|one of the later Shabdrung|
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.
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|
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|
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|
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.