Nigel Collett

By Nigel Collett - 05 July 2013

5 July 2013 — Bhutan is one of the places in the world which really could have been described until very recently as terra incognita, unknown land. If you search in the index of the major histories of India, or of British imperialism, you will find scarcely a mention of the country, save for the odd and isolated remark that perhaps Kashmir might have chosen to be like it had its people had the chance, or that Tantric religion is embedded in its Buddhism or that some unspecified martial art is taught there. The rest was (and largely still is) silence. Bhutanese scholar Lopen Karma Phuntsho has set out in this new and groundbreaking history of his country to set this right.

The very large volume, in which he has written what seems set fair to be the standard work on the subject, reveals a history as unique as any on the planet. Left alone for much of the past, Bhutan has gone its own way unobserved, so to dive into the placid but deep waters of its history is an alarming experience, for there are few reference points on the shore by which to navigate when you surface. So much is strange.

For readers searching now for an atlas, Bhutan is sandwiched between Chinese Tibet and India in high and hidden valleys of the Himalayas. Its very name is misleading, for it had many names till the world (though not the Bhutanese, who call it Druk, or Drukyul, the land of the thunder dragon) decided to call it Bhutan. This was an imperial British mistake. Boutan had long been used by colonialists and geographers as an alternative name for Tibet, but until the 18th-century the outside world was unaware that what they were describing was actually two countries, not one. When Scotsman George Bogle was sent on a mission to the region in 1774, he found to his surprise that he was visiting two states, and to save confusion he called the smaller Boutan. This stuck, changed in time to Bhutan.

The confusion is scarcely surprising, for apart from its geographical isolation, Bhutan had not long been a state. It was established as such only in the middle of the 17th-century by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, who melded a mix of speakers of twenty or so languages but similar cultures into one state. Similar processes were going on at the time and thereafter along much of the foothills of the Himalayas through Nepal west to Kashmir. Like many of the mountain states established then, Bhutan was ethnically very diverse. Dzongkha is the principal tongue in the west of the country, Bumthangkha in the East.

Buddhism had come early to these valleys, brought by the 32nd King of the Yarlung dynasty of Tibet, Songsten Gampo, who built the first Buddhist temples there in the middle of the 7th-century. A hundred years or so later, the guru Padmasambhava arrived from the south to give the new religion proper foundations, and he is revered today in Bhutan as Guru Rinpoche, both teacher and divinity.

Like Tibet, Bhutan was long ruled by its priests and by feudal families of the dung, or “bone”, who remained independent until the centralised state was forged in the 17th-century. Buddhist schools and monasteries proliferated. In 1616, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal arrived from Tibet and gradually set about uniting the country, fighting off Tibetan invasions the while. It was he who left the beginnings of the legacy of the dzongs, fortified buildings housing both political and religious bodies of state, establishments which can be seen today across Bhutan. He codified a dual system of religious and secular law, with the state in the hands of the religious Desi, or regent, with inheritance by reincarnation of the mind. By the 19th-century, this system no longer maintained the peace and vicious civil wars ensued.

The arrival of the British in Assam, south of the border, in the 18th-century, and in Sikkim and Darjeeling to the west in the early 19th Century, led to continual friction and raiding, and British retaliation led to annexation by the Raj of some Bhutanese districts, or duars. A British mission in 1861 under Ashley Eden attempted to solve these issues but was humiliated (Eden had wet dough smeared over his face and a member of his party had his face besmirched with betel). This was rather an unwise way to treat the Paramount Power and three years later the British invaded the country in what became known as the Duar War. At the concluding Treaty of Sinchula in 1865, Bhutan was deprived of one-fifth of its area, then relapsed into civil war, which lasted till 1886.

Monarchical rule was established in 1907 when Sir Ugyen Wangchuk, the first Bhutanese leader to enjoy excellent relations with the British, who recognised him as Druk Chichab, or Overlord of Bhutan, assumed the throne as Druk Gyalpo, or King of Bhutan. His son Jigme Wangchuk succeeded him as 2nd Druk Gyalpo in 1927. It was the 3rd King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, who began to modernize Bhutan and open it to the world. His successor, the 4th King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, evicted both thousands of Nepalese settlers and large groups of Indian political militants from the country in the 1980s-90s and 2003 respectively, and began the policy of the pursuit of Gross National Happiness—rather than simple economic development—for which Bhutan has become famous. He instituted some democracy in 2005 then abdicated and handed the throne to his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who became 5th King in 2006.

Karma Phuntso makes a very good job of making this extraordinary history as simple and easy to read as its unfamiliar names, vocabulary and concepts will allow. He is objective about the strengths and weaknesses of the Bhutanese state, and does not, for instance, paint an uniformly happy picture of its experiment with Gross National Happiness. Bhutan, he points out, is still very poor and its people as inclined to seek their own economic improvement as are the rest of us. He is fair, too, in his judgement of the treatment of many of the ethnic Nepalese who were expelled without any property and remain festering in refugee camps in Nepal to this day.

Phuntso’s 663 pages are supported by a sound apparatus of bibliography, notes and index, and the volume sports a series of both black-and-white and colour photographs. This mammoth tome could not by any stretch of the imagination be described as something light for bed-time, but to anyone who is interested in the region or in the history of the Himalayas, Karma Phuntsho’s The History of Bhutan is a mind-opening account and an absolutely fascinating read.


Nigel Collett is the author of The Butcher of Amritsar: Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer.

The History of Bhutan, Karma Phuntsho (Random House India, April 2013

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