Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Story of Monarchy: The Kingdom of Bhutan

The Kingdom of Bhutan, “Land of the Thunder Dragon” occupies a unique place in the world. The Bhutanese monarchy is actually fairly recently established and is one of the few cases of a monarchy springing up in the XX Century rather than being torn down. It is the only monarchy (or the only country of any kind) which has Mahayana Buddhism as the official state religion and it is the only remaining independent monarchy in the central Asian area (since the demise of the Hindu Kingdom of Nepal). It is also relatively unknown to most of the outside world, which is not surprising since it kept itself fairly isolated until recent years. It is perhaps best known, among monarchists at least, for its measuring rod of “Gross National Happiness” as opposed to Gross National Product. Bhutan was content to keep to its traditional ways, maintain its unique customs and more or less ignore the world beyond its borders. Politics was non-existent as the people devoted themselves to their work and their faith and left what little governing there was to do in the hands of their beloved ‘Dragon King’. More than a few referred to it as a real-life version of Shangri-La, an isolated Himalayan kingdom with no divisions, no strife, no crime, no modern conveniences but no modern complications to go with them and a very simple and peaceful way of life. To many, it seemed like paradise.

one of the later Shabdrung
Bhutan was first unified in the seventeenth century and from that time was ruled as a Buddhist theocracy by a reincarnating lama in a system of government similar to that in neighboring Tibet. The ruler was the Shabdrung or “Dharma Raja” as he was also sometimes known. Although he usually had final say in matters, officially the secular affairs of the country were to be handled by a regent called the Druk Desi or “Deb Raja”. These early rulers were often Tibetan lamas, sometimes refugees and sometimes guests invited over to help. The man most held as the founder of modern Bhutan was Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel who came to Bhutan from Tibet in 1616 as a political refugee. He unified Bhutan and by the time of his death only the eastern provinces were not under his rule and those were even then in the process of being conquered. He overcame Tibetan invasions and the opposition of other religious factions to his rule. The Drukpa nobles who were loyal to him were rewarded with tax exemptions, titles and special privileges. By the time of his death, most of modern Bhutan was united and under his control and diplomatic relations had been established with neighboring Tibetan and Indian princes as well as Nepal. He cemented his rule with the building of large monastery-fortresses in all the major valleys of the country and for the most part these survive to this day as a lasting reminder of his legacy. Many of the government positions he established to administer the country, likewise, survive to the present day.

For such a large and dominant figure there was, not surprisingly, some turmoil when he died and at one point there was no less than five men all with factions behind them claiming to be the legitimate reincarnation of the Shabdrung. When one called upon Tibet for assistance in pressing his claim the result was the last and most successful Tibetan invasion of Bhutan. Were it not for the Tibetan lamas calling for peace and an end to the fighting, Bhutan might have been conquered and remained a part of Tibet. Others also tried to obtain the help of the Manchus to offset the influence of Tibet and establish a lasting peace. In 1734 both sides sent emissaries to the Manchu Emperor in Peking seeking arbitration of their problem but, in the event, things were solved mostly by those involved locally, aided by the death of several of the major contenders. In the end, diplomatic relations with Tibet were established as well as an annual tribute to the Tibetan court and through them eventually to the Manchu court in China. It could, technically, be considered a loss of sovereignty for Bhutan but, in effect, it was no different from the numerous other local rulers from countries as far flung as Mongolia, Vietnam and Korea who recognized Imperial China as the dominant power of the region while still managing their own affairs to varying degrees.

A more smoothly functioning Buddhist theocracy was established though, rather like Tibet after the death of the “Great Fifth” the Shabdrung often had only nominal superiority while the regent was the one who actually ruled the country. Under their leadership, Bhutan began to grow and expand. This brought the country to the attention of the British after Bhutanese incursions into Sikkim and other states in northern India. The British launched a military expedition that expelled the Bhutanese and seized several of their border forts in 1772 but when final peace was made in 1774 these were returned. During this crisis, Bhutan and Nepal both sought the arbitration of the Panchen Lama of Tibet due to fears of the growth of British power in neighboring India. The British were a growing presence in the region and began taking a greater interest in both Tibet and Bhutan, observing, for example, the minor rebellions that resulted from the overthrow of the regent Zhidar. He was replaced by Tritrul Jigme Senge who kept things more or less stable until his retirement in 1788 after which were several decades of chaos and instability under a succession of regents of various quality. Some tried to rule in partnership with the Shabdrung, probably in an effort to gain a religious shield for themselves, while others tried to enlist other lamas to partner with them but to little avail.

In 1808, however, the lama Tsultrim Drakpa was persuaded to take the throne but then later persuaded the Shabdrung, Jigme Drakpa, to take the throne himself, though he had grave misgivings about it and did so against his better judgment. Chaos quickly ensued as the followers of Tsultrim Drakpa had no wish to lose their positions to the followers of the Shabrdrung and they instigated a rebellion. This is where the story becomes more than a little bit complicated, particularly for outsiders to the unique religious beliefs of the region in question. No sooner did this rebellion get underway then another faction joined in made up of the followers of Yeshe Gyelsten, who was the “verbal incarnation” of the Shabdrung and who they installed as a rival regent in a rival court to the “mental incarnation” of the Shabdrung. Political and religious powers aligned themselves on either side and went to war. Eventually, a settlement was reached in which both incarnations would act as joint-regents but, in the end, violence and circumstance was what really solved the factional dispute. Fights over the regency continued, to the utter distress of the Shabdrung, to the point that revolts almost became a national tradition. However, all of that was soon to change when a new, dynamic force entered the field.

a Raven Crown
Jigme Namgyel was born in 1825, a younger son of a noble family with deep spiritual ties and a high reputation as warriors as well. In his youth he spent time working as a common herdsman and had quite a colorful life, gaining some note for his great strength and athletic prowess as well as his good character and common sense. He became a major figure in the frequent wars and rebellions of Bhutan and came to be seen as quite a champion. A lama absolved him of the obligation to separate from his wife while holding office and presented him with a special helmet, the first “Raven Crown” of Bhutan which was imbued with the essence of two forms of the fierce, protecting deity Mahakala; the Northern Demon and the ‘Raven-headed Mahakala of Action’. His subsequent victories in battle were attributed to the spiritual protection of his headgear and, in different forms as new models have been created, it remains the crown and symbol of kingship in Bhutan to this day. In any event, he ultimately came to power and was known as the “Black Regent” and he brought about some relative calm and quiet, consolidating his control over at least half of the country but most importantly by setting the stage for the accomplishments of his descendants.

The “Black Regent” was succeeded as Penlop of Trongsa (basically a sort of governor) by his son Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuk. He was the leader of the pro-British faction in opposition to the more pro-Tibet faction as to who Bhutan should align with. He was victorious and gained further prestige by mediating a dispute between Tibet and British India after which he was made a Knight Commander of the Indian Empire. Later, because of the long history of internal disputes and civil wars under the theocracy, in 1907 Ugyen Wangchuk was made the first King of Bhutan and the country was either a part of the British Empire or at least within the British sphere of influence certainly. Diplomatically, it was dealt with by the British as a princely state of India but Bhutan remained set apart and still maintained its very close and traditional ties with Tibet. On the domestic front, the new succession of Kings of Bhutan brought, after some minor trouble that was to be expected, a new period of peace and calm for the Himalayan kingdom. Government was extremely simplified by the new arrangement and there was an end to the constant cycle of rebellions and struggles over the regency for the nominal religious leader. The Kingdom of Bhutan led a happy, peaceful life, mostly isolated from the outside world with only the occasional diplomatic contact, usually with India.

King Jigme Dorji
World War I and World War II passed by Bhutan with no impact at all. The latter conflict came during the reign of the third monarch of Bhutan, King Jigme Dorji, who took some modest steps toward modernity by allowing some conveniences into the country, such as wheeled carts to haul crops; nothing very dramatic at all. Later in his reign, however, some more innovative steps were taken when he established a High Court for Bhutan and a National Assembly, described by some as a unicameral legislature. Eventually it would even be given the power to remove the King himself with a two-thirds majority vote. For the time being though, Bhutan remained an absolute monarchy. These baby steps towards democracy were not taken by most people as being terribly significant. However, what was seen as a major change was the increase in diplomatic contacts with the outside world which were necessitated by the aggression of Communist China and the earth-shattering changes brought about after Chairman Mao came to power. The very idea of military conflict of any sort had become a distant memory in Bhutan. They had their revered and beloved kings, their devout Buddhist faith and strong ties with the neighboring Empire of India and Kingdom of Tibet, for as long as most could remember, and the people were happy and content. Things seemed serenely ideal for Bhutan when, all of a sudden, the world around them started to come apart.

First, there was the collapse of the British Empire and what affected Bhutan the most was, of course, the end of the Empire of India. The relationship had been ideal by Bhutanese standards; the British Empire protected them but as there had never been any real need to avail themselves of this protection, neither Britain or India ever bothered much about Bhutan so the security was more akin to a good insurance policy that left Bhutan free and independent but still able to call on British India for help should a crisis ever arise. Suddenly, Bhutan was informed that the British were gone, the Empire of India was gone and suddenly in its place were several new republics. Bewildered, but eager to maintain things as they had been, Bhutan quickly recognized Indian independence and arranged a treaty with India similar to the one they had with the British Empire (in fact, it took much longer for the Republic of India to recognize the independence of Bhutan in return). It was quite a shock but, in the end, for Bhutan at least, very little had actually changed. Then, however, came even more shocking news when the communist Chinese People’s Liberation Army invaded and subjugated Tibet, annexing it to China and forcing the Dalai Lama to flee into exile in India.

the third King in his youth
In 1959 the Chinese communists seized control of the Bhutanese enclaves in Tibet and, to this day, these remain the source of an official territorial dispute between the Kingdom of Bhutan and the People’s Republic of China. It was after these frightening events that the King began to take steps to modernize Bhutan, at least somewhat, and to establish stronger ties with the international community. There was further alarm in 1975 when the nearby Himalayan Kingdom of Sikkim abolished its monarchy and was annexed by the Republic of India. Fearful that the same could happen to Bhutan, the King began to establish official ties with more foreign countries and to send representatives to international organizations, such as joining the United Nations. Concerns were also raised due to the short Sino-Indian War both because of the violation of Bhutanese territory by Red Chinese forces and because of doubts that India could be relied on to defeat the Chinese if Bhutan ever had to avail itself of her protection.

However, it was under the next monarch, King Jigme Singye, that Bhutan began to change in a really dramatic way. During his reign, Bhutan joined many more international organizations, drew even closer to India and, most significantly, started the legal transformation from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. Throughout his reign, and, after his abdication, that of his son, democracy was introduced to Bhutan and the first political parties were established. At the time, many had considerable misgivings about these developments. People who valued the unity and serenity of Bhutanese life feared that political parties would create divisions amongst the people. There was also the introduction of television, foreign fashions and modern technology to the country. All of these have, in their own way, caused problems for Bhutan and the traditional life of the country is certainly not the way it used to be. However, the King remains extremely popular and certainly the new class of politicians are anxious to forge ahead and keep their newly acquired positions. It is not the Bhutan that used to be but, for those inclined to be harsh regarding the changes (and it is certainly tempting to be) one has to keep in mind the larger geo-political picture. The world had changed since Bhutan found peace and contentment as a monarchy and the last thing the Kings of Bhutan wanted was to see their beloved country go the way of Tibet or even Sikkim, swallowed up by a larger neighbor without anyone in the rest of the world doing anything about it or perhaps not even noticing at all.


  1. Nice post indeed. Though one does feel that modernization was inevitable. But it doesn't have to be complete. The negative aspects of it can be censored. The current Monarch no doubt knows the situation of the his own country better than we do, nevertheless he can take steps to mitigate the negative effects of an ever encroaching modern world. I'm not saying ban television, it's not Taliban country out there, but perhaps censoring some of the mindless drivel that does make its into the programming would not be so bad. And the same approach can be taken with politics and political parties. Laws can be enacted that do not allow parties to become bastions of mudslinging(and thus division within the populace) and cronyism. I only wish I can see The Last Shangri-La before it vanishes. I hope such a sad event does not occur. Albeit with what we are witnessing in the world today? Who knows for how long the mystical sovereignty of The Kingdom of Bhutan will remain intact.


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