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History of Bhutan, the Last Shangri-La · Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon 不丹的歷史

Bhutan is a small, landlocked Himalayan kingdom between India to its south and China in the north. It has a slightly less than one million (792,382 in 2023) population and land area of 38,394 sq km i.e. about the size of Taiwan island, Pahang state of Malaysia, or Maryland state of USA.

Bhutan is located in the southern portion of the Tibetan Plateau / Himalayas with China to north and the floodplains of India (Assam & Bengal) in the south. From heights of up to over 7,000 metres in the snow capped north, the elevation drops precipitously to just 100 metres over a short 150km distance (from north to south).

Paro Chhu River, West Bhutan near Thimphu

The mountainous country is crisscrossed by numerous fast water rivers in deep valleys, carved by Monsoon rains and glacier melt that rush into the Brahmaputra River (in India and Bangladesh) which pour into the Bay of Bengal.

Taktsang Monastery or "Tiger's Nest" in Paro Valley. Courtesy of Flickr Michael Foley

Bhutan has breathtakingly beautiful mountain scapes.

Punakha Valley, Bhutan

Bhutan is the only carbon negative country in the world i.e. its forests absorb more carbon dioxide than the country produces. Over 70% of Bhutan is forest covered.

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Bhutanese mother & daughter at Tsakaling, Mongar District 

Generally speaking, the Sharchops people who live in the Great Himalayan north are nomadic yak herdsmen, the Ngalops people in the central Inner Himalaya region raise cattle and Lhotshampas (Nepalese) farm the Southern foothills. 

About 50% of people living in Bhutan identify themselves as Ngalop, 28% Lhotshampa and 22% Sharchop. About 70% of Bhutanese are Buddhist, and 28% Hindu (mostly the Lhotshampas).

Iconic Bhutanese dishes include ema datshi (chilli and cheese), the national dish. It is made with chili pepper and cheese - commonly cow cheese which is most accessible, but yak cheese is the real McCoy.

In Bhutan, the custom is to politely decline when offered food, then accept when the offer is repeated. Courtesy of Flickr Nancy White

The most popular beverage is suja or traditional salted butter tea.

Flag of Bhutan features a white dragon with jewels in its claws on a background of yellow & orange

Bhutan has frequent thunder and lightning storms with electrifying flashes of light like flying dragons over the mountains. Hence since the 17th century, the country is known as "Land of the Thunder Dragon" which in Bhutanese is known as Druk Yul.

The outside world know Druk Yul by its Sanskrit name Bhutan which means "High Land". In another interpretation, Bhutan is the anglicised version of the Sanskrit phrase "Bhotanta" which means "at the end of Tibet" in reference to the kingdom's location south of Tibet. 

Taktsang monastery in Paro where Guru Padma Sambhava meditated in a cave here

Based on excavated stone implements and weapons, human settlement of Bhutan go as far back as 2000 BC, i.e. 4000 years ago. 

In pre-Buddhist Bhutan (and also Tibet), the people practiced Bonism, an animistic shamanic religion based on the belief that all beings have souls.

Great Buddha Dordenma celebrating the 60th anniversary of fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck

Recorded history began with the arrival of Indian Guru Padma Sambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche) from Tibet in 747 AD (eighth century). Guru Padma Sambhava converted the king of Bumthang to Buddhism. In the ninth and tenth centuries, persecution by anti-Buddhist kings in Tibet drove many monks and religious leaders to Bhutan.

Tamshing Lhakhang in the Bumthang District of central Bhutan

Among the refugee Tibetan Lamas was Ngawang Namgyal of the Drukpa sect of the Kagyupa branch of Mahayana ("Greater Vehicle") Buddhism. Ngawang Namgyal arrived in Bhutan in 1616 and by the time of his death in 1651, he had united the disparate fiefdoms in Bhutan under Drukpa Buddhism which is today the official religion of Bhutan.

Punakha dzong is the second oldest & second largest, serving as the central government HQ until 1907

Ngawang Namgyal built dzongs or monastic forts from which dzong lords controlled / governed regions in Bhutan.

The annual Punakha festival celebrates victory against the Tibetans. Courtesy of Flickr Gelay Jamtsho

In 1639, Namgyal repelled a Tibetan invasion. In 1644 and again in 1647, he defeated the Mongol armies led by Gushi Khan. These successes solidified the stature of Namgyal and the national identity of Bhutan.

The median age of Bhutanese is 22 with one-third under the age of 14

Feudal society in medieval Bhutan evolved its own unique character, which involved a sense of equality between the nobility, lay civil officials, and peasants. This democratic tradition persists till this day in the close relationship between the king and his people.

After the death of Namgyal in 1651, Bhutan gradually regressed back to loose fiefdoms / warlordism but Bhutanese national identity, culture and religion remained. (These centuries old traditions kept Bhutanese together and probably explain why even today, the Bhutanese are very protective of their culture and heritage.)

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British troops assaulting a dzong. The two Anglo-Bhutan Wars were also known as the Duar Wars

In 1772, Bhutanese controlled the rich floodplains south of the mountains down to the Brahmaputra River (in today's India and Bangladesh).

The British who controlled India after defeating the Mughals at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, wanted to secure / extend their northern borders. Hence, in 1773, the British captured two Bhutanese zhongs (monastic forts) in Cooch Behar (today's Assam province of India).

Despite this engagement, the British were unaware of Bhutan until 1774, when the British East India Company sent George Bogle on a mission to Tibet. While making his way there, Bogle was detained in Bhutan for four months. During his stay, Bogle realised that he was in a different country with its own unique politics, culture and religion. 

Hence, Bhutan was "discovered".

In 1828, the British entered (today's) Assam. After the Anglo-Bhutan War (also known as Duar War) of 1864 - 65, the British captured all the duars (mountain passes) between Bhutan and Assam. By 1865, the British controlled all duars between Bhutan and (today's) Bengal as well. 

The boundaries between Bhutan and British India were then set in 1865 with the Treaty of Sinchaula. Under the treaty, Bhutan ceded all 18 duars, and received an annual payment of 50,000 rupees from the British. This agreement has continued with independent Republic of India to this day.

Penlop Ugyen Wangchuck, first King of Bhutan from 1907 to 1926

In the late 1800s and with an expedition in 1903, the British attempted to annex Tibet. This was averted through the meditation efforts of Penlop Ugyen Wangchuck of Bhutan. For his role in the Anglo-Tibetan Agreement of 1904, Penlop Ugyen Wangchuck won the respect of Tibetans, the British and also Bhutanese. 

In 1907, Penlop Ugyen Wangchuck became the first hereditary  Wangchuck monarch of Bhutan with the support of Bhutanese and the British.

Raven Crown of Bhutan. Courtesy of Flickr Gelay Jamtsho

The Wangchuck kings wear a unique Raven Crown. The first king of the Wangchuck dynasty, Ugyen Wangchuck (reign 1907 - 1926) adopted it as the symbol of his authority. 

The raven is Bhutan's national bird and is known locally as Jaroq. The Jaroq represents a form of Mahakala (a wrathful manifestation of a Buddha), Bhutan's guardian deity. The design of the Raven Crown is based on the battle helmet worn by Ugyen Wangchuck's father Jigme Namgyel (1825 - 1881).

Traffic control in Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan. Bhutan has no traffic lights

Bhutan is very protective of its unique culture and hence, has a cautious stance towards the outside world:

Kinga Singye Ambassador of the Kingdom of Bhutan to the United Nations Office presented credentials to Michael Møller, Director-general of the United Nations Office at Geneva 

1971 - Joined the United Nations thus sealing its status as an independent kingdom / country

Bhutanese enjoy free education & healthcare

1972 - Fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck conceptualised "Gross National Happiness" as the national goal of Bhutan

1974 - Welcomed the first foreign tourists (Bhutan practices "high value, low volume, low impact" tourism. Visitors pay a "sustainable development fee" of USD100 per night - latest 2023 rate. A licensed local tourist guide and a local driver are compulsory.) 

1999 - Arrival of television broadcasts (the last country in the world to do so)

2000 - The first internet cafe opens

2004 - Bans sale of tobacco

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck conceptualised "Gross National Happiness"

In 2006, the fourth Wangchuck monarch abdicated voluntarily, paving the way for Bhutan to become a constitutional monarchy with a two-party parliamentary democracy.

Fifth and current reigning king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck

In 2008,  King 
Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck ratified Bhutan's first constitution, and became Bhutan's first constitutional monarch and head of state.

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Written by Tony Boey 11 Dec 2023



  1. I was there with the NGO “Save the Children” … they aspire to be the happiest ppl on earth but they are not there yet . Spend most of my USD buying cordyceps . Food wise they love chilli & cheese … the only country in the world that ban smoking but marijuana is grown on mist backyard

  2. Hi Tony! Did you engage a tour agency to do this trip with from Singapore?


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