A journey through the Dragon Country from ancient to modern times

Taktsang Monastery (also known as The Tiger's Nest), a prominent Himalayan Buddhist sacred site and temple complex in Bhutan. Photo by Göran Höglund (Kartläsarn)

Taktsang Monastery (also known as The Tiger's Nest), a prominent Himalayan Buddhist sacred site and temple complex in Bhutan. Photo by Göran Höglund (Kartläsarn)

A journey through the Dragon Country from ancient to modern times

16 October 2014

By Naomi Canton

A Bhutanese scholar has written the first ever book covering the complete history of his country in the English language.

Dr Karma Phuntsho launched The History of Bhutan at SOAS in London on 8 October.

Despite Bhutan’s growing popularity as a tourist destination, its position as the world’s youngest democracy between 2007 and 2008 and the rising scholarly interest in the country, Bhutan remains one of the most poorly studied places on earth.

Speaking at the launch of his book, during a stop off on his way back to Bhutan from the USA, Dr Karma Phuntsho, an honorary fellow at SOAS in London, spoke about the challenges he faced covering the relatively unknown and ancient South Asian kingdom.

One of those challenges was that Bhutanese history was based on oral traditions rather than on written record.

“When you look at Bhutanese history and historical sources, you have an enormous challenge of synthesising very different world views – traditional and modern, as well as different value systems and realities and notions of space and time,” he said. “The Bhutanese have a very strong sense of belonging to the homeland – there are many narratives, myths and stories that tell the history of the past and present,” Dr Phuntsho added.  He has several Monastic degrees from Bhutan – where he lives – and a DPhil in Oriental Studies from Oxford University.

Dr Phuntsho said that if you visit Bhutan today there remains a big gap between those brought up before secular education who speak different languages, view the world differently and share different values, to those who have had a secular upbringing. Modern Western-style education was not introduced in Bhutan until the 1960s. Prior to that the only education available was through Buddhist monasteries.

“There is no shortage of sources of Bhutan’s history,” he said, adding Bhutanese political and cultural reality was shaped by the country’s history.

Dr Karma Phuntsho, author of The History of Bhutan

Dr Karma Phuntsho, author of The History of Bhutan

“Most historical sources of Bhutan are holy biographies, chronicles of exemplary masters of the past, so that people can emulate them and learn from the past. As a society if you want to prosper you have to understand the individual,” he explained.

“This makes Bhutanese people very enthusiastic about their history; so there is a lot of historical literature and a lot of accounts of the spiritual achievements of people and numerous written sources but 80 per cent is transmitted through oral forms, so there are lots of oral narratives,” he said.

“Sometimes the Bhutanese valleys comes to life through these stories – so for example the place where a king was murdered is called just that and so the names bring out these stories. That was the best thing about writing it,” added Dr Phuntsho, who is also a Bhutanese oral history expert.

“The Bhutanese have a very pleasant and honourable past to celebrate. Unlike Tibet or Nepal, Bhutan has not been colonised, invaded or seen sad internal tumults. It has managed to survive in an isolated manner and in a prosperous way so it’s that kind of continuity and belonging to the past underlying all this,” he added.

Bhutanese women at a festival in national dress. Photo by Christopher J. Fynn

Bhutanese women at a festival in national dress. Photo by Christopher J. Fynn

Michael Aris, the late husband of Aung San Suu Kyi, covered Bhutanese history in the early 17th century and some others have written on Bhutan’s Medieval period, he pointed out. But no one has dealt with the evolution of Bhutan (or Land of the Thunder Dragon as the local name conveys) right from its beginnings to modern times, he explained.

In the beautifully decorated hardback book, which covers everything from the Nepali uprisings and subsequent refugee crisis, to the reasons for Bhutan’s dependency on India, Dr Phuntsho divides Bhutanese history into four key phases.

The first is pre-Buddhist Bhutan. At that time some people were following the Bön tradition, the oldest spiritual tradition of Tibet, often referred to as the fifth religious tradition of Tibet. Others were following a diverse variety of local rituals and folk beliefs, sometimes with and sometimes without Bön influences – described by R.A. Stein as the “nameless religion.”

Pre-Buddhist Bhutanese people were very connected to nature. “Nature is the first and foremost factor that shapes Bhutanese people. Nature seemed to have the most fundamental effect before Buddhism came in,” he said.

The second phase in Bhutan’s history was the Buddhist phase. “Buddhism is a very mind-centred ethos. The mind is powerful and overcomes the power of nature. Temples are built on strategic locations and you see the Buddhisation of the landscape,” he said.

The third phase of Bhutanese history was, according to Dr Phuntsho “Bhutan’s encounter with the British.”

“The modernisation of Bhutan brought in new value systems which came through Bhutan’s interactions with the British. The first exchanges between Bhutan and the British took place in the 18th century. But it started in an unfortunate way,” he said.

He then narrated how Britain came to the rescue of the King of Cooch Behar, a small north Indian kingdom, against Bhutan. This led to a military conflict between Britain and Bhutan and to the first British mission to Bhutan led by George Bogle.

“Even the name ‘Bhutan’ is a British legacy. It was a Scotsman George Bogle who in 1775 named Bhutan as ‘Boutan’. He had a very good relationship with Bhutan. Even long after he left he kept corresponding with them,” added Dr Phuntsho.

But the relationship went downhill after Bogle left, culminating in the visit of Ashley Eden, who entered Bhutan without invitation in 1864. The humiliation that the British felt at the reception he received and the rejection of the treaty the British were offering, led to the Great War Bhutan had with Britain, namely the Duar War of 1865, when Bhutan lost one fifth of its territory, Dr Phuntsho said.

Fortunately, at the beginning of the 20th century, the UK and Bhutan had a better relationship. In 1907 Bhutan introduced a monarchy and the first king of Bhutan, Sir Ugyen Wangchuk was crowned ushering in a new political order and better relations with British India.

“During the 20th century Bhutan faced southwards towards British India and Independent India and had no relationship with China or Tibet,” Dr Phuntsho said.

The fourth phase is the secular modern worldview period. “That lifestyle has come to Bhutan via India,” he said. After the Independence of India, Bhutan agreed to follow India’s advice in all its foreign affairs but manage its own internal affairs and the India-Bhutan relationship was cemented.

“Bhutan is going through a major transition from traditional to modern society. Literacy has shot up to 53 per cent, life expectancy has gone up to about 67 years of age, there has been globalisation and lots of information coming in via social media,” he pointed out.

The TV and Internet arrived in Bhutan late in 1999, but most young Bhutanese today are on Facebook and use other social media.  Bhutan has a population of less than one million and its GDP is approximately US$ 2 billion.

Hydropower and tourism are two important industries in Bhutan.

“Bhutan is at a juncture moving from one world to the next. To make the change efficiently the state leaders have come up with a philosophy or national goal – Gross National Happiness – to balance the traditional culture and spiritual wellbeing as Bhutan pursues modernity and material comfort – in an attempt to create a post-modern Shangri-La,” he said.

Much research and translation of primary sources still remains to be done. Yet despite offering an attractive opportunity to academics, most of the scholars of Bhutanese history are Tibetan or Bhutanese nationals. “Very few Western scholars have exploited this opportunity,” he said.

Dr Lopen Karma Phuntsho was born in Ura village in central Bhutan and had his school education in Bhutan. At the age of 17, he left school and became a monk in Cheri Monastery to study Buddhism. In 1987, he went to India to continue his studies in Tibetan monasteries. Dr Phuntsho spent a year at Sera Monastery and 10 years in Ngagyur Nyingma Institute, where he was trained to be a Khenpo, a Tibetan monastic abbot. Since 1994, Karma has taught Buddhism and related subjects in both Tibetan and English and has served as an abbot at Shugseb Nunnery and a lecturer at Ngagyur Nyingma Institute.

In 1997, Karma joined Balliol College, Oxford to read for an M.St. in Sanskrit and Classical Indian Religions. He received a D.Phil. in Buddhist Studies from Oxford in 2003. Since then he has worked as a post-doctoral researcher in CNRS, Paris and Research Associate in the Department of Social Anthropology, Cambridge University and the Spalding Fellow in Comparative Religion at Clare Hall. Speaking some 11 languages, he currently serves on many boards as an academic and social worker and has written or collaborated in over 70 books, monographs and articles. His latest magnum opus is the The History of Bhutan.

Lopen Karma Phuntsho is today a leading scholar on Bhutan and teaches Buddhism and Bhutan Studies in the country and abroad. His work focuses on the documentation of Bhutan’s written and intangible cultures and educational intervention in the socio-cultural changes taking place in the country. Combining scholarship, spirituality and social work, he leads the Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and the Loden Foundation, a charity to promote education and social entrepreneurship in Bhutan.

The History of Bhutan

The History of Bhutan book

 The History of Bhutan has been published by Haus Publishing in London and its RRP is £30. It was originally published in English by Random House India.


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