The History of Bhutan

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Item Code: NAE900
Author: Karma Phuntsho
Publisher: Random House India
Language: English
Edition: 2015
ISBN: 9788184003116
Pages: 688 (Throughout Color and B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 9.5 inch x 6.0 inch
Weight 1.15 kg
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Book Description
Back of the Book

Unmatched in scope, clarity and insight into Bhutan of yesterday for understanding it today. it demonstrates how superb Buddhist learning complements Western scholarship Dasho karma Ura, president of the centre for Bhatan Studies.

This book will stand for years to come as both the standard history of Bhutan and as the standard against which future such books will be measured. This is a book we have been waiting for – Mark Mancall, Professor of History, Stanford University.

The first comprehensive, exhaustively researched history of Bhutan. . . a must read for both lay and scholarly audiences interested in Bhutanese history Kunzang Chosen, author of Circle of Karma.


About the book

In recent years, the remote Kingdom of Bhutan has increasingly attracted the attention of the world. In 2008, Bhutan emerged as the youngest democracy and in the same year it crowned the world’s youngest monarch. This was followed by the King’s colorful wedding in 2011. Today, it continues to enchant the rest of the world with its policy of Gross National Happiness and has become a very popular destination for travel. But despite its growing popularity and the rising scholarly interest in the country, Bhutan remains one of the most poorly studied places on earth.

Karma Phuntsho’s The History of Bhutan is the first ever attempt to cover the entire history of Bhutan in some detail in English, combining both traditional perspectives and modern academic analysis. Written by a leading expert on the country, the book tells the story of Bhutan in a narrative style interspersed with some analytical and topical discussion, and numerous citations and translations from earlier writings. It is primarily a historical account, but it also includes substantive discussions of Bhutan’s geography, culture and society to give readers an incisive introduction to the country.


About the Author

(Dr) Lopen Karma Phuntsho is a leading on Butan and teaches Buddhism and Butan Studies in the country and abroad. He finished his full monastic training before he joined Oxford University to pursue a D.Phil. in Oriential Studies. Since 2003, he has worked as a research fellow at Cambridge University and CNRS, Paris. The author of several books and numerous articles, he speaks and writes extensively on Bhutan's history, religion and culture.

His current work focuses on the documentation and study of Bhutan's written and oral cultures. He is also an enthusiastic social worker and the founder of the Lodern Foundation, a leading educational charity in Bhutan.



When Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the founder of Bhutan passed away in 1651, his death was concealed through the hoax of a retreat. Meals were served on time, musical instruments were played regularly, orders issued on wooden boards and someone pretending to be him even received gifts and gave blessing from behind a curtain. The Bhutanese public were given the impression that he was in meditation but his Tibetan enemies were not easily convinced. The 5th Dalai lama suspected that Zhabdrung suffered an inauspicious death after being struck by a fatal illness, which was caused by the Dalai Lama’s own occult powers. In contrast, the Mughal Governor of Bengal was told that Bhutan’s ruler was an ascetic, some 120 years old, living on a vegetarian diet of bananas and milk. Understandably, the mystery of his retreat gave rise to interesting and also conducting speculations. It certainly also helped an emerging Bhutan sustain its newfound sovereignty as a unified state.

Such an enigmatic scenario is not merely a phenomenon of the distant past. Perceptions of Bhutan even in recent years were imbued with a similar sense of mystery and contrasting views. While many saw Bhutan as a happy country of exceptional natural beauty and cultural exuberance, some held views of Bhutan in less favourable terms as an autocratic third-world state. These perceptions often veered to externmes, with one group romanticizing Bhutan as a modern Shangrila while the other portrayed Bhutan as a genocidal state. Like the mystery concerning the founder’s death in seventeenth century, the ntrigue entailed by these biased perceptions in some ways also helped Bhatan underline its security and sovereignty. Similarly, just as the medieval government promoted the retreat hoax the modern Bhutanese government endeavored to convince both its citizens and the outside world of Bhutan’s special position as a happy land with a rich blend of culture and nature.

However, until ecently most people outside the Indian subcontinent have not even heard of Bhutan. Due to its small size insignificant economy and the lack of reliable information about it, Bhutan largely remained an obscure country. Consequently, Bhutanese travelling abroad would have to often endure delays at immigration check points and embassies, as immigration officers struggled to locate the country. This changed in the last couple of decades as the travel culture rapidly increased in other parts of the world, and Bhutan, with its high value tourism policy, has now become and exotic and much desired destination. As a result, the number of tourists who visited Bhutan shot up from 6,392 in 2001 to 1,05,414 in 2012 and included a large number of Indian visitor who travelled by land.

Yet, detailed and objective information of Bhutan is still sparse. Apart from a handful of books by foreign scholars and local Bhutanese writers, most publications are colorful pictorial books or sentimental travelogues by visitors to the country. Most of these sources present a nostalgic betray the authors own subjective susceptibility more than they report the actual situation in Bhutan. In addition to this the government has actively engaged in a calculated effort of packaging and branding the country as a whole in order to appeal to the external expectation and sensibility. The recent efforts of the government to promote gross national happiness as a new economic and development paradigm in forums such as the UN has further complicated people’s imagination of Bhutan both at home and abroad. Increasingly, more and more now describe Bhutan as a happy country, despite the fact that a large percentage of the Bhutanese live in depressing poverty and many Bhutanese youth would willingly grasp the opportunity to work in an American kitchen or European warehouse if given the chance. Moreover, none of the existing sources on Bhutan also adequately discuss the seriousness of the social culture transformation, which is fundamentally changing the worldview, cultural ethos and social fabric of Bhutanese society today.

In contrast to popular writings, most of which shangrilize Bhutan, the academic accounts of Bhutan generally provide readers a fairly sober account. Although they are fewer, these writings give readers a fairly sober account. Although they are fewer, these writings give readers information about Bhutan in some are fewer, these writing give readers information about Bhutan in some depth and detail. Yet many academics approach Bhutan with a prior knowledge of Tibet and often show a naïve tendency to Tibetanize Bhutan. A very good example for demonstrating this is the application of the la suffix which is added after first names in conversations to address people in the honorific form in Tibet. Although the la suffix may be added at the end of a phrase or sentence (see chapter 3) its addition after names is not usual practice in Bhutan and in some parts of the country it is evenconsidered pejorative to address people with a la suffix attached to their names. Many acclaimed scholars on Bhutan, unaware of such cultural and linguistic nuances, confidently use the la suffix after a name in imitation of the Tibetan practice.

Such nonchalant Tibetanization of Bhutan can be also found in numerous other cases-even in writings of scholars on the Himalayas and Bhutan. A well-known example is the following introduction to Bhutan by two doyens of Tibetan Studies, Hugh Richardson and David Snell grove; it is cited by two pioneering historians on Bhutan, Michael Aris and Yoshiro Imaeda, in their introduction of Bhutan.

While it cannot be denied that Bhutan is closely linked to Tibet in its religious culture and is now often called the last bastion of the Tibetan Buddhist civilization, the general cultural affinity between Bhutan and Tibet outside of the religious influence is far more tenuous than most experts on Tibet would have us believe. Thus, against the general tendency of Tibetologists to treat Bhutan as an extension of Tibet, we must distinguish one from the other, at least to the extent Japan is distinct from China or Nepal is from India. It will become clear from the following discussion of history that for nearly half a millennium Bhutan and Tibet had separate political and socio cultural existences, which have led to stark differences even in the religious cultures. Such differences have only become further entrenched and distinct after Bhutan's northward link to Tibet was severed in 1959, following the occupation of Tibet by China.

Inaccurate projections by foreign writers, however, are not the only factors that influenced perceptions of Bhutan. If the accounts of Bhutan by outsiders smack of the Orient list romanticization, naive Tibetanization or other traces of pro- or anti-Bhutan sentiments, many local Bhutanese have appropriated and internalized these external perceptions and projections. Thus, we find many Bhutanese painting the same rosy picture of Bhutan, which an enchanted Western visitor may paint, and promoting it with a patriotic zest as if it were an official dogma although they are fully aware of the problems and challenges that beset the country. They regurgitate the same sentimental and hyperbolic descriptions of Bhutan produced by a nostalgic visitor. This was also true to some extent with the traditional Bhutanese authors writing in classical Tibetan or Dzongkha. They wrote under a strong Tibetan influence and reproduced the perceptions which the Tibetan religious visitors through the ages had of Bhutan. Their discourses on Bhutan are set in the Tibetan cosmological and religious context and embedded in the Tibetan literary culture despite their best efforts to extricate Bhutan from the Tibetan cultural and political domain. These tendencies of internalizing external perceptions are nonetheless tolerable when compared to awry opinions such as Ashley Eden's claim that Bhutan had no tradition or history or the mistaken view still held among some quarters that Bhutan is a political vassal of India. Such viewpoints are too parochial to be considered even worthy of any rebuttal.

Against these tendencies and misconceptions, a new voice of independent Bhutanese writers who draw on Bhutan's rich cultural heritage and history, is now rising. Many Bhutanese today write in English for a global audience and bring the local Bhutanese stories, wisdom and cultures directly to their readers around the world without an intermediary. Not only do they present the original Bhutanese voice but they also help develop the much needed self- representation in scholarly discourses on Bhutan. Through them, Bhutan is beginning to emerge on the international intellectual arena with its own voice.

Like a shy bride gradually removing her veil, Bhutan is today shedding its historical obscurity and isolation and beginning to attract a lot of attention, especially through its policy of Gross National Happiness. It is my hope that this book will aid this emergence of Bhutan by giving some substance to the growing popularity. The book aims to tell the story of Bhutan's past in an unbiased narration and analysis and is the first ever attempt to cover the entire history of Bhutan in detail in English, combining both traditional perspectives and modem historio graphical analyses.

While every effort is made to steer away from the undue influence of external perceptions or internal prejudices, I make no claim of cultural or political neutrality. Ideas and opinions arise from socio cultural contexts, and the narratives and analyses in this book are also results of my own exposureto traditional Bhutanese cultural upbringing and education as well as modem Western academic training. Although I am intimately aware of both the blessings of Bhutan and the challenges it is facing, this book is intended neither as praise for Bhutan's successes nor as a critique of its failures. My main concern here is to present an objective story (or a plausible one when evidences are lacking) by weaving the facts or available data together into a readable narrative as no such complete history of Bhutan exists so far.

This book is a byproduct of the project entitled 'The Historical Study and Documentation of the Padma Gling pa Tradition in Bhutan', funded by the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council at Cambridge University. Through this project and other digitization projects funded by the Endangered Archives Programmed of the British Library, I have carried out an extensive digitization of the textual corpus associated with the Padma Lingpa tradition in order to both preserve Bhutan's textual heritage and to compile a historical account of Pema Lingpa's tradition, which is the only religious tradition of local Bhutanese origin. It was in the course of my collection of notes for the history of Pema Lingpa's tradition that I was tempted to undertake a comprehensive study of Bhutan's history; this book is an outcome of such curiosity and intellectual diversion.

From a Buddhist perspective, the foremost project of human existence is self-development and edification. In order to improve the world, a country or community, one must start by improving oneself, something that can be effectively pursued only by first understanding oneself. We are products of a complex historical process and history tells us who we are and why we are who we are. It reveals the roots of our perceptions, prejudices, outlooks and parochialisms and helps us improve ourselves by learning from past mistakes and emulating past achievements. Our past explains our present and informs and guides our future; it is my modest hope that The History of Bhutan will help readers better understand the Bhutanese character and contribute towards a process of social edification by fostering the Bhutanese tradition of self-reflection and mindfulness, especially as it pursues its goal of Gross National Happiness.




Preface XI
The Country and its names 1
The Land and its people 15
Many Tongues 51
Central Bodish group 52
East Bodish group 56
other Bodic language 51
Indo-European languages 59
History and Prehistory 63
Early Historic period: Early Diffusion of Buddhism 76
Early historic period: Later diffusion of Buddhism 119
The Medieval period: The Unification of the dragon Country 207
Zhabdrung's Legacy and the early monk rulers 255
Multiple incarnations and the rise of lay rulers 305
The rise of southward relations and internal strife 342
Civil wars and frontier troubles 394
The duar war and the black regent 441
The emergence of Ugyen wangchuk and of civil war 479
Early modern period: The introduction of monarchy 513
The modern period: The Dragon new journey 565
Bibliography 600
Notes 613
Index 636
Acknowledgements 662

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