The History of Bhutan
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An Historical Overview of Bhutan

To review Bhutan's history is to appreciate the continuing importance of the country's heritage and the ongoing interplay between the past and the present. The contemporary situation essentially remains the accumulated product of a long and isolated past. Significantly, until the modern era there had occurred no major watersheds, dislocating the country from its previous traditions and placing it on an alternative trajectory. This design tends to both reinforce a continuing intimacy and bestow an unusual degree of continuity. A steady and consistent process of internal succession is punctuated by four defining moments: the arrival of Buddhism closely followed by the profound presence of Guru Rinpoche; the birth of the nation upon unification by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal; the establishment of a monarchy under the First King Ugyen Wangchuck; and collective integration within regional and global systems and the beginning of modernization.

Circumstantial evidence suggests that the land was inhabited by around 2000BC. Not much is known about these pre-historic peoples and their cultures or their relationship with the surrounding regions. The country's demographic history is however one of ongoing migration, reflected in the chronology of the three broad ethnic groupings: first the Sharchops of Indo-Mongoloid origin; then the Ngalops of Tibetan origin; and more recently the Lhotsams of Nepali origin. Prevailing community structures - dispersed, localized, agrarian and self-sufficient - indicate a relative stability in underlying social and economic conditions. Upon this essentially constant background is placed an overwhelming and deeply interrelated religious and political overlay.

Prior to the arrival of Buddhism in the Seventh Century, communities subscribed to the Bon religion, characterized by the worship of spirits associated with elements from the natural environment. The Buddhist religion merged these beliefs within its broader framework, and through its diffusion became the first collective authority and cohesive force. Many influential religious figures either traveled through or made Bhutan their home. The nation first achieved a degree of political unity in the Seventeenth Century under the extraordinary leadership of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the hierarch of the Drukpa Kagyupa religious order. He established a centralized theocracy of intertwined religious and secular rule, simultaneous and somewhat akin to the Tibetan Gelugpa system under successive Dalai Lamas.

Until the seventeenth century the country consisted of a dislocated collection of local fiefdoms ruled by families of noble descent. The political hierarchy implied by nobility highlights the intimate relationship between spiritual and temporal legitimacy. This was further underlined by the Drukpa theocracy, which provided an initial sense of nationhood even though it did not achieve continuing secular stability. The process of internal political unification finally reached a logical conclusion in the early Twentieth Century with the introduction of a hereditary monarchy. Having spent most of its history isolated from significant external influence, Bhutan became more intimately linked with the modern world in the early 1960s. This signifies the most far-reaching political development in the nation's history, as it becomes connected to the subtle multidimensional powers implied by the modernization process.

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