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History of Bhutan

The Kingdom of Bhutan is steeped in a rich historical legacy, with archaeological evidence suggesting settlements dating back to 2000-1500 BC. By the tenth century, the political trajectory of Bhutan began intertwining with its religious history, which gained momentum in the 8th century with the arrival of Guru Rimpoche, also known as Padmasambhava. Guru Rimpoche is credited with the propagation of Buddhism in Bhutan, earning the title of the father of tantric Buddhism in the country. While some accounts propose an initial introduction of Buddhism to parts of Bhutan in the 2nd century, most historians believe that the construction of the first Buddhist temples occurred in the 17th century.

Throughout its history, Bhutan underwent various names, eventually becoming known as Druk Yul, or the Land of the Thunder Dragon, in the 17th century. The current name, “Bhutan,” is derived from the Sanskrit term Bhu-Uttan, where “Bhu” signifies high and “Uttan” means land.

Bhutan has maintained its independence throughout its history, never falling under the rule or governance of an external power. In 1907, Ugyen Wangchuk ascended to the position of the hereditary ruler, later becoming the head of state with the title Druk Gyalpo, or Dragon King. Subsequent monarchs, such as Jigme Wangchuk and Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, contributed to Bhutan’s emergence from isolation. However, it was during the reign of Jigme Singye Wangchuk from 1972 that Bhutan witnessed radical changes, including emphasis on modern education, decentralization of governance, hydroelectricity development, promotion of tourism, and improvements in rural development. Jigme Singye Wangchuk is notably recognized for his development philosophy of “gross national happiness.” He abdicated in 2006, and after the declaration of democracy in 2008, his son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck assumed the throne as the head of state in the newly established Democratic Constitutional Monarchy.

The period until the 1960s witnessed internal conflicts and political instability in Bhutan, marked by a lack of infrastructure such as telephones, schools, hospitals, postal services, and a national currency. Development gained momentum under Jigme Singye Wangchuk, with initiatives including the introduction of airports, roads, and a national healthcare system. The pace of modernization increased while preserving Bhutan’s unique national identity.

Bhutan became a member of the United Nations in 1971. The country, characterized by its ancient Buddhist culture, remained largely untouched by foreign influences for centuries. In the 1970s, Bhutan cautiously opened its borders to tourism, albeit with restrictions. In 1991, the Royal Government of Bhutan privatized tourism, but visitors are still required to be associated with pre-arranged package tours or registered travel agencies, emphasizing controlled growth to preserve national identity.