Archaeological evidence indicates the presence of human civilisation in Bhutan since the Stone Age, and available records date Bhutan’s early settlements as far back as the Rig Vedic era in India.
Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava (believed to be the ‘second Buddha’, with the ability to represent in eight different forms) is said to have visited Bhutan in the 8th century, a period which also saw the emergence of ruling clans and the flourishing of art and architecture. Padmasambhava subdued evils, promoted Buddhism and unified the country with his teachings. Religious sites established by Guru Rinpoche continue to be places of pilgrimage in Bhutan, including two of its most sacred monuments: Kurjey Lhakhang and Taktshang Lhakhang, or Tiger’s Nest monastery.
The arrival in 1616 of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the great leader of the Drukpa Kagyu School of Mahayana Buddhism, initiated a dynamic period in Bhutanese history. He is well known for constructing important dzongs (fortresses) and Buddhist monasteries around the country. Dzongs were thought to guard the valley in which they were situated, and now serve as the religious and administrative centre of their respective regions. The Shabdrung instituted Drukpa Kagyu as the state religion of Bhutan and unified the country, introducing a dual system of government, temporal and theocratic, whereby the Je Khenpo (chief abbot) is the religious head of the country, and the Druk Desi is the temporal head. A system of penlops (regional governors) evolved over time, as the nation was carved up into regional fiefdoms during civil wars. The Shabdrung laid down many of Bhutan’s customs, traditions and ceremonies, forging a unique cultural identity. His system of national governance and Bhutanese identity lasted until the beginning of the 19th century.
Birth of modern Bhutan and the path to democracy
Following the reigns of 54 temporal and 60 religious leaders, the Penlop of Trongsa, Jigme Namgyel, emerged as Bhutan’s strongest leader, having brought under control various civil wars. He was succeeded in 1881 by his dynamic son Ugyen Wangchuk, the Penlop of Paro. He went on to bring the entire nation under one rule ending generations of strife and conflict after the Shabdrung’s demise.
Modern Bhutan is ruled by a hereditary monarchy established in 1907 with the birth of the Wangchuk Dynasty. In that year a historic assembly of clergy, representatives of the official administration, civil servants, and the people of Bhutan unanimously elected Ugyen Wangchuk as the first hereditary King of Bhutan. The reigns of the first two kings were politically stable. The third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, is fondly remembered as the Father of Modern Bhutan: he initiated planned development for the country, introduced dramatic changes and enhanced the Kingdom’s global role, making the country a member of the United Nations.
In 1972, Jigme Singye Wangchuk became the fourth king of Bhutan and the youngest monarch in the world. With a strong emphasis on preserving Bhutan’s rich religious and cultural heritage and steered by the objective of Gross National Happiness, this popular King did a first class job of guiding the country into the 21st century.
In late 2007 he indicated his intention to stand down in favour of his son, the Crown Prince, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk and the coronation of the fifth king took place in November 2008. This followed on from the introduction of parliamentary democracy in March 2008 by way of the first national elections to elect a government – after a landslide victory Druk Phuensum Tshogpa became the ruling party and Lhenpo Jigme Thinley the Prime Minister. However the second round of elections which took place in July 2013 led to a change of fortune, with a swing back to the People’s Democratic Party who now have 32 seats to DPT’s 15 (a loss of 30 seats).