Bhutan is an ancient country that has existed for centuries. For centuries before it was known to outsiders, it is believed to have been existed as a population that survived harsh geographical conditions amid hills and cliffs. Bhutan has no recorded history, in written or oral form, until the middle of the seventh century when Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo built two temples of Jampa Lhakhang in Bumthang and Kyichu Lhakhang in Paro.
Later in the eighth century, Guru Rinpoche visited Bhutan, perhaps the first Buddhist master to visit the country. Later when Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the founder of the Bhutanese nation state, fled Tibet to Bhutan, the country was a conglomerate of valley principalities practising different traditions of Buddhism or Bon religion. Zhabdrung brought different religious factions and valley principalities under his control and established the theocratic Drukpa state.
Zhabdrung’s theocratic Drukpa state lasted until the dawn of the 20th century when the country’s leadership was assumed by a hereditary monarchy. Following the death of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (often called Zhabdrung Rinpoche) in 1651, the country was ruled for 255 years by successive desis. After the passing away of Zhabdrung, the power struggle among the civilian leaders soon dragged the country through its most violent and bloody period. This continued until 1907 when the Bhutanese people unanimously enthroned the regional governor Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck as Bhutan’s first hereditary king.
The institution of hereditary monarchy in Bhutan marked a new era in the history of Bhutan, an era of peace, stability, and security. Monarchy was instituted by the will of the people. On 17 December 1907, when the powerful governor of Trongsa, Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck, was enthroned as the King in Punakha Dzong, the officials, regional governors, and people’s representatives stamped on the Oath of Allegiance 50 different seals. All of them pledged their allegiance to King Ugyen Wangchuck and his hereditary successors.
Since then, Bhutan has come a long way. Today, Bhutan is under the reign of the Fifth Druk Gyalpo or Dragon King, His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.
King Ugyen Wangchuck (r. 1907-1926) not only consolidated the country, but also cemented Bhutan’s relations with the neighbouring countries, particularly British India. His stressed on the wellbeing and education of his subjects. First, King’s achievements were augmented by his son, Second King Jigme Wangchuck (r. 1926-1952), who initiated a series of educational, cultural, and developmental programmes. Among his most enduring achievements, however, remain his tax reforms that resulted in more equitable taxation schemes in the country.
The Third King, His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (r. 1952-1972), brought about far-reaching development to the country. Besides tax reforms and the abolition of serfdom that existed since Bhutan’s feudal era, he introduced participatory governance by establishing the National Assembly (Parliament) in 1953 and the Royal Advisory Council in 1965. Both of these institutions comprised representatives of the people. In 1969, His Majesty removed King’s power to veto bills presented to parliament and proposed that King be subjected to vote of confidence every three years. He is, therefore, affectionately known as the Father of Modern Bhutan.
The reign of the Fourth Druk Gyalpo (r. 1972-2006) is perhaps the most glorious. He brought unprecedented socio-economic development to the country and secured the country’s future through his development philosophy of Gross National Happiness (discussed separately). Through a decades-long democratization process that put in place a legal and institutional framework for a democratic Bhutan, he handed over the crown to his son and reigning monarch.
Bhutan became a Democratic Constitutional Monarchy in 2008 when the first parliamentary elections took place.