The Kingdom of Bhutan, often known as The Land of Thunder Dragon or The last Shangri-la, is the last independent country in the Himalayan region to fully support and promote Buddhism as the main religion. This independence has been fostered in part by the perpetually snow-capped mountains in the north and dense jungles in the south that have served as natural barriers, protecting the country from outsiders for generations. In the heart of the country, a seemingly endless maze of deep valleys has provided a magnificent landscape upon which the Bhutanese have carefully preserved their rich legacy of traditional values and religious customs.

There abound numerous theories about the origin of the name “Bhutan”. Some say the name comes from the Sanskrit word Bhotant, which means “the end of Tibet.” A story prevailed that some English people on expeditions named the country “Bootan” from the Sanskrit word Bhotia, which means “Tibetan people.” And ancient Tibetans had different names for Bhutan. But regardless of all these names, the Bhutanese know their home since the time traceless as Drukyul—Land of the Thunder Dragon. And they refer to themselves as Drukpas.
Druk in Bhutanese literature means dragon and thus, the Bhutanese continue to identify themselves with the dragon symbol; it is proudly featured on the national flag and on various denominations of currency.

Little is known about the ancient history of Bhutan, but recent archaeological evidence suggests that the country was first inhabited during the Neolithic Period between 1,500 and 2,000 BC. Historians have speculated that the Manas River, which cuts through the country, was used during this time as an immigration route from India to Tibet. Important events chronicled in early Bhutanese history center largely on Buddhist saints and religious leaders. Unfortunately, many precious texts on Bhutan’s history were lost in disastrous fires early in the seventeenth century. The majority of what is known today comes from the records of early British explorers, folklore, and a few books that survived.

 Buddhism was brought to Bhutan in the seventh century under the auspices of the Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo, who initiated the construction of Kichu Monastery in Paro and Jambay Monastery in Bumthang. At the time the Bhutanese practiced a shamanistic religion known as Bön, but the influence from these two temples quickly spread and Bön began to wane. In the eighth century Buddhism developed further when the enlightened tantric Buddhist master Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, visited Bhutan on three separate occasions. Padmasambhava is known to have traveled to many different parts of the Himalayas to spread his teachings, subdue harmful demons, and meditate in auspicious caves. As a way for future generations to continue his powerful legacy, he left behind secret texts hidden in places that could only be found by enlightened lamas known as tertons.

The years that followed saw a continual expansion of Buddhism’s influence within the lives of the Bhutanese people, punctuated by several important events. In the thirteenth century the Drukpa Kagyu lineage of Buddhism was introduced to the country by a Tibetan lama named Phajo Drukgom Zhigpo. The following century, a famous terton named Pema Lingpa discovered many treasures left behind by Padmasambhava, including some at the bottom of a small lake in Bumthang. In the seventeenth century, another Tibetan lama, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, unified the country under a central authority and declared Drukpa Kagyu Buddhism as the official state religion, a tradition that continues today.

December 17, 1907, marked the day when the country began to shift from a Buddhist theocracy to a civilian government with the crowning of the first Bhutanese hereditary king, His Majesty Ugyen Wangchuck, who reigned until his death in 1926. The second king, His Majesty Jigme Wangchuck, followed in his father’s footsteps and continued to modernize the country. His many accomplishments included the signing of a friendship and cooperation treaty with India, which helped create a prosperous and harmonious relationship for both countries that continues today. The third king, His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, was crowned in 1952 and shortly thereafter altered the structure of the government by establishing the National Assembly the following year. Still in place today, this vital forum provides local representatives from across the country an opportunity to meet in the nation’s capital to debate and vote on the best solutions for the problems at hand. Before his death, His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck secured formal international recognition for Bhutan by joining the United Nations in 1971.

The Fourth King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, became the youngest monarch in the world when he was crowned in 1974 at age nineteen. Respected and honored by all Bhutanese, he has embraced a wide variety of development programs, as well as carefully preserving Bhutan’s cultural and natural heritage. In 1998, he decided the National Assembly, not the king, should bear the responsibility to appoint the Council of Ministers. Another milestone among his accomplishments was the appointment of a representative group of religious and governmental figures to draft the first Bhutanese constitution. It was Him who relinquished His power and declared Bhutan as the Constitutional Democratic Monarchy.
The fifth King, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, was crowned in 2008. Since then, like His father and forefathers, he proved to be the most charismatic and visionary king. Because of his immense love for his subjects, he is better known as The People’s King.