History of Bhutan
Sir Ugyen Wangchuck’s emergence as the national leader coincided with the realization that the dual political system was obsolete and ineffective removed his chief rival, the Ponlop (Governor) of Paro, and installed a supporter and relative, a member of the pro-British Dorji family in his place. When the last Zhabdrung died in 1903 and a reincarnation had not appeared by 1906, civil administration came under the control of Sir Ugyen Wangchuck. In 1907, the 54th and last Druk Desi was forced to retire, and despite recognitions of subsequent reincarnations of Ngawang Namgyal, the Zhabdrung system came to an end.
In November 1907, an assembly of leading Buddhist monks, government officials, and heads of important families was held to end the moribund 300-year-old dual system of government and established a new absolute monarchy. Ugyen Wangchuck was elected as the first hereditary Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King, who reigned 1907-26). The Dorji family became hereditary holders of the position of Gongzim (Chief Chamberlain), the top government post. The British, wanting political stability on their northern frontier, assented to the entire development.
A new Bhutanese-British Treaty of Punakha was signed on January 8, 1910. It amended two articles of the 1865 Treaty: the British agreed to double their annual stipend to 100,000 rupees and “to exercise no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan.” However, Bhutan agreed to be guided by the British Government in regard to its external relations. The Treaty of Punakha also guaranteed Bhutan’s defense against China.
Much of Bhutan’s modern development has been attributed by Bhutanese historians to the first Druk Gyalpo. Internal reforms included introducing Western-style schools, improving internal communications, encouraging trade and commerce with India, and revitalizing the Buddhist monastic system. Ugyen Wangchuck was concerned about the continuity of the family dynasty, and in 1924 he sought British assurance that the Wangchuck family would retain its preeminent position in Bhutan. His request led to an investigation of the legal status of Bhutan vis-a-vis the suzerainty held over Bhutan by Britain and the ambiguity of Bhutan’s relationship to India. Both the suzerainty and the ambiguity were maintained.
Bhutan – Landlocked country is situated in the eastern Himalayas with pristine environment. It is bordered for 470 kilometers by Tibet region of China to the north and northwest for 605 kilometers by India’s states of Sikkim to the west, West Bengal to the southwest, Assam to the south and southeast, and Arunachal Pradesh to the east. Sikkim divides Bhutan from Nepal.
Bhutan stretches 300 kms in length and 170 kms in breadth thus forming a total of 46,500 square kilometers. About 70 percent of Bhutan is covered with forests; 10 percent covered with perpetual snow and glaciers. This leaves 9 percent for human habitation. The rest for pastures, meadows, barren rocky areas or scrubland.
Early British visitors to Bhutan reported the high mountains lost in the clouds altogether a scene of extraordinary magnificence and sublimity. Bhutan has the most rugged mountain terrains in the world with elevations ranging from 160m in the south to 7,000m in the north. Bhutan’s highest peak at 7,554m is Kulha Gangri bordering China; Jumo Lhari overlooking the Chumbi Valley is 7,314m; nineteen other peaks exceed 7,000m.
The snowcapped Great Himalayan Range over 7,500m runs along the Bhutan-China border. The northern region consists of glaciated mountain peaks with arctic climate at the highest elevations. Watered by snow-fed rivers, alpine valleys in this region provide pasturage for livestock tended by a sparse population of migratory nomads.
The Inner Himalayas are southward spurs of the Greater Himayalan Range. The Black Mountains, in central Bhutan, form a watershed between two major river systems, the Mo Chhu and the Drangme Chhu (River). Peaks in the Black Mountains range between 1,500m to 2,700m, and the fast-flowing rivers have carved out spectacular gorges in the lower mountain valleys. The woodlands of the central region provide most of Bhutan’s valuable forest production.
In the south, foothills descending into the subtropical Duars in India are covered with dense deciduous forest, alluvial lowland river valleys, and mountains that reach to around 1,500m.
The Duars abuts the Himalayan foothills, has rugged, sloping terrain and dry porous soil with dense vegetation and abundant wildlife. Rice and other crops are grown on the plains and mountainsides up to 1,200m.
Bhutan has four seasons. Bhutan’s climate ranges from tropical in the south to temperate in the upper regions of the country, too cold in the north and like much of your adventure in the Himalayas it will be quite unpredictable. The weather can vary dramatically from valley to valley, from day to day or within same day. For example: in the Thimphu and Paro valleys, the winter daytime temperature averages 60 degrees Fahrenheit during winter days but drops well below freezing point during the night.
The fluctuations are not quite so great during the summer and daytime temperature often rises to the mid 80 Fahrenheit. Punakha, Wangduephodrang and central valley’s are lower than valleys in Western region and tend to be always warmer. The higher peaks will be snow-covered all year. Light snow will often blanket Thimphu and Paro valleys in winter. The higher passes, particularly, Thrumshing La between Bumthang and Mongar can be treacherous during the winter as snow falls frequent and ices up the road.
The summer monsoon from the Bay of Bengal affects Bhutan from late May to later September. Views over the Himalayas from the higher passes are usually obscured from June to August. There are notable advantages to visiting Bhutan during the wet season including the spectacular rhododendron blossom from March through June and the deep green valleys. Many species of wild orchids are in full bloom during spring to late summer season.
The spring season in Bhutan can only be compared to a master artist’s palette, truly a spectacular time. The autumn season, late September through November, is usually very mild and clear. The Fall colors surround and embrace your senses. The sky is usually at its clearest, affording magnificent views of the Himalaya range. The spring and Fall seasons are traditionally the most popular times to visit the country.
Government & Politics
After 300 years of Dual Theocratic Civil Government, the first hereditary monarchy was established in 1907. Locally addressed as Druk Gyalpo – the King, is both head of State and Government. The first Druk Gyalpo, Ugyen Wangchuck, who reigned from 1907 to 1926, unified the nation, established friendly relations with British India, and set his political agenda. There had been three hereditary monarchs from 1907 – 199: Jigme Wangchuck (1926-52), Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1952-72), and Jigme Singye Wangchuck (since 1972). December 17th is the National Day to commemorate Ugyen Wangchuck’s enthronement as the first King in 1907.
Established as an absolute monarchy in 1907, Bhutan first moved toward a constitutional monarchy in 1953 with the foundation of its National Assembly. In 1963 the monarch’s title was changed from “His Highness” to “His Majesty the Druk Gyalpo” in a move to assert a distinct Bhutanese identity. The Druk Gyalpo retained veto power over actions of the National Assembly until 1969 when the National Assembly, following his 1968 decree, became the Kingdom’s sovereign institution. After 1969, the National Assembly could remove the Druk Gyalpo through a No-Confidence Vote.
To secure the Wangchuck Dynasty, should the Druk Gyalpo be dethroned through a No-Confidence Vote, the Wangchuck family member next in line of succession would automatically take the throne. Also beginning in 1969, at the insistence of the Druk Gyalpo a “Democratic Monarchy” was to be determined through triennial votes of confidence in the Druk Gyalpo’s rule.
In 1972 Jigme Singye Wangchuck succeeded his father, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, who had involved the young prince in the work of government and had appointed him crown prince and Ponlop of Tongsa only a few months before dying. After his accession to the throne in 1972, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck was formally enthroned in June 1974.
In 1988, the Druk Gyalpo married the four sister Queens in a public ceremony in Punakha. After enthronement in 1972, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck became most concerned in economic development and traveled extensively throughout the country. He also has traveled a great deal outside of Bhutan, attending international meetings and personally representing his country. A young, vigorous head of State unafraid to break from the bureaucracy and constraints of his office–including his trips to the countryside where he could be seen “serving the people”. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck presented the monarchy as progressive and symbolic of national unity.
The Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck introduced Democratic System of governance in 2008 and the Crown Prince enthroned as the Fifth King.