Although it is thought that Bhutan was populated by nomadic high altitude herders as early as 2000 BC, Bhutan’s early history is blurred and obscured by the fabulous and colourful mythology of the local beliefs, and the historical conceptualisation of Bhutan’s received early history is chiefly concerned with the conquering of demons, and the performance of miracles and magical deeds.

It was the gradual arrival of Buddhism, supplanting the indigenous Ben Cho animism that initiated the temple building around which Bhutanese nationhood would coalesce. Between 836 and 842 AD, fuelled by an influx of exiled Tibetan monks, during a time when Buddhism found itself temporarily banned in Tibet, various schools of Buddhist thinking established themselves upon the land of Bhutan. 

Dynastic struggles in Tibet would see further successive waves of Tibetan immigrants and, in the 12th century, the newly formed Drukpa Kagyupa School gained ascendancy over other forms of Buddhism, and remains the dominant force in Bhutanese Society even to this day. 

Much of this period is shrouded in Buddhist mythology, with the interplay of supernatural forces attributed as the driving force of history, and utilised by various chiefdoms jostling for control of the valleys.  

In 1616, A Lama, Ngawang Namgyal, arrived from Tibet and quickly established himself as an authority, entitling himself as Zhabdrung Rimpoche. In Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the principal of political rulership was inextricably entwined with religious authority, and based on the notion of being ‘recognised’ as a re-incarnation of certain revered figures. 

By the 1640’s, Zhabdrung had overcome the military challenges of rival claimants and several attempted Tibetan invasions, to become the ruler of a unified Bhutan and, thus unhindered, went on to develop a system of government for the new nation.  

Following the death of Zhabdrung in 1705, the conflict over the succession, so predictable in the history of nations, would lead to two hundred years of internal strife and civil war. 


In 1772, following a request from the neighbouring Cooch Behar Kingdom in west Bengal, the Bhutanese invaded that country to settle an external successional feud, a move that would, however, bring them into direct conflict with the emerging British Empire in India. 

The inevitable resultant defeat of the Bhutanese in Cooch Behar by the militarily superior British, led to the establishment of a treaty, which whilst preserving Bhutan’s independence, allowed the British East India Company to extract Bhutanese timber and other concessions, including influence over the exercise of Bhutan’s foreign policy, in return for sparing Bhutan the fate of direct colonial absorption, which would afflict so many oriental countries. 

The continual battles over the succession of Bhutanese rulers, whose reigns were typically very short, was finally resolved when Ugyen Wangchuck finally emerged from the chaos as Bhutan’s most powerful figure and, in 1907, was unanimously elected Bhutan’s first hereditary King by the country’s chieftains. 

Despite the continual strife within its borders, Bhutan’s traditional isolation, both geographically and politically, had actually served its survival well and it mercifully managed to escape involvement in World War II. 


After the war, the colonial model of the European powers began to become both morally and militarily unsustainable, with neighbouring India becoming the first of many Asian nations to regain control of its own destiny in 1947. India, in turn, had no dispute with Bhutanese sovereignty and immediately recognised its nationhood. 

As is often the way with all things historical, there wasn’t much time to relax before new threats emerged. The communist Chinese invasion of Tibet, over Bhutan's northern border, in 1959 galvanised the previously isolationist country into seriously establishing relations with the world at large for the first time, and Bhutan finally became a member of the United Nations in 1971.  

The fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, educated in both India and England, came to the throne in 1974, the coronation itself a landmark event, which saw the world's media invited to Bhutan for the first time. 

The new King carried on the process of international development begun by his father and also began to democratise elements of Bhutanese society. Keen to preserve Bhutanese culture whilst also entering the modern world led to a cautious attitude to technology, particularly television and Internet, both of which were eventually introduced in 1999.  

In 2005 the King, perhaps mindful of the shocking events in nearby Nepal which would see their royal family toppled, addressed a surprised nation, announcing his intention to abdicate the throne to his son Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, and oversee a reform of the absolute monarchy in favour of a constitutional monarchy, and the transference of power to the democratic system, which was realised by Bhutan’s first democratic elections in 2008.