“During the 17-year period 1625-42, three governments were formed in Tibetan cultural regions of the Himalayas that endured into the 20th century, each with a distinctive religion-state basis. We refer to the Ganden Phodrang (dGa’-ldan Pho brang) government of the 5th Dalai Lama (1642), the state of Sikkim or Drejong (’Bras-ljongs) (1642), and the state of Bhutan (1625/26) later called Drugzhung Chogley Namgyel (’Brug-gzhung Phyogs-las-rnam-rgyal).” —Ardussi (2004)
“The British Government undertakes to exercise no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan. On its part, the Bhutanese Government agrees to be guided by the advice of the British Government in regard to its external relations..” —excerpt from Treaty of Punakha (1910)
“My father (Nehru) said at the public meeting that he was leaving a part of his heart at Paro. That is true of me also. We both love the mountains, their magnificent scenery and the sense of peace they give. Bhutan has these in full measures and it has something more, a special quality.” –excerpt from Indira Gandhi’s letter to the Bhutanese Queen Mother about Nehru’s trip to Bhutan in 1958
“One of the major reasons for domestic violence in Bhutan is the socially entrenched sense of male superiority. According to a study report by the National Commission of Women and Children (NCWC) in 2017, out of 2,184 women and girls aged between 15 and 64 years, 38.3 per cent hold the traditional belief that the “women are nine births lower than men”.” –Amit Ranjan (2020)
“As for LGBT rights, until recently, Bhutanese people faced legal challenges not faced by non-LGBT people in other countries. Same-sex sexual activity was only decriminalised in Bhutan on 17 February 2021.” –Adele Tomlin (2022)
For Dakini Day tomorrow, and the next post in the series of essays on the Bhutan 2022 trip, I focus on the history of independent Bhutan itself. During the 4th Vajrayana conference in Thimphu, many Bhutanese speakers referred to Bhutan as the last surviving, pure Vajrayana country on this planet. Although not directly stated, it seems Tibet was not counted due to the recent takeover and colonisation of Tibet by the Communist Chinese government and forces.
Certainly, Bhutan is one of only a few countries which has been independent throughout its history, never conquered, occupied, or governed by an outside power (notwithstanding occasional nominal tributary status). From the time historical records are clear, Bhutan has continuously and successfully defended its sovereignty. The consolidation of Bhutan occurred in 1616 when the Drugpa Kagyu Tibetan master, Ngawang Namgyal from western Tibet (known as the Zhabdrung Rinpoche), fled a dispute over recognition in his own lineage, as well as the Ganden/Mongol/5th Dalai Lama violent takeover of Tibet (and Ladakh). During his time in Bhutan, he defeated three Tibetan invasions, subjugated rival religious schools, codified the Tsa Yig, an intricate and comprehensive system of law, and established himself as ruler over a system of ecclesiastical and civil administrators. It is even said that the Zhabdrung banned Gelug and the Dalai Lamas from entering into Bhutan due to such events. Whatever happened, even today, it is clear that Bhutan has not been politically (or even spiritually) heavily influenced by the Gelugpa control and teachers. For example, as far am aware, there are no (or very few) Gelugpa monasteries in Bhutan unlike those in Tibet and Tibetans in exile.
PART ONE: FOUNDING OF BHUTAN
To consider the significance and reasons for the unique culture and independence of Bhutan situation, the first part (Part One) of this essay is a brief overview of the history of Bhutan, its founder, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, his connection to Tibet, Ladakh and Drugpa Kagyu, and how it became what Ardussi calls one of the three governments formed in Tibetan cultural regions of the Himalayas that endured into the 20th century: Bhutan, Sikkim, and the Ganden Phodrang controlled Tibet.
Recently, I wrote about the Gelug attempted takeover of Drugpa Kagyu Ladakh and how this led the Drugpa Kagyu lama, Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyal, the personal lama of the King of Ladakh to leave Tibet settle in Bhutan. I go into a little more detail about why and how Bhutan was never colonised by a foreign power and also be independent from the Gelug-controlled Tibet since the time of the 5th Dalai Lama.
PART TWO: 20TH AND 21ST CENTURY BHUTAN
The second part of this essay (Part Two) reviews and compiles the history of Bhutan in the 20th and 21st Centuries, an era of establishing in writing independence from Britain, India and China and internal reform, democracy, assassinations and a constitutional monarchy. Aside from political developments (especially as the theme of the 4th Vajrayana conference in Bhutan was on modernity) I also consider cultural and social developments related patriarchy and gender equality and the recent full ordination ceremony for 142 nuns there by Je Khenpo, claimed to be the first of its kind. Also, the not so openly discussed LGBT rights in Bhutan and the recent de-criminalisation of homosexuality/sodomy there in 2021; as well as the increase of STDS in Bhutanese monasteries and the safety of children within such institutions, as recently evidenced in 2011, by the case of Kalu Rinpoche who bravely spoke about his own experience of sexual abuse as a child by adult monks.
In addition, I consider some of the issues regarding multi-cultural and religious tolerance in Bhutan, such as the recent re-settlement of Nepali Bhutanese refugees, and what some see as a lack of genuine freedom of expression and civil liberties, as evidenced by mandatory national dress requirement and one of the strictest covid-era lockdowns on the planet (together with mandatory injections for all, including teenagers and children). Also concerns about freedom of speech, Bhutan being one of the few remaining countries in the world with the archaic lese majeste laws, that forbid any criticism of the Bhutanese royal family and also recent cases of Bhutanese people being sued for expressing their opinions against Bhutanese government officials on social media, as reported by the national newspaper, Kuensel.
PART THREE: VISITING PARO DZONG 2022
The third part (Part Three) of this essay on Bhutan ends on a ‘sunnier’ note with a brief report on one of the important Dzongs in Bhutan that I visited there: Paro Dzong (also known as Rinpung Dzong). I share some of the photos I took there together with some brief information. Later, in another post, I will write more about my visit to the Tashi Cho Dzong and the stunning Tsechu event I was able to attend there in Thimpu, as well as the enormous Buddha statue on the Thimpu hilltop surrounded by Tara statues.
I have been based in India for many years now, and am a serious India-phile, loving everything Indian: food, clothes, music, people, countryside and culture. This was the second time I visited Bhutan, the first being in 2019. I had various challenges on my first visit, the main one getting some kind of serious flu at the end of the visit and lying sick in the back of a taxi on the way to and from the Ku-je at Bumthang. This visit in 2022, was also not without some personal challenges, the main one being during the whole trip unable to use any of my bank cards (British or Indian) to withdraw money or purchase anything! This led to hours of messages and international phone calls to my bank (and several futile trips to ATMs) to find out what the issue was (the Bank of Bhutan informed me on the last day of my trip that chip cards cannot be used in ATMs there – so do take cash there when you go!).
However, despite all that, like Nehru felt years before, Bhutan really captured my heart for good this time. I not only met some really interesting, lovely people at the conference but also there was something about flying into the Paro airport with the dark green valleys and mountains below, and about the spectacular Paro Dzong and Paro Chu river, and unique Bhutanese architecture. Combined with the peaceful, gentle manner, patience and good-humour of the Bhutanese with their foreign guests it was an undeniably lovely, memorable and unique experience indeed.
In fact, when I arrived in Paro, and gazed at the clear, sparkling waters of Paro Chu on the bridge overlooking the Paro Dzong, waves of love and gratitude arose at the karmic conditions that had helped me come to that spot, only a week after Bhutan opened after a strict two-year lockdown, such that my faith was restored in the power of hope, prayer, karma, merit and love for beings and the Dharma. Like Nehru before, I also left part of my heart in Bhutan, but this time also kept a part of Bhutan’s heart with me. In that respect, it was an indivisible union of East meets West, Vajrayana style.
Thus it is with love, affection, patience and respect to the Bhutanese people that I offer and write this brief compiled History of Bhutan essay (available as a downloadable pdf here on request) and dedicate it so that the Bhutan may long continue the Vajrayana traditions inherited from India and Tibet, while at the same time singing and dancing their way with their unique, gentle grace and movements into the 21st Century with an open mind, arms and heart.
Music? Vintage style for a modern audience, Falling in Love Again by Marlene Dietrich, for the Paro Chu river Free by Stevie Wonder, and for the enduring Vajrayana culture and polticial resilience of Bhutan ,I’m Still Standing by Elton John.
Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 19th October 2022. Copyright.
PART ONE: BRIEF HISTORY OF BHUTAN UP UNTIL 20TH CENTURY
The name ‘Bhutan’ – high land or south of Tibet?
‘Bhutan’ may have been derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Bhu-Uttan’ which means ‘High Land’. In another theory of Sanskritisation, ‘Bhots-ant’ means ‘end of Tibet’ or ‘south of Tibet’. However, some Bhutanese call their country ‘Druk Yul’ and its inhabitants ‘Drukpa’. The Dzongkha (and Tibetan) name for the country is ‘Druk Yul’ (Land of the Dragon). Because of the serenity and the virginity of the country and its landscapes, Bhutan today is sometimes referred to as the Last Shangri-La.
Historically, Bhutan was known by many names, such as ‘Lho Mon’ (Southern Land of Darkness), ‘Lho Tsendenjong’ (Southern Land of the Sandalwood), ‘Lhomen Khazhi’ (Southern Land of Four Approaches), and ‘Lho Men Jong’ (Southern Land of Medicinal Herbs).
Drugpa Kagyu founder of Bhutan, 1st Zhabdrung Rinpoche, Ngawang Namgyal and the disputed recognition as Pema Kharpo in Tibet
It is a generally accepted historical fact that Zhabdrung Ngwang Namgyal, a Drugpa Kagyu master from Ralang Monastery in Tibet, founded what is known as Bhutan.
Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal was born at Ralung (rwa lung) Monastery, Tibet as the son of the Drugpa lineage-holder Mipham Tenpa’i Nyima (‘brug pa mi pham bstan pa’i nyi ma, 1567–1619), and Sonam Pelgyi Butri (bsod nams dpal gyi bu khrid), daughter of the ruler of Kyishö (sde pa skyid shod pa) in Tibet. On his father’s side, Ngawang Namgyal descended from the family line of Tsangpa Gyare (1161–1211), the founder of the Drugpa Lineage.
After the death of Gyalwangje, Jamyang Chokyi Drakpa (1478-1523) was confirmed as the third reincarnation of Tsangpa Gyare. The fourth reincarnation, Pema Karpo (kun mkhyen pad ma dkar po, 1527-1592), was called “the omniscient” (Kunkhen) as he was considered to be one of the greatest scholars not only of the Drugpa Kagyu school, but across Tibet generally.
After the passing away of Kunkhen Pema Karpo, there occurred a conflict between two candidates for the fifth incarnation. One was the 17th hereditary hierarch of the Drugpa Kagyu school, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, who belonged to the Gya clan. The other was Pagsam Wangpo (1593-1641), the son of an influential leader in the Chonngye region. Ardussi (2004: 13) writes in states in Formation of the State of Bhutan (’Brug gzhung) in the 17th Century and its Tibetan Antecedents:
“After several years of low-level skirmishing, the dispute came to a head over possession of the so-called “self-created” (rang-byon) Kharsapāni image of Avalokiteśvara said to have emerged miraculously from the cremated remains of Tsang pa Gyare (gTsang-pa rGya-ras). The entire Drugpa community believed in the prophetic power of this image, which had been used to certify Pema Karpo’s status as the legitimate rebirth of Jamyang Chokyi Dragpa (’Jam-dbyangs Chos-kyi-grags-pa) and was expected to identify his successor.
The governor of Tsang intervened in the conflict and recognised Pagsam Wangpo as the formal reincarnation of Pema Karpo:
“when the court required the Zhabdrung to surrender the image he refused to do so, out of family pride and certain that it would be used in a politically contrived stunt to reject his position. In 1616 he decided to take refuge with his patrons in what is now the state of Bhutan, bringing the prophetic image with him.” (Ardussi 2004).
As a result, it is said that Zhabdrung moved from Ralung Monastery to Western Bhutan in order to avoid a protracted conflict. The Drugpa Kagyu school was then divided into the Northern Drukpa Kagyu school (Jangdruk) in Tibet, and the Southern Drukpa Kagyu school (Lhodruk) in Bhutan. The Southern Drugpa school continues to this day in Bhutan with Je Khenpo at the helm.
The 17th Century Gelug/Mongol takeover of Tibet and Ladakh and Zhabdrung’s biography by the Karma Kagyupa, Tsang Khenchen Palden Gyatso
Also, as I wrote about before here in relation to Ladakh, one of the reasons for Zhabdrung staying in Bhutan was the turmoil in Tibet caused by the violent and forceful Gelug/Mongolian takeover of Tibet, with the 5th Dalai Lama as their symbolic head. The political and religious situation in Tibet, and increasingly so in Ladakh, thus led the Zhabdrung to stay in his residence in Bhutan, subsequently founding the Drug Zhung, state of Bhutan. As Ardussi (2004: 11) :
“During the 17-year period 1625-42, three governments were formed in Tibetan cultural regions of the Himalayas that endured into the 20th century, each with a distinctive religion-state basis. We refer to the Ganden Phodrang (dGa’-ldan Pho brang) government of the 5th Dalai Lama (1642), the state of Sikkim or Drejong (’Bras-ljongs) (1642), and the state of Bhutan (1625/26) later called Drugzhung Chogley Namgyel (’Brug-gzhung Phyogs-las-rnam-rgyal).
In the case of Bhutan, some fifty years after its founding in 1625/26 an elaborate theoretical justification of the state’s mission was written, describing it as an earthly realm founded by the Zhabdrung Rinpoche, an emanation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, to rule for the welfare and ultimate salvation of his citizens in The Southern Land of Medicinal Plants.
Eighteen years later the 5th Dalai Lama’s regent, Desi Sangye Gyatso (sDe-srid Sangs-rgyas rGya-mtsho), published a similar manifesto [Baidūrya Ser-po] on behalf of the government in Lhasa. Each claimed to have inherited the mandate and Chosi Zungdrel (chos srid zung ’brel) mission of the Sakya – Mongol government. By contrast, no such exalted claims were made on behalf of the Chogyal of Sikkim, whose small Nyingmapa kingdom became a territory of competition between Bhutan and Tibet.”
This theoretical justification is contained in a biography of the 1st Zhabdrung, written by Tsangchen Palden Gyatso (1610-1684) [i], called Melody of Clouds of Dharma (Ngag dbang rnam rgyal gyi rnam thar rgyas pa chos kyi sprin chen poʼi dbyangs), Tsang Khenchen, a Karma Kagyu follower, also wrote biography about the 10th Karmapa, Choying Dorje[ii]. Khenchen’s arrival in the country [Bhutan] from Tibet is said to have coincided with the final years of the life of the 1st Zhapdrung, Ardussi (2004:15) says of Tsang Khenchen:
“For several years the Zhabdrung operated out of small, pre-existing monasteries at Cheri, Tango, and Pangri Zampaxviii, all located just north of the present capital, Thimphu. It required about twenty-five years to construct major fortified monasteries at Paro Rinchenpung, Wangdue Phodrang, Trongsa, Punakha, and Tashichho dzong.The theoretical foundations of the Zhabdrung’s new ecclesiastic state are presented in elaborate detail by his biographer, Tsang Khenchen, himself a refugee Karma-pa monk driven out of Tibet by Mongol troops loyal to the 5th Dalai Lama. We have said that this work was a political document, to the extent that its purpose was to justify his subject’s state-building mission and political position with respect to Tibet.”
There is an edition of Tsang Khenchen’s biography Melody of Clouds of Dharma text available online, based on the 1800 Punakha block prints of it, which are preserved in the Beiling monastery, Lahaul. The Preface states that the blocks were carved between 1797 and 1802 during the reign of the 18th Je Khenpo, Jamyang Gyeltsen at Punakha (see photos of images I made of these blocks below):
I was kindly informed by a Bhutanese scholar that there is also a modern, computer-input edition (in Tibetan and English) published by the Institute of Mind and Science in Thimphu, Bhutan, which is studied by Grade 12 students there (see image).
According to Ardussi (2004):
“In Tsang Khenchen’s analysis, every significant event in the life of the Zhabdrung Rinpoche had been foretold in prophecy or pre-ordained through the workings of karma. The fruition of these prophecies was offered as proof of his incarnate status. For example, his flight from Tibet to Bhutan was interpreted as the fulfillment of several prophecies, including one of Padma Sambhava:
Seek out repose in the Southern Valleys,
On the border, through the Southern Door;
If you do thus you will gain as much success in seven days of
meditation as in seven years in the land of Tibet.”
Ardussi also reports how Zhabdrung’s alleged use of black magic led to him being accused of the deaths of several of his political opponents/rivals. Nonetheless, the death of these rivals and continued victories over invading Tibetan armies:
“were interpreted by Tsang Khenchen as the fruition of karma and the fulfillment of prophecies that an emanation of Avalokiteshvara should establish a new state for the welfare of its sentient inhabitants. n the Baidūrya-serpo, Desi Sangye Gyatso made similar use of prophecy and Terma texts recorded by such writers as Nyang-ral, to define an identical mission for the 5th Dalai Lama in Lhasa. These were potent arguments that resonated with Tibetan cultural norms, and were widely resorted to in historical works of that era.” (Ardussi (2004:17)
Ardussi notes however that:
“In the Baidūrya Ser-po, the Desi never acknowledges or responds directly to the written barbs launched against the Tibetan government in Tsang Khenchen ’s work. But both he and the Fifth Dalai Lama were intimately aware of events in Bhutan, and never lost an opportunity to celebrate a calamity occurring in the Bhutanese capital. It should be kept in mind that Desi Sangye Gyatso was appointed Desi only in 1679, replacing his predecessor Lobzang Jinpa (Blo-bzang sByin-pa) who was removed from office following a major defeat of Tibetan forces in Bhutan during the previous year, of which he was overall commander.
“The resistance of sectarian rivals was interpreted by the Zhabdrung’s apologists as proof of the need for an aggressive, forceful ruler. An obscure text from the Kanjur, the Tantra on the Arising of the Wrathful Lord’s Yogic Powers provided the necessary archetype of a “hands-on” Bodhisattva who, in extreme circumstances, resorted even to the killing of enemies to make his earthly kingdom safe for the Dharma. In Tibet, where Gushri Khan served as defender of the faith, the Dalai Lama’s persona did not require such a militant interpretation.”
However, it is also no secret that the 5th Dalai Lama and the Gelug/Mongolian army were said to have also propitiated black magic in the form of a worldly protector deity, who was practiced by the Dalai Lamas and Gelugpa until very recently. The 14th Dalai Lama has since stated that such practice of the malevolent deity should not be continued as it was harmful to Tibetans and sentient beings.
Over his 35 years as the temporal and spiritual ruler of Bhutan, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal also repelled a series of Tibetan invasions and overcame internal opposition to unify the country for the first time in its history. On seven occasions between 1616 and 1679, it is said that Tibet launched war against Bhutan, first under the Tsangpa king and, after 1642, under the central Gaden Photang government newly established by 5th Dalai Lama. As a result, it is said that Zhabdrung banned the Gelugpa sect and lineage from ever having monastic establishments in Bhutan. This explains why even in the past, and even today in Bhutan, the Gelugpa and Dalai Lamas still have little spiritual or political influence compared to the Nyingma and Drugpa Kagyu lineages.
PART TWO: 20TH AND 21ST CENTURY BHUTAN – DEVELOPMENTS AND ISSUES
The Treaty of Punakha (1910) – Independence for Bhutan from British India rule
The theme of the 4th Vajrayana Bhutan conference this year was Modernity and Buddhism, so how has Bhutan developed as a modern nation in the 20th and 21st centuries? In 1907, Ugyen Wangchuck was elected as the first hereditary ruler of Bhutan, and installed as the head of state, the Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King)[iii]. Ahmad (2017) writes:
“In 1903, another war loomed when the British wanted to send the Younghusband expedition to Tibet. Caught between the two powers, Ugyen Wangchuck, the son of Jigme Namgyal, initially prepared for war against the British. It was his cousin and close advisor, Ugyen Dorji, a well-established trader based out of Kalimpong, who advised against this. Ugyen Wangchuck’s father-in-law also advised against it. Listening to their advice, Ugyen Wangchuck became the key facilitator for the Younghusband expedition, negotiating on behalf of both the Tibetans and British. He was one of the few that tried to keep some semblance of order in an expedition in which the British machine-gunned Tibetans armed with muzzle loaders, some of whom were just trying to get away from the field of battle at Chumik Shenko.
It was this expedition, and the laurels that Ugyen Wangchuck won as a negotiator for both the power in the north – Tibet – and the power in the South – Britain – that set the stage for him being formally invested with kingship in 1907. “
The Treaty of Punakha was enacted on 8 January 1910, at the signing at Punakha by Sikkim Political Officer Charles Alfred Bell and the first King, Ugyen Wangchuck. The treaty provided that British India would not interfere in the internal affairs of Bhutan if the country accepted external advice in its external relations.
Under the Treaty of Punakha, Britain guaranteed Bhutan’s independence, granted Bhutanese Royal Government an increased stipend, and took control of Bhutanese foreign relations. Although this treaty began the practice of delegating Bhutanese foreign relations to another suzerain, the treaty also affirmed Bhutanese independence as one of the few Asian kingdoms never conquered by a regional or colonial power, the treaty states that:
“The British Government undertakes to exercise no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan. On its part, the Bhutanese Government agrees to be guided by the advice of the British Government in regard to its external relations. In the event of disputes with or causes of complaint against the Maharajas of Sikkim and Cooch Behar, such matters will be referred for arbitration to the British Government which will settle them in such manner as justice may require, and insist upon the observance of its decision by the Maharajas named.”
Independent India and Bhutan and the 1947 Friendship Treaty
Later, when India gained independence from British rule in 1947, the new Indian Government recognized Bhutan as an independent country. Following a standstill agreement immediately after independence, Bhutan signed a fresh Treaty of Friendship with India. In The History of Bhutan (2013), historian Karma Phuntsho argues that the Indo-Bhutan Treaty of 1949 that allowed India to guide Bhutan in the latter’s external affairs:
“certainly deterred any expansionist interests the Chinese in Tibet could have harbored… Bhutan was clearly in the orbit of Indian influence as far as international politics was concerned.”
The treaty provided that India would not interfere in Bhutan’s internal affairs, but would guide its foreign policy.
Tsering Tashi reported in Befriending the Neighbour (2018) that:
“According to the neatly handwritten account, published in the book Ashi Tashi Dorji, Her Life and Legacy , Bhutan’s delegation arrived just as a transition was taking place in South Block: K.P.S. Menon (senior) was about to take over as the first Foreign Secretary of India. At the time, Menon was India’s expert on China and the Himalayas, and knew Sikkim, Tibet and Bhutan like the back of his hand. On April 16, Menon was sworn in as the Foreign Secretary and the Bhutan delegation met him on April 19.
The day after that, the Bhutanese delegation met Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The meeting lasted for an hour, and an official dinner that followed set the course for difficult negotiations. According to the minutes, Nehru said that he did not want to interfere in Bhutan’s internal affairs. But then he quickly contradicted that by offering two unexpected options. The first was for Bhutan to join the Indian Union but still remain an autonomous State within India. His second offer was for Bhutan to have an alliance with India and, if Bhutan wished, to hand over defence, communications and external relations issues to India to deal with.
“The Bhutan delegation stood firm in safeguarding Bhutan’s security and protecting its sovereignty,” writes the Queen Mother in the book. In fact, the discussions were much more tense than anyone had anticipated. “We maintained that unless we received some sort of written favourable assurance on our [territorial] claims, we were not authorised to discuss future relations between India and Bhutan,” Ashi Tashi’s minutes record says, and the Bhutanese delegation nearly left without an agreement. Eventually the word “communications” was left out, a concession from Nehru who had argued that Bhutan would not be able to build its communications infrastructure on its own. Other heated moments followed. Bhutan had been granted only ₹1.5 lakh in consideration of vast areas ceded to the British, which it had hoped India would take a more empathetic view of. India offered another ₹50,000 for the “privilege of guiding Bhutan’s foreign relations”.
“At this point, Nehru said, why should we even pay you this 50,000, as handling foreign relations was a liability to India,” records Ashi Tashi. She adds: “In that case, we said, why did India not forgo the handling of our foreign relations and relieve herself of such a liability?” Nehru laughed, she says, but did not reply.
After a few months of tough negotiations on every point, on August 8, 1949, Bhutan and India signed the Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship at the government house in Darjeeling, signed by Gongzim Sonam Tobgye Dorji and Political Officer in Sikkim, Harishwar Dayal. Subsequently, King Jigme Wangchuck and President C. Rajagopalachari ratified this treaty for Bhutan and India as two fully sovereign nations.
POST-1950s: CHINESE INVASION OF TIBET, 3RD BHUTANESE KING’S REFORMS AND 1954 ROYAL TRIP TO INDIA
When the Chinese communists took over Tibet in 1951, Bhutan closed its frontier with Tibet and sided with its powerful neighbour, India to the south. To offset the chance of Chinese encroachment, Bhutan began a modernization program. Land reform was accompanied by the abolition of slavery and serfdom and the separation of the judiciary from the executive branch of government.
When Ugyen Wangchuck died in 1926, the second Drug Gyalpo, his son Jigme Wangchuck became the ruler. The Third Drug Gyalpo was Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, and he ascended to the throne in 1952 following his father, the second king’s demise. Among his first reforms was the establishment of the National Assembly — the Tshogdu — in 1953. Although the Drug Gyalpo could issue royal decrees and exercise veto power over resolutions passed by the National Assembly, its establishment was a major move toward a constitutional monarchy.
Five years later, Nehru invited Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, and Queen (now ‘Royal grandmother’) Ashi Kesang Choden Wangchuck on a state visit. In 1950, India had started a tradition of inviting a head of state or government of a foreign country as the chief guest for the Republic Day celebrations. In 1954, Nehru invited the King as the chief guest for Republic Day. At that time, the King had been enthroned for two years and was only 25 years old.
NEHRU’S TRIP TO BHUTAN (1958)
In 1958, nearly a decade after the India-Bhutan treaty was signed, that Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi came to Bhutan. This visit sealed the friendship. The two visitors rode on mules and yaks, crossed several mountain passes and trekked several days through unforgiving terrain to reach Bhutan.
Tsering Tashi (2018) reports that:
“The visit is summed up in a letter that Indira Gandhi (Nehru’s wife) wrote to ‘Royal grandmother’ Ashi Kesang Choden Wangchuck from Haa Dzong on September 27, 1958:
“My father said at the public meeting that he was leaving a part of his heart at Paro. That is true of me also. We both love the mountains, their magnificent scenery and the sense of peace they give. Bhutan has these in full measures and it has something more, a special quality. It is fortunate for the Bhutanese that they have at the head two young people like yourself and His Highness who are not only popular but have the good of the people at heart and wisdom to guide them during these difficult times.”
An account in another memoir said that Nehru was “the happiest and most relaxed mood that day. By his own admission, those ten days in Bhutan had soothed him more than a six-month holiday in the best tourist resorts in the world could have.” (Unpublished memoirs of Dasho Prithvi Raj Bakshi.)”
Ahmad (2017) reports that:
“This is the history of independence that the 3rd King of Bhutan, the Druk Gyalpo Jigme Wangchuck, carried forward when he welcomed Nehru to Bhutan in 1958. The King would have been well aware of what was going on in Tibet and its potential ramifications for Bhutan, which Mao claimed as part of Tibet. This was partially based on the defeat of Bhutanese forces by the Tibetan ruler Pholhanas in 1730 and 1732, invited into the country by the then Penlop (Governor) of Paro Valley, and the subsequent dispatch of Bhutanese leaders to kowtow before the Qing throne. It is therefore why Nehru’s promise to Bhutan in September 1958, at his first speech to the Bhutanese public in Paro, was so important:
“Some may think that since India is a great and powerful country and Bhutan a small one, the former might wish to exercise pressure on Bhutan. It is therefore essential that I make it clear to you that our only wish is that you should remain an independent country, choosing your own way of life and taking the path of progress according to your will.”
It was based on this promise that Indian assistance to Bhutan, initially by helping fund Bhutan’s Five Year Plans, began.
Mostly funded by India after China’s Tibetan invasion in 1959, the modernization program also included the construction of roads linking the Indian plains with central Bhutan. Bhutan began to slowly emerge from its isolation and began a program of planned development. The National Assembly of Bhutan, the Royal Bhutanese Army, and the Royal Court of Justice were established, along with a new code of law.
1960’s AND 70’s: ASSASSINATION, POLITICAL INSTABILITY AND JOINING THE UNITED NATIONS
In 1964, there was some political instability when the prime minister, Jigme Palden Dorje (the brother-in-law of the King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck) was murdered in a dispute between rival political factions. Although, in 2016, the Bhutanese Queen Mother has since refuted any suggestion that it was a planned coup.
Then in 1965, there was an unsuccessful assassination attempt was made on the Bhutanese king himself.
Limited numbers of tourists were permitted to enter the country beginning in the 1970s, and in 1971 Bhutan officially ended its political isolation by joining the United Nations.
In 1972, Jigme Singye Wangchuck ascended the throne at age 16.
21ST CENTURY POLITICAL BHUTAN – NEW KING, DEMOCRACY AND NEW FRIENDSHIP TREATY 2007 WITH INDIA
By the turn of the 21st century, Bhutan had moved to embrace democracy as well as to eliminate vestiges of its historical isolation from all angles—geographic, political, economic, social, and technological. Accelerating this initiative was the abdication of the king in 2006 and the transfer of the throne to his politically progressive son, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck. At the 4th Vajrayana conference in Bhutan, both the King and the Queen Mother kindly paid a visit to say hello to all the speakers and attendees, showing their interest and support for the conference. See photo:
There is a video here of the Queen Mother attending the conference, followed by part of the presentation by Kalu Rinpoche on Niguma Yoga.
In 2007, a new friendship treaty was signed between India and Bhutan. The updated 57-year-old agreement allowed Bhutan more freedom in areas of foreign policy and military purchases. Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck met Indian premier Manmohan Singh in Delhi to sign the treaty.
By the end of 2007 the country had held direct elections—the first in its history—for the National Council, the upper house of a new bicameral parliament. Elections in March 2008 for the National Assembly, the lower house of the new parliament, marked the completion of the change to a democratic system.
ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION IN BHUTAN
One of the reasons for Bhutan’s tourist policy and high visa costs is to preserve not only the unique culture of Bhutan but also its nature heritage. Bhutan is renowned for its stunning, pure environment. While I was there no litter or rubbish could be seen anywhere. The rivers were clear and clean too.
For example, often referred to as Bhutan’s “Godfather of Conservation”, Palden Dorji established Bhutan’s first non-governmental organization, the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature in 1987 to conserve the country’s black-necked crane population and to preserve the country’s biodiversity in general. He was also involved in the drafting of “The Middle Path” the country’s first National Environmental Strategy which was published in 1998. He also served as an advisor to numerous conservation and environmental organizations in Bhutan including the National Environment Commission. Dorji was also conferred the Jigme Singye Wangchuck Outstanding Environmental Stewardship Award for Policy Leadership. The Bhutan Ornithological Society as well as the Bhutan Ecological Society was founded by himself with him serving as founding president of the two organizations. In 2018, he was named as one of the “Nature’s Heroes” by the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature.
For the role of women in nature conservation, in the WWF Bhutan, see 2021 video here.
NOT SO MODERN? MANDATORY NATIONAL DRESS CODE AND BUDDHIST CULTURE, THE NEPALI BHUTANESE ISSUE, AND FREEDOM OF SPEECH
It could be asserted that Bhutan still has a long way to go to be a genuinely modern, multi-plural, multi-religious with freedom of expression and gender equality though.
For example, in 1988, Bhutan launched a national policy demanding that everyone adhere completely to Buddhist traditions. Bhutan instituted an official dress code in 1989. All men had to wear the gho and women the kira while outside their homes. But the country has gradually relaxed the dress code over the years, which has led to more young Bhutanese in towns wearing pants and shirts on the roads. Citizens now only have to wear their ghos and kiras at school, at work and to official functions. However, some assert this is a major restriction on civil liberties and freedom of personal expression.
In 1999, the government lifted a ban on television and the Internet, making Bhutan one of the last countries to introduce television. It was believed that exposure to international media makes people unhappy as it encourages desire and greed.
Also, in relation to freedom of speech, Bhutan (like Thailand and some other Asian states) is one of the few remaining countries in the world that has lese majeste laws that forbid criticism of the Royal Family. Such laws are criticised by many as archaic, undemocratic and futile, see here.
Then there is the issue of multi-culturalism and religious tolerance. Bhutanese of Nepalese origin, who constituted between one-third and one-half of Bhutan’s residents (Bhutan’s government claimed the former, Bhutan’s Nepalese the latter) and who were primarily Hindu, viewed the 1988 policy as an attempt to suppress Nepalese culture. Violent protests and ethnic antagonism broke out, and thousands of Bhutan’s Nepalese residents fled to Nepal (Bhutan’s government claimed that many of the Nepalese had resided in the country illegally).
By the early 1990s it was estimated that some 100,000 Nepalese from Bhutan were housed in refugee camps in Nepal; the governments of Bhutan and Nepal held regular meetings to resolve the refugee issue but still had not reached a final agreement after several decades. For more on that, see Morch (2016).
One recent report states that as of 2021, approximately 6,300 Bhutanese refugees were still languishing in two refugee camps in Nepal. Many of the over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees resettled in eight western countries, even if they have not been able to return “home”, feel an intense love for their country of birth. For example, the USA alone took 60, 000 people from there. Although this issue seems to have been ‘dealt with’, on the other hand, some critics of the policy state that it is an example of the lack of cultural and religious tolerance in Bhutan, unlike that of its powerful and huge neighbour, India.
GENDER EQUALITY IN BHUTAN? SOME POSITIVE DEVELOPMENTS BUT STILL SOME WAY TO GO
From my personal experience, Bhutan felt like a very safe country to be in as a woman, I experienced zero sexual harassment or ‘cat-calling’ during my time there as a foreign woman, which I have experienced when visiting other Asian countries. In fact, I was struck by how ‘respectful’, kind and gentle the men were with myself and other women there. Nonetheless, people with a deeper insight and experience of Bhutanese culture argue that Bhutan has a long way to go in order to achieve a reasonable semblance of gender equality.
For example, according to a recent UN report (2021) there are still major concerns regarding the political, economic participation of women, as well as domestic and sexual violence:
“Work still needs to be done in Bhutan to achieve gender equality. 25.8% of women aged 20–24 years old who were married or in a union before age 18. The adolescent birth rate is 59 per 1,000 women aged 15-19 as of 2009, up from 43.8 per 1,000 in 2006. As of February 2021, only 14.9% of seats in parliament were held by women. In 2018, 8.6% of women aged 15-49 years reported that they had been subject to physical and/or sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner in the previous 12 months. Also, women and girls aged 15+ spend 15% of their time on unpaid care and domestic work, compared to 5.9% spent by men.”
A recent report by Research fellow at the University of Singapore, Amit Ranjan (2020) states that:
“Socially and domestically, there has been a rise in gender-based physical and sexual violence. To address this issue, the Domestic Violence Prevention Act 2013 was enacted. However, it has not been able to effectively put a check on the problems faced by the women. Even today, many cases of gender-related violence remain unreported by the victim or are not registered by the police.
One of the major reasons for domestic violence in Bhutan is the socially entrenched sense of male superiority. According to a study report by the National Commission of Women and Children (NCWC) in 2017, out of 2,184 women and girls aged between 15 and 64 years, 38.3 per cent hold the traditional belief that the “women are nine births lower than men”. Of this figure, 60.8 per cent were older women as compared to only 20.9 per cent who were between 15 and 19 years of age. On violence, 53.3 per cent of 2,184 women and girls surveyed by the NCWC agreed that a man is justified in hitting his wife.
Some of the recent rape and molestation cases included the rape and murder of an eight-year-old in Paro; a five-year-old raped in Dagna; and the molestation of a four-year-old in Thimphu. Though laws to punish the perpetrators exist, the Home Minister of Bhutan, Sherub Gyeltshen, said that only a change in people’s mindsets can bring a sustainable solution to the increasing cases of sexual harassment, molestation and rape in the country.”
Nevertheless, it is also claimed that perceptions about gender roles have changed and there has been progress on greater gender equality
It witnessed a 68% increase in women’s representation based on the 2016 elections compared to the previous election in 2011. Progress can also be seen through the lens of the increasing number of women participating in international sporting events.
DE-CRIMINALISING SAME-SEX RELATIONS AND LGBT RIGHTS
As for LGBT rights, until recently, Bhutanese people faced legal issues not faced by LGBT people in other countries. Same-sex sexual activity was only de-criminalised in Bhutan on February 2021 (see here). As amended in 2021, Section 213 of the Bhutan Penal Code states:
A defendant shall be guilty of the offence of unnatural sex, if the defendant engages in sexual conduct that is against the order of nature. However, homosexuality between adults shall not be considered unnatural sex.
Previously, the code said a defendant was guilty of unnatural sex “if the defendant engages in sodomy or any other sexual conduct that is against the order of nature.” This law jailed LGBT people up to a year with fines. Efforts to repeal the sodomy ban began in 2019, during a review of the Penal Code.
“A lot of us cried. We are a small and marginalized community and when our rights are discussed in parliament, it makes us extremely happy,” said Tashi Tsheten, director of the LGBT+ activist group Rainbow Bhutan. “The biggest advantage we have with our current government is that they have already worked with us and they are well aware of our issues. This is our first journey towards equality.” (France 24, Reuters)
MONASTIC SEXUAL MISCONDUCT, THE SEXUAL ABUSE OF KALU RINPOCHE AND SAFETY OF CHILDREN IN MONASTERIES
In 2013, issues connected to the shocking rise of AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases and sexual abuse among the male monastic communities in Bhutan led to condoms being issued to monks by the Bhutanese authorities together with a concern about the safety of children in monasteries.
This is evidenced by the recent case in 2011 of Bhutanese Buddhist teacher and holder of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage. H.E Kalu Rinpoche (who was also one of the main speakers at the 4th Vajrayana conference in 2022) bravely speaking out about his own sexual abuse as a child as a monk, and the subsequent deaf ears and silence that exposure resulted in, see here. I wrote an article about this case and issue in 2012, and even had a private audience with one of my main teachers, HH 17th Karmapa to ask him why he and other senior Kagyu religious leaders and teachers had not publicly made any statement about it. The response was merely that it was ‘difficult’.
Kalu Rinpoche has not spoken about his experience publicly again, and did not refer to it at the 2022 Vajrayana conference either, however, that does not mean these issues have disappeared completely and there is still the question as to how his case (and others) were dealt with by the relevant authorities.
PATRIARCHAL RELIGIOUS DOMINANCE, FULL ORDINATION OF BUDDHIST NUNS AND THE BHUTANESE NUNS FOUNDATION
Like most other Buddhist (or heavily religious countries) patriarchal religious dominance in Bhutan is also still very apparent. The 4th Vajrayana conference for example, had zero female speakers in its opening or closing ceremonies (which was predominantly monks or male lamas), more on that in another post about the paper I presented there on the monastic takeover of Vajrayana! I mentioned this glaring omission to the organiser of the conference, Dasho Karma Ura.
Nonetheless, things are slowly improving there it seems. a few months ago Bhutan hit the international headlines with the first public ceremony of the full ordination by Je Khenpo of nuns there. The British nun, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo who has been one of the key figures in promoting the opportunities and equality of Tibetan Buddhist nuns attended the ceremony.
One of the key agents of change in Bhutan supporting the full ordination of nuns has been the Bhutan Nuns Foundation, a non-profit organization operating under the patronage of the Queen Mother Ashi Tshering Yangdoen Wangchuck. Established in 2009 and managed by Buddhist activist and executive director Dr. Tashi Zangmo, the Bhutan Nuns Foundation aims to empower and educate Bhutanese girls and women to improve their living conditions and the economic vitality of rural villages, in turn helping to preserve the kingdom’s rich Buddhist culture in the face of rapid development. The foundation works directly with about 28 Buddhist nunneries, educating and training nuns to be community leaders and teachers. This was claimed to be the first ever such ceremony of its kind within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
Recently, however, in 2021, the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje taught about how there were fully ordained nuns within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition in Tibet in the past, but also in the present before the Bhutanese ceremony, even if those ordinations were not as publicly reported on (see here). Whatever the case, may be one can only hope that such activities, after the media headlines are over, are backed up with practical actions to support the new fully ordained nuns.
As I sadly discovered in my recent interview here of Tibetan Buddhist fully ordained nuns at the Tilopa nunnery in India, such nuns were left to cope alone without any real practical or spiritual support to sustain their vows and so on.
Some people (including myself) also queried the emphasis in some of the media coverage on the primary role of Je Khenpo in the ordination, citing the greater importance of decades of hard work and activism of women and nuns (foreign, Tibetan and Bhutanese) in bringing about such change and events. Whatever one thinks about that, it is certainly a positive development for Buddhist female practitioners in Bhutan though and to be congratulated.
COVID-ERA STRICTLY LOCKED DOWN BHUTAN AND LACK OF CIVIL LIBERTIES
On 23rd September 2022, Bhutan abandoned its zero COVID policy and opened its borders without restriction to tourists again to those who were injected with two COVID ‘vaccines’. Entering Bhutan via air was certainly easy and stress-free.
However, Bhutan has been criticised as being one of the strictest nations in the world in its zero COVID strategy. In 2020, Bhutan went into one of the strictest lockdowns in the world during the Covid times, unlike its neighbours, Sikkim and India, sealing off all borders to travellers (other than Bhutanese citiznes) and with unofficial mandatory injections for all citizens (including children and teenagers). Free COVID-19 vaccination was given to all of its citizens, both inside and outside the country. It started mass injections were started on 27 March 2021 and was reported as having vaccinated over 83 percent of its population within two weeks. Resulting in over 93 percent of the adult population getting both injections.
In India on the other hand, injections (although freely offered) were never mandatory (for adults or teenagers) and there were never any vaccine restrictions for entering cafes, restaurants and other public spaces. This policy resulted in an estimated 30 percent of Indians getting both injections but also in what is considered to be one of the highest natural immunity rates in the world. In addition, Indian borders were opened long before Bhutan opened theirs to tourists, with the option of providing a negative PCR test for those who were ‘unvaccinated’.
For example, in some European countries like Denmark, the health authorities stopped giving or recommending injections for people below the age of 18, citing a lack of any scientific evidence to support the need for their use in that age group and the potential negative health side effects of giving them outweighing any proven benefit, see here.
So although Bhutan has one of the lowest case fatality reported rates in the world, some critics argue that this ‘strict control’ and lack of choice in relation to the injections, is a sign that Bhutan still has a long way to go when respecting fundamental civil liberties and human rights.
PART THREE: VISIT TO PARO DZONG AND PARO CHU RIVER
Putting aside the politics and history of Bhutan, I end this essay with a ‘sunny’ experience of Bhutan, its stunning natural habitat and architecture. My first stop in Bhutan was Paro, flying into Paro airport was a divine experience on a sunny day coming over the green valleys and mountains.
Before hiking up the Paro Tagtsang, I went for a walk along the Paro Chu river and saw the Paro Dzong. Here are some photos below I took during my walk.
In terms of a brief overview of the Dzong, in the 15th century local people offered the crag of Hungrel at Paro to Lama Drung Gyal, a descendant of Pajo Drugom Zhigpo. Drung Drung Gyal built a small temple there and later a five storied Dzong or fortress which was known as Hungrel Dzong. In the 17th century, his descendants, the lords of Hungrel, are said to have offered this fortress to the 1st Zhabdrung Rinpoche, in recognition of his religious and temporal authority. In 1644, the Zhabdrung dismantled the existing dzong and laid the foundations of a new dzong. In 1646, the dzong was reconsecrated and established as the administrative and monastic centre of the western region and it became known as “Rinpung Dzong”.
Later, I will write about my visits to the Tsechu event and Cham dances at Tashi Cho Dzong in Thimpu and the enormous Buddha statue on the Thimpu hilltop, surrounded by Tara statues. For now, please enjoy the peaceful, stunning vibes of the Paro Dzong and river.
Ahmad,Omair (2017) Doklam Standoff: ‘Misunderestimating’ Bhutan’s Sovereignty (thewire.in)
Ranjan, Amit (2020) Not a Happy Place: Bhutan Faces Serious Socio-economic Problems. ISAS Insights.
Asia’s Lèse-Majesté Laws Are a Futile Attempt to Stifle Dissent
Kinga, Sonam (2009), Polity, Kingship, and Democracy: A biography of the Bhutaneae state, Thimphu: Ministry of Education, OCLC 477284586.
Morch, Maximilian (2016) Bhutan’s Dark Secret: The Lhotsampa Expulsion The Diplomat.com.
Nawang, Jigme (2015) ‘Why Did Tibet and Ladakh Clash in the 17th Century?: Rethinking the Background to the ‘Mongol War’ in Ngari (1679-1684)’
Phuntsho, Karma (2013). The History of Bhutan. Nodia: Random House India.
Tashi, Tsering (2018) Befriending the Neighbour in The Hindu.com
(2022)WHERE ARE THE GELONGMAS? DISCOVERING HIDDEN TREASURES: THE RARE GEMS OF LIVING TIBETAN BUDDHIST FULLY ORDAINED NUNS. A Pilgrimage and Field Study of Two Nunneries in Himachal Pradesh and fully ordained nuns within the Tibetan tradition.
Bhutan’s Royalty refutes “coup” claims in Rasgotra book (2016) in thehindu.com.
Lewis, Craig (June 2022) 142 Buddhist Nuns Receive Full Ordination at Landmark Ceremony in Bhutan in Buddhist Door. net .
[i] BDRC: P513. A 17th Century literary figure, Tsang Khenchen Gyatso (1610-1684) was the Biographer of Zhabdrung 01 and apparently had served Karmapa 10 Choying Dorje under the name Rimdrowa Kuntu Zangpo. His Collected Works are available online here:
gTsang mkhan chen dpal ldan rgya mtsho. gSung ʼbum ʼjam dbyangs dpal ldan rgya mtsho. Kunzang Topgey, 1976. Buddhist Digital Resource Center (BDRC), purl.bdrc.io/resource/MW27481. [BDRC bdr:MW27481]
[ii] gTsang mkhan chen dpal ldan rgya mtsho. Ngag dbang rnam rgyal gyi rnam thar rgyas pa chos kyi sprin chen poʼi dbyangs. Topden Tshering, 1974. Buddhist Digital Resource Center (BDRC), purl.bdrc.io/resource/MW30164. [BDRC bdr:MW30164]
[iii] For five months, between 1864 and 1865, Bhutan and British India engaged in the Duar War, which Bhutan lost. As a result, Bhutan lost part of its sovereign territory, accompanied by forced cession of formerly occupied territories. Under the terms of the Treaty of Sinchula, signed on 11 November 1865, Bhutan ceded territories in the Assam Duars and Bengal Duars, as well as the eighty-three square kilometer territory of Dewangiri in southeastern Bhutan, in return for an annual subsidy of 50,000 rupees.
By the turn of the century, continuing geopolitical developments raised the question of a new treaty. Ugyen Wangchuck had consolidated power as Penlop of Trongsa and was unanimously elected monarch by government and religious cadres just two years earlier, in December 1907.
[iv] In 1913 he participated in the Simla Convention, a treaty between Great Britain, China and Tibet concerning the status of Tibet. Before the summit, he met in Gyantse with Paljor Dorje Shatra, the Tibetan representative to the British Raj at Darjeeling and advised him to bring to Simla with him all documents concerning relations between China and Tibet, as well as Tibetan claims to land occupied by China. Bell was designated to assist the Tibetans in the negotiations, with Archibald Rose assigned to be his counterpart for the Chinese. He was appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in the 1915 New Year Honours for his services.
In 1919 he resigned as Britain’s political officer in Sikkim to devote himself full-time to his research. However, London sent him to Lhasa in 1920 as a special ambassador. After travelling through Tibet and visiting Lhasa in 1920, he retired to Oxford, where he wrote a series of books on the history, culture and religion of Tibet. He was awarded a knighthood for his Lhasa Mission in 1922..
Some of the photographs that he took in Tibet can be found in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Some of these were included in the 1997 book Tibet: Caught in Time.
His English-Tibetan colloquial dictionary was first published in 1905 together with a grammar of colloquial Tibetan as Manual of Colloquial Tibetan.