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History of Bhutan

The Visits of Guru Padmasambhava (Guru Rimpoche)

In AD 746 Sendha Gyab (Sindhu Raja) the king of Bumthang being possessed by a demon invited the Indian tantric master Guru Rimpoche(Precious Master) to exorcise the demon.

Guru Rimpoche captured the demon converting it to Buddhism along with the king and his rivals restoring peace.

Guru Rimpoche returned to Bhutan via Singye Dzong in Lhuentse also visiting Bumthang and Mongar. At Gom Kora (Eastern Bhutan) he left a body print and an impression of his head with hat in stone. He then flew to Taktshang, Paro as Dorji Drakpo riding a pregnant tigress giving the monastery its name “Tiger’s Nest”.

Guru Rimpoche made a third visit during the reign of Tibetan King Murti Tsenpo, son of Terson Detsen.
Bhutan’s Form of Buddhism

In AD 1180 Lama Tsangpa Gyarey Yeshe founded Druk (Dragon) Monastery in Ralung east of Gyantse, Tibet. During the 11th & 12th centuries many Drukpa lamas left Tibet as result of persecution by the rival Gelugpa lineage. Significant numbers of these lamas settled in western Bhutan establishing monasteries which helped unite these territories while the rest of the country remained as separate feudal states.
The founder of the Lhapa Kagyu lineage Gyalwa Lhanangpa established Tango monastery in the Thimpu Valley and a system of forts(dzongs) similar to those in Tibet.
Lama Phajo Drukgom Shigpo(1184-1251) came to Bhutan from Ralung and defeated Lama Lhanangpa establishing a dzong on the Wang Chu (river) and took control of Tango monastery. Lama Phajo is credited with establishing the Bhutanese form of Tibetan Buddhism the Drukpa Kagyu School.
Between the 13th & 16th centuries the Drukpa Kagyu school flourished becoming a dominant force in Bhutan.
Lama Ngawang Choegyal(1465-1540) came to Bhutan from Ralung with his sons who established many monasteries including Druk Choeding in Paro, and Pangri Zampa Hongtsho near Thimpu.
Lama Drukpa Kunley the ‘divine madman’(1455-1529) established Chime Lhakhang near Punakha.

During the 11th-16th centuries many terma(treasures) hidden by Guru Rimpoche were discovered by tertons(tantric Lamas) as he prophesised. The famous lama Pema Lingpa recovered his first terma from Lake Membartsho near Bumthang in 1475. Pema Lingpa constructed several monasteries in Bumthang and is one of the most important figures in Bhutanese history.

The Shabdrung

In the 16th century Bhutan remained fragmented with many feudal lords and religious figures competing for influence. Lama Ngawang Namgyel(1594-1651) came to Bhutan from Ralung in Tibet. When he was aged 12 he was recognized as the reincarnation of Pema Karpo, the prince abbott of Ralung. When 23 years old he had a vision in which the guardian of Ralung Yeshe Goenpo(Mahakala) appeared as a raven and directed him to Bhutan. He spent some time at Pangri Zampa which was established by his grandfather Lama Ngawang Choegyal. As Ngawang Namgyel traveled in western Bhutan teaching his religious and political influence spread. Soon he established himself as the religious leader of Bhutan with the title Shabdrung Rimpoche. He developed the system of dzongs which were key to unifiying Bhutan. The dzongs combined religious, political, and social functions.
The Shabdrung defeated many Tibetan invasions. In 1639 Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel was recognized as the Supreme Authority of Bhutan. In 1635 Punaka Dzong was completed becoming the home of the Sangha(Body of Monks) of Bhutan headed by the Je Khenpo. In 1644 the Sabdrung defeated another Tibetan army and built Drukgyel Dzong to commemorate the victory. Further incursions in 1648 and 1649 were repulsed and the Shabdrung’s influence spread throughout Bhutan.
Shabrung Ngawang Namgyel went into retreat in Punaka Dzong in 1651. He most likely died early in the retreat. His death was concealed through an elaborate ruse to be revealed in1705. The ‘desi’ or secular ruler of this period felt the Shabdrung’s influence would continue to keep Bhutan unified and keep the Tibetans at bay. During the period from 1656-1730 the Tibetans invaded several times. The third desi Mingyur Tempa ruled for twelve years from 1668 and expanded Bhutan’s western border to Kalimpong(India). The announcement of the Shabdrung’s death began a two hundred year period of struggle and civil war. The reincarnations of the Shabdrung were often powerless to influence the desis and political infighting and intrigues grew. There were only six reincarnates of the Shabdrung but 55 desis during this period. The most important desi was the 13th Sherab Wangchuck. Almost half of the desis were assassinated or deposed by enemies.

The British

The Bitish invaded Bhutan in 1772 and again in 1773. The 16th Desi led troops against the British but was defeated and deposed in a coup. This was the beginning of British influence. In 1774 George Bogle spent a few weeks in Thimpu while en route to Tibet becoming the first westerner to visit Bhutan. As a result of the Burmese War 1825-6 the British took control of Assam which lies on the eastern border of Bhutan. The British and Bhutanese fought and treatied over the borderlands until the Bhutanese lost the territories in the final battle in 1865.

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