Although no record of this period exists, stone tools, weapons, elephants, and the remnants of huge stone buildings show that Bhutan was populated as early as 2000 BC. Historians believe that between 500 and 600 AD, the state of Lomon (literally, “Southern gloom”), or Monyul (“Dark Land,” a reference to the Monba, Bhutan’s ancient peoples), existed. In ancient Bhutanese and Tibetan chronicles, the names Lhomon Tsendenjong (sandalwood country) and Lhomon Khashiou My South (country of the four approaches) were discovered.
Bhutan adopted Buddhism in the seventh century AD. Songtsän Gampo (who reigned from 627 to 649), a Buddhist convert who had expanded the Tibetan Empire into Sikkim and Bhutan, ordered the building of two Buddhist temples, one in Bumthang and the other in Kyichu (near Paro) in the Paro Valley. At 746, Monarch Sindhu Rja (also Künjom, Sendha Gyab, Chakhar Gyalpo), an exiled Indian king who had formed a kingdom in Bumthang Chakhar Gutho Palace, began to actively promote Buddhism.
Because most documents were lost after the fire that devastated the old capital, Punakha, in 1827, much of Bhutanese protohistory is unknown. Bhutan’s political evolution was impacted by its religious past in the 10th century. Different forms of Buddhism arose, with various Mongol warlords attending. Following the Yuan dynasty’s demise in the 14th century, various groups fought amongst themselves for control of the political and theological environment, culminating in the Drukpa lineage’s dominance by the 16th century.
Bhutan was a patchwork of small fighting fiefs until the Tibetan monk and military commander Ngawang Namgyal, who had escaped religious persecution in Tibet, united the area in the early 17th century. Namgyal constructed a network of impenetrable dzongs or castles to protect the kingdom from Tibetan invasions and published the Tsa Yig, a system of law that helped bring local lords under centralized authority. Many of these dzong are still functioning administrative and religious institutions in the area. On their journey to Tibet, Portuguese Jesuits Estêvo Cacella and Joo Cabral were the first Europeans to enter Bhutan. They met Ngawang Namgyal, presented him with weapons, gunpowder, and a telescope, and offered him their assistance in the Tibet war, but the Zhabdrung refused. Cacella sent a lengthy letter to the monastery of Chagri reporting on his travels after a roughly eight-month stay. This is an extremely uncommon Shabdrung report.
Bhutan has fallen into internal strife following the death of Ngawang Namgyal in 1651, which was kept secret for 54 years after his death. Bhutan declared war against the Mughal Empire and its Subedars in 1711, who had reestablished Bihar Koch in the south. In the following turmoil, Tibetans attempted but failed to invade Bhutan in 1714.
Bhutanese attacked and conquered the Cooch Behar Kingdom in the south in the 18th century. Cooch Behar appealed to the British East India Company in 1772, which assisted in the eviction of Bhutanese and subsequently invaded Bhutan in 1774. Bhutan chose to withdraw to its pre-1730 boundaries after signing a peace deal. The peace was fragile, and border conflicts with the British would continue for the next century. The skirmishes ultimately culminated in the Duar War (1864-65), a conflict over the Bengal Duars. The Sinchula Treaty was made between British India and Bhutan after Bhutan lost the war. The Duars were given to the United Kingdom in exchange for a 50,000 rupee rent as part of the war reparations. All conflicts between British India and Bhutan were terminated by the treaty.
The civil war in Bhutan began in the 1870s, when power struggles between the rival valleys of Paro and Tongsa erupted, culminating in the ascension of Ugyen Wangchuck, the ponlop (governor) of Trongsa. After numerous civil conflicts and revolts between 1882 and 1885, Ugyen Wangchuck overcame his political opponents and unified Bhutan from his stronghold in central Bhutan authority.
Ugyen Wangchuck was overwhelmingly elected as the hereditary monarch of the nation by an assembly of Buddhist monks, leaders, bureaucrats, and heads of significant families in 1907, a watershed year for the country. The event was photographed by John Claude White, a British Political Officer in Bhutan. Bhutan signed the Treaty of Punakha, a subsidiary alliance that granted British control of Bhutan’s foreign affairs and regarded Bhutan as a princely state in India, in 1910. Given Bhutan’s past reticence, this has minimal impact, and it also does not seem to alter Bhutan’s longstanding ties with Tibet. Bhutan was one of the first nations to acknowledge India’s independence after hearing that the Indian Union had declared independence from the United Kingdom on August 15, 1947. On August 8, 1949, newly independent India and Bhutan signed a treaty identical to that of 1910, in which Great Britain took control of Bhutan’s foreign affairs.
To foster a more democratic style of government, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck established the country’s legislature, a 130-member National Assembly, in 1953. He established a Royal Advisory Council in 1965 and a Cabinet in 1968. Bhutan was admitted to the United Nations in 1971 after three years of observer status. After the death of his father, Dorji Wangchuck, in July 1972, Jigme Singye Wangchuck came to the throne at the age of sixteen.
Political reform and modernization
Bhutan’s political system recently transitioned from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy. The bulk of Monarch Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s administration responsibilities were handed to the Council of Ministers, enabling the king to be accused by a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly.
Bhutan became one of the last nations to embrace television when the government removed a ban on television and the Internet in 1999. The king said in his speech that television was a critical step in Bhutan’s modernization and an important contributor to the country’s gross national happiness (Bhutan is the only country that measures happiness), but warned that “evil use” of television could erode the country’s traditional values.
In early 2005, a new constitution was adopted. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck declared in December 2005 that he will leave the throne in 2008 in favor of his son. He declared his abdication on December 14, 2006, and it was effective immediately. The first national parliamentary elections were held between December 2007 and March 2008.
Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the oldest son of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, was anointed king on November 6, 2008.