History of Bhutan

Bhutan is a Mahayana Buddhist Kingdom. Buddhism was brought to the country from northern India in the 8th Century by Guru Padma Sambhava. Hinduism is the second largest religion. The country’s administration, legal system and defence were unified in the mid-17th Century by the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, a prominent monk from Tibet. The Shabdrung set up a dual-system of government with temporal and religious leaders. In 1865, following a military conflict known as the Duar Wars, Britain and Bhutan signed the Treaty of Sinchula, under which Bhutan would receive an annual subsidy in exchange for ceding some border land in the South.

Three years later, a treaty was signed whereby the British agreed not to interfere in Bhutanese internal affairs and Bhutan undertook to seek the advice of Britain in the conduct of its foreign affairs. This Treaty was assumed by India at Independence in 1947 but has now been replaced. The hereditary monarchy came into being through election in 1907. In 2007 the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated in favour of his son, the present King, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck. In 2008 the King signed Bhutan’s first Constitution by which Bhutan became a fully constitutional monarchy with a multi-party democratically elected Government. The first elections were held in March 2008.


The consolidation of Bhutan occurred in 1616 when Ngawana Namgyal, a lama from Tibet, defeated Tibetan invasions, subjugated rival religious schools, codified an intricate and comprehensive system of law, and established himself as ruler over a system of ecclesiastical and civil administrators. After his death, infighting and civil war eroded the power of the Shabdrung for the next 200 years when in 1885, Ugyen Wangchuck was able to consolidate power and cultivated closer ties with British in India.

For centuries, Bhutan was made up of feuding regions until it was unified under King Ugyen Wangchuck in 1907. Politically, five generations of the Wangchuck family have ruled the country since 1907. In 1907, Ugyen Wangchuck was elected as the hereditary ruler of Bhutan, crowned on December 17, 1907, and installed as the head of state. In 1910, King Ugyen Wangchuck and the British signed the Treaty of Punakha which provided that British India would not interfere in the internal affairs of Bhutan if the country accepted external advice in its external relations. When Ugyen Wangchuck died in 1926, his son Jigme Wangchuck became the next ruler. In 1950s, Bhutan established some representative political institutions including an indirectly elected National Assembly (Tshogdu Chhenmo) and elected village headmen. Succeeded in 1952 by his son Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, Bhutan began to slowly emerge from its isolation and began a program of planned development. Bhutan became a member of the United Nations in 1971, and during his tenure the National Assembly was established and a new code of law, as well as the Royal Bhutanese Army and the High Court were established. Until the 1960s, Bhutan was largely isolated from the rest of the world and its people carried on a tranquil, traditional way of life, farming and trading, which had remained intact for centuries.

In 1972, Jigme Singye Wangchuck ascended the throne at the age of 16. He emphasized modern education, decentralization of governance, the development of hydroelectricity and tourism and improvements in rural developments. He was perhaps best known internationally for his overarching development philosophy of Gross National Happiness. In 1998 major political reforms were made in the kingdom. The Council of Ministers was dissolved by the king. Democratic reforms continued and King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1998 voluntarily curtailed his absolute monarchy. In March 2005 a draft constitution was released, outlining plans to shift to a multiparty democracy. Satisfied with Bhutan’s transition to democratization process, Fourth King abdicated his throne in December 2006 rather than wait until the promulgation of new constitution in 2008. His son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck became the King upon his abdication. From a decentralized theocracy to monarchy, Bhutan completed its successful transition to a constitutional monarchy in 2008. The National Council of the new bicameral parliament was elected in December 2007 and National Assembly elections followed in March 2008. The Druk Phuensum Tshogpa won 44 out of 47 seats in the parliament.

The spiritual head of Bhutan, the Je Khenpo, the only person besides the king who wears the saffron scarf, an honor denoting his authority over all religious institutions–is nominated by monastic leaders and appointed by the king. The Monk Body is involved in advising the government on many levels.