Archeological evidence suggests that Bhutan was inhabited by nomadic herders as early as 2000-1500 BC. Although the destruction of original documents in fires and earthquakes has left much of Bhutan’s ancient history obscure, a few of the scriptures that were saved from such natural disasters reveal the prominence of Buddhist tradition and mythology. Other sources rely on reports from British explorers, and on legend and folklore.
The name “Bhutan” appears to derive from the Sanskrit “Bhotant” meaning “the end of Tibet” or from “Bhu-uttan” meaning “high land”. Though known as Bhutan to the outside world, the Bhutanese themselves refer to their country as Druk Yul or the Land of the Thunder Dragon. “Druk” meaning “Dragon” and extending from the predominant Drukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism.
The documented history of the Kingdom begins with 747 A.D. with Guru Padsambhava 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. 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 17thcentury. 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 centre of the region.
During the next two centuries civil wars intermittently broke out and the regional Governors became increasingly more powerful. At the end of 19th century, Trongsa Governor overcame all his rivals and soonafterwards recognized as the overall leader of Bhutan. The Governor of Trongsa, Sir Ugyen Wangchuck, was elected as the first King of Bhutan in 1907 by an assembly of representatives of the monastic community, civil servants and people.
The country has now the system of democratic monarchy. The monarchy has thrived ever since and the present King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the first King’s great grandson, commands the overwhelming support of his people. After assuming the throne in 1974, the present king continued his father’s policy of pragmatic development by actively pursuing industrial progress, country wide education and medical care and at the same time ensuring country’s cultural and natural heritage intact.
Until the early 17th century, Bhutan was a cluster of fragmented provinces constantly at odds with each other. It was Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, a great spiritual personality and leader who brought an end to warring factions and unified the country into one nation, establishing a theocracy in 1652 and introducing a code of law. In the process of crushing several foreign invasions, mainly from Tibet, he initiated the building of many fortresses called Dzongs, which to this day, serves as centers of administration in the country.
The theocracy established by Zhabdrung endured until 1907 when Ugen Wangchuck was elected as the first hereditary king of Bhutan by popular consensus. Jigme Wangchuck succeeded him and ruled the country from 1926 to 1952. Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, also known as the father of modern Bhutan, was king from 1952 to 1972. The fourth king His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck ascended to the throne in 1972.
The fifth and the current king is His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.
Over the last decade, there have been significant political reforms in Bhutan. In 1998, the fourth King His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck stepped down as head of state and handed over this function to a prime minister assisted by a cabinet of ministers. In 2006, the fourth King handed over his responsibilities to his son King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck and the formal coronation was held in November 2008. Bhutan is now a constitutional democratic monarchy and had its first parliamentary elections in 2008.