of ethnic Nepalis lacked proper documentation. A series of violent acts in the south, including robberies, assaults, rapes and murders – primarily against legitimate Bhutanese citizens of Nepali descent – created a sense of fear and insecurity that led to an exodus of Nepali-speakers from Bhutan. How much of the migration was voluntary remains a matter of fierce debate, but tens of thousands of Nepali-speakers left Bhutan between 1988 and 1993.

At the same time, a set of dissident leaders emerged charging human rights abuses in the treatment of Nepalis inside Bhutan, and demanding full democracy and other political changes in the kingdom. This movement received some international attention.

By the end of 1992, some 80, 000 Nepali-speakers who said they were from Bhutan were housed in seven camps in the Jhapa district of southeastern Nepal, organised by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). By early 1993 the exodus had virtually stopped. In June 1993 the UNHCR established a screening centre at Kakarbhitta on the NepalIndia border.

Bhutan and Nepal agreed that they would settle the problem on a bilateral basis. They have held several rounds of talks to try to identify which residents of the camps are legitimate citizens of Bhutan and to find an appropriate solution to this complex problem. After numerous meetings they agreed to a joint verification process which began in March 2001. The process was completed at the first camp, Khudanabari, in December 2001 and the goal was to close the camp on a mutually agreeable basis and continue the verification process at other camps. Unfortunately the findings of the verification process, where only 2.4% of the people in the camp were classified as genuine refugees, did not satisfy the camp population and agreement on the appeal processes was not found after many months of negotiation. Frustration in the camps boiled over into a violent attack on the Bhutanese verification team at Khudunabari in December 2003, stalling the verification process.

At the end of 2005 there were 106, 000 people in the camps, 10% to 15% of whom were born there. The status of the people in the camps of Jhapa is protected by the UNHCR, which uses donor support to provide the survival rations and shelter. It is likely that if the support disappears, and if the two countries cannot agree on how to resolve the crisis, those in the camps, most of them former farmers, would enter the larger diaspora of Nepali-speakers in south Asia.

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