A Brief History of Bhutan

By Tim Lambert

Early Bhutan

By 1,500 BC people lived in Bhutan by herding animals. In the 7th century AD Buddhism was introduced into Bhutan. In the 8th century, an Indian named Padmasambhava did much to encourage the spread of Buddhism in Bhutan. Ever since Buddhism has been an integral part of the culture of Bhutan.

However, for centuries, the people of Bhutan were disunited. Then in 1616, Ngawang Namgyal became the spiritual leader of Bhutan. He took the title Zhabdrung Rinpoche. Under him, Bhutan became a united country.

Ngawang Namgyal also divided the government of Bhutan into spiritual and secular. The Zhabdrung was the spiritual leader while a person called the Desi ran the secular administration. n Meanwhile in 1627 two Portuguese Jesuit priests became the first Europeans to visit Bhutan.

The 18th century was an era of political instability in Bhutan when many desi were assassinated. Meanwhile the British were becoming increasingly powerful in India. Bhutan first made a treaty with the British in 1774.

However, Britain and Bhutan quarreled over the Duars (the lowest hills of Bhutan). War finally broke out in 1864. After the war, the British took the Duars.

Modern Bhutan

In 1907 Ugyen Wangchuk was elected king of Bhutan. Then in 1910 Bhutan and Britain signed a treaty. Britain agreed not to interfere in the internal affairs of Bhutan as long as the Bhutanese accepted British advice on its external relations. In 1947 India became independent. In 1949 India signed a treaty with Bhutan. India agreed not to interfere in Bhutanese affairs as long as Bhutan accepted Indian advice on its internal affairs.

In the 1960s Bhutan ended its isolation. Bhutan joined the Colombo Plan in 1962. Bhutan joined the Universal Postal Union in 1969 and joined the UN in 1971. Meanwhile, the king of Bhutan introduced several reforms although he was keen to preserve Bhutanese traditions. The king created the National Assembly and the Royal Bhutanese Army.

In 1999 satellite TV was allowed in Bhutan for the first time.

Then in the early 21st Century Bhutan became a democratic country. In 2005 the king unveiled a new constitution. The first democratic elections for parliament were held in 2008.

Today Bhutan is an overwhelmingly agricultural country. Any industry is a cottage industry. In 2024 the population of Bhutan was 792,000.

Last revised 2024