Bhutan: the Himalayan Buddhist kingdom

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of Chicago Library]On: 19 November 2014, At: 09:07Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number:1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street,London W1T 3JH, UK

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    Bhutan: the HimalayanBuddhist kingdomHarald NestroyPublished online: 02 Feb 2007.

    To cite this article: Harald Nestroy (2004) Bhutan: the Himalayan Buddhistkingdom, Asian Affairs, 35:3, 338-352, DOI: 10.1080/0306837042000303920

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0306837042000303920

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  • Asian Affairs, vol. XXXV, no. III, November 2004

    BHUTAN: THE HIMALAYAN BUDDHISTKINGDOM

    HARALD NESTROY

    Harald Nestroy has had a long and distinguished career in the German ForeignOffice, including postings as Ambassador to the Peoples Republic of Congo,Malaysia, Namibia and the Republic of Costa Rica. His first visit to Bhutan wasin 1987, which was followed by 11 further visits, the latest being in December2003. In 1992 Mr Nestroy founded the Humanitarian German Bhutan HospitalFoundation for the construction of the Punkha Hospital, which was opened in1996. As Executive Chairman of the Pro Bhutan Association, he has beeninvolved with further development of the hospital, building new facilities and aTraining Centre for medical staff, as well as establishing schools with hostels forblind and hearing-impaired children.

    Name and geography

    The origin and meaning of the modern name of this unique Buddhist Kingdomin the Himalayas Bhutan is cloudy, as many other things Bhutanese. Thename Bhutan was used by early British travellers in the 18th century and wastransmitted into the official name of today. Does it derive from the name ofthe mountain herders, bhotias, who graze their yaks, sheep and goats from thewest to the east of the Himalayas? Does it mean the end of Tibet, fromBhot-anta, Bhot being an ancient name for Tibet, and anta, meaning the end?Nobody is really sure. From as early as the 13th century, the Bhutanesethemselves have called their country Druk-Yul or Land of the ThunderDragon, their King the Druk-Gyalpo, the Dragon King, themselves Druk-pa,People of the Dragon. Another name, Country of Medical Herbs, is said tohave been given by the Tibetans, who traded to obtain medical plants fromBhutan with its monsoon-irrigated pastures and forests.

    Bhutan is a small landlocked country of only 46,500 km2, a little largerthan Switzerland, with roughly 700,000 inhabitants. This official numberrefers only to the population of Bhutanese origin excluding a high number ofimmigrants. The original Bhutanese comprise 11 ethnic groups of greatlyvarying size and with their own different languages. One such group has onlyaround 500 people.

    Dzongkha, the idiom of the largest group, the Druk-pa, is the officiallanguage. It is closely related to Tibetan and written in Ucan, the classicalTibetan script. Nepali, the idiom of the largest group of immigrants, iscommonly used as lingua franca, even among original Bhutanese who do notspeak adequate Dzongkha. English is spoken by everybody who has enjoyeda formal education.

    ISSN 0306-8374 print/ISSN 1477-1500 online/04/030338-15 2004 The Royal Society for Asian Affairshttp://www.tandf.co.uk/journals DOI: 10.1080/0306837042000303920

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  • BHUTAN: THE HIMALAYAN BUDDHIST KINGDOM 339

    The Kingdom borders the Indian states of Sikkim, West Bengal, Assamand Arunachal Pradesh, and Chinese Tibet. Lying on the southern face of theHimalayas, the altitude of the Kingdom ranges between almost sea level in thesouth and the many awe-inspiring ice peaks on the Tibetan border, the KulaKangri being the highest at 7554 m.

    Bhutan is one of the few Asian countries which was never a colony of aWestern or any other power. The location of the David Bhutan, sandwichedbetween the two Goliaths India and China, has shaped the history of this tinycountry. This vulnerable situation has, to a great extent, ensured the indepen-dence of Bhutan up to the present day.

    Figure 1 Map of Bhutan

    Pre-modern history

    The early history of Bhutan is not based on archaeological or documentaryevidence, but deeply connected with Buddhist religion and mythology. As inother ancient cultures, historical facts are interwoven with fables and legends.In the eyes of the Bhutanese, demons and saints were often more importantthan worldly rulers and Buddhist lamas. Since the 16th17th centuries, thecountrys history has been documented more fully, although many recordswhich were preserved for hundreds of years in the monastery-castles calleddzongs, built mainly of wood, were destroyed in fires in the 19th and 20thcenturies. Much of the early history is based on reports of British explorerswho visited the country in the 18th to 20th centuries, on legend and folkloreand on the few written records surviving in dzongs and temples.

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  • BHUTAN: THE HIMALAYAN BUDDHIST KINGDOM340

    One of the most important events in Bhutanese history was the arrival ofthe holy Tibetan Lama Padmasambhava (the Lotus Born), also named GuruRimpoche, in the 8th century. He was the founder of the Ningma-pa monasticorder. Through his influence Tantric Mahayana Buddhism became popular replacing the ancient Bon religion, which was the main religion throughout theHimalayas before the advent of Buddhism. In the 13th century, PhajoDruk-Gom Shigpo, a lama from Ralung monastery in Tibet, introduced theDruk-pa Kagyu school into Bhutan. Its founder, Yeshey Dorji, had chosendruk (dragon) to symbolize his new monastic order when he saw these mysticanimals in the sky while he was consecrating an important monastery. SoonDruk-pa Kagyu became the predominant faith in Bhutan and Druk wasadopted as auspicious into the names of the country, the people, the language,the King and, today, of the Bhutanese Airline, Druk Air.

    Until the 16th17th centuries, Bhutan was a disparate conglomerate ofnumerous small principalities, almost one in each major valley of thismountainous land. Their chieftains spent much of their energy and resourceswarring among themselves and with Tibetan warlords. Numerous monasterieswere competing, less for spiritual, more for worldly dominance over thepeasantry and for control over revenue from taxation.

    Things changed drastically in 1616 with the arrival of another lama fromRalung monastery in Tibet, Ngawang Namgyal (15941651). He was adescendant of the founder of Ralung and recognized as the re-incarnation ofPema Karpo, the holy ruler-abbot of Ralung. But Ngawangs position as thenew abbot of Ralung was challenged by a ruler-abbot from the new order ofthe Yellow Hats, the Gelug-pa, with the Dalai Lama at its head. ManyDruk-pa lamas fled when they were attacked by these rivals. Ngawang wasjust 23 years old when the powerful deity Mahakala, or Yeshey Goenpo,appeared to him in the form of a raven and sent him to Bhutan with a missionto teach Buddhism there. Thus, the raven became a sacred symbol incorpor-ated in the crown of the rulers of Bhutan, the Raven Crown.

    While teaching in every dzong and village in western Bhutan, Ngawanggathered spiritual and political power. Once he had secured the support ofmost of the important aristocratic families, Ngawang started building thepower structure of the country. With great energy he proceeded to constructa chain of large dzongs in the main valleys of western Bhutan as centres ofreligious and civil authority.

    However, he had rivals. One of them called upon the King of Tsang inTibet with his troops to help oust the interloper. In 1639 Ngawang crushed thechallenger and his Tibetan allies. After this great victory he assumed theimpressive title of Shabdrung, meaning Precious Jewel at whose feet oneprostrates, and started the lineage of Shabdrungs in Bhutan. As supremereligious and temporal ruler of Bhutan, he introduced a dual theocratic systemof government: a Head Abbot, the Je Kempo, administered the religiousinstitutions; a high officer with the title Druk Desi or, as the Britishtravellers called him, Deb Raja was vested with the civil authority. Hedivided the country into administrative regions headed by a Penlop (Prince-

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  • BHUTAN: THE HIMALAYAN BUDDHIST KINGDOM 341

    Governor), while Dzongpons administered at the local level. For the first time,a comprehensive system of laws was codified.

    Invasions by TibetanMongolian troops in 1644 and 1647 were repulsedsuccessfully and served to unite the Bhutanese further. When the Shabdrungdied in 1651, the major part of Bhutan was united under central authority; fiveyears later, Eastern Bhutan was also brought under full control of the centralGovernment.

    In an intricate power game, the Shabdrungs death was kept a state secretfor more than 50 years, because the temporal and religious rulers could notagree on a successor. The moment the death of the Shabdrung was madepublic in 1705, civil wars broke out, spurred by rival claims to the authorityof Shabdrung. The unity of the country was eroded as the regional princes, thePenlops, took power into their own hands, warring against each other. Thischaotic situation prevailed until the early years of the 20th century.

    Modern history

    The decline of Moghul India at the end of the 18th century allowed Bhutanto gain almost total control of the Indian principality of Cooch Behar, itsneighbour to the south. Bhutan had annexed and fortified the 11 duars orgateways which gave access to the adjacent agricultural land at the border andthe plains of Bengal beyond. The clash with the British East India Companywas inevitable. The pretender to the throne of Cooch Behar, KhagendaNarayan, sought British help to oust the Bhutanese. A small British force wasdispatched to the area in December 1772 and, despite heavy losses, uprootedthe Bhutanese contingent from Cooch and captured two Bhutanese forts in thefoothills (JanuaryApril, 1773). Alarmed by this unexpected defeat, the DebRaja of Bhutan, Tshenlop Kunga Rinchen, called upon the Panchen Lama ofTibet to intercede with the Governor, General Warren Hastings. The resultwas a peace treaty concluded between India and Bhutan on April 25, 1774 inCalcutta. More significantly, Hastings from now on became more intent onextending British influence beyond Bhutan to Tibet and to the fabled land ofChina, which had remained beyond Western reach.

    Hastings lost little time in sending the first British mission to Tibet. InMay 1774 George Bogle, officer in the Bengal Civil Service, spent manyweeks in Thimphu negotiating the passage to Tibet.1 His official report,mentioning as a footnote tea in Bhutan as universal beverage, encouragedthe establishment of tea plantations in northern India. The following missionsto Bhutan were led by Alexander Hamilton (1776 and 1777) and CaptainSamuel Turner (1783), all aimed at improving trade between Bengal andBhutan as well as Tibet, at the same time dealing with border disputes. Then,for a good 50 years, BritishBhutanese contacts ceased.

    In the mean time, the Bhutanese had turned their attention to Assam,which bordered the eastern half of Bhutan. While the Kingdom of Ahom inAssam was disintegrating, Bhutan had annexed the seven duars to the plains

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  • BHUTAN: THE HIMALAYAN BUDDHIST KINGDOM342

    of the Brahmaputra. Meanwhile, the British, as a result of the Burmese war of18251826, gained control of Assam. The duars with their fertile land beyondwere of great interest to the British, especially to the young tea plantingindustry. After a number of battles in the years up to 1841 the British annexedall the Assam duars, but eventually agreed to pay to Bhutan an annualcompensation of 10,000 Rupees for its losses.

    Despite this agreement, there were intermittent border clashes over thefollowing 20 years, culminating in the Second Anglo-Bhutanese War. FromNovember 1864 British forces swept through the Bhutanese strongholds in theBengal duars, which they controlled by March 1865. In the Treaty of Sinchulaof 11 November, 1865, Bhutan gave up any claim to the 18 duars to Bengaland Assam against an annual compensation of 50,000 Rupees. The treatystipulated peace and friendship between the signatories and, most importantfor Britain, open and duty-free trade between the two sides.

    The two decades following this treaty saw progressive weakening of thecentral authorities in Bhutan and the increase of internecine conflicts betweenthe regional princely rulers, the Penlops. The Shabdrung, in theory thesupreme power, proved to be weak institutionally. As the successors werechosen by re-incarnation, usually as boys of two to four years, one of thePenlops ruled as regent until the new Shabdrung came of age. The abuse ofpower by the regents led to growing instability. The struggle for power centredon the two rival factions headed by the Penlops of Paro and Trongsa who, bythe beginning of the 20th century, emerged as the strongest political figures.

    This instability in Bhutan was alarming the Anglo-Indian Governm...

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