Bhutan is a landlocked Himalayan country in south Asia. The name ‘Bhutan’ appears to derive from the Sanskrit, Bhotant meaning the end of Tibet or from ‘Bhu-uttan’ meaning ‘high land’.Although known to the outside world as Bhutan,the Bhutanese refer themselves as Drukpa and their country as ‘Druk Yul’ or the land of Thunder Dragon.’Druk’ meaning ‘Dragon’ and extended from the predominant Drukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. Ancient Tibetan writers called Bhutan as their fertile neighbour as ‘Lho Mon’ or Mon Yul, paradise of the south or the land of Monpas. Bhutan’s history parallels Buddhism’s following in the Himalayas, and to properly understand the history one also needs to understand its religion.
The documented history of the kingdom begins in 747 A.D. with Guru PadmaSambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, who made his legendary trip from Tibet across the mountains flying on a tigress’s back. He arrived in Paro valley at Taktsang Lhakhang also known as Tiger’s Nest. A monastery now perches precariously on the cliff’s face as a permanent memory to his name.Guru Rinpoche is not only recognized as the founder of the Nyingmapa religious school but also considered to be second Buddha.In the ensuing centuries, many great masters preached the faith resulting in full bloom of Buddhism by the middle ages.Although sectarian at first, the country was eventually unified under Drukpa kagyupa sect of Mahayana Buddhism by saint/administrator Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in the 17th century. Ngawang Namgyal codified a comprehensive system of laws and built a chain of Dzongs which guarded each valley during unsettled times and now serving as the religious and administrative center of the region.Bhutan was not unified under a central authority until the 17th century; however, the religious presence in the country had been acting as a spiritual cohesion for many years.
Guru Rinpoche is the father of the tantric strain of Mahayana Buddhism practiced in Bhutan. His eight manifestations are worshiped throughout the kingdom, and wherever he visited in the kingdom is today a pilgrimage site highly revered by Bhutanese. Guru Rinpoche is not only recognized as the father of the Nyingmapa religious school, but he is also considered to be the second Buddha.
Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, a Tibetan lama of the Drukpa school, designed the present system of intertwined religious and secular government. He was invited to Bhutan in 1616. At that time no central authority existed, and regional conflict had persisted intermittently for centuries. In his quest to unify the country, he gained the support of many powerful families of his school and constructed dzongs (fortress monasteries) in the main valleys of western Bhutan. Designed to scare aggressors, the dzongs command a powerful presence over the valleys and remain the center of religious and civil authority.
Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel fought and won a battle against the Tibetans in 1639 and assumed the title, Shabdrung, meaning “at whose feet one submits.” Later Shabdrung unified the country and established himself as the country’s supreme leader and vested civil power in a high officer known as the Druk Desi. Religious affairs were charged to another leader, the Je Khenpo. The country was divided into regions, and an intricate system of laws was codified. Bhutan’s first Shabdrung died in 1651. Within the five years of his death the country had unified under the control of the central government.
During the next two centuries civil wars intermittently broke out, and the regional Penlops became increasingly more powerful. At the end of the 19th century the Penlop of Tongsa (who controlled central and eastern Bhutan) overcame his greatest rival, the Penlop of Paro (who controlled western Bhutan), and was soon afterwards recognized as the overall leader of Bhutan. An assembly of representatives of the monastic community, civil servants, and the people elected the Penlop of Tongsa, Ugyen Wangchuk, the first king of Bhutan in 1907.
The monarch has thrived ever since, and the present 5th king, His Majesty Jigme Kheser Namgyel Wangchuk commands the overwhelming support of his people.