People and History

The people

Bhutan is a rich mosaic of cultures, lifestyles, languages and belief systems. In a country with a population of less than 700,000 as many as 19 different dialects and several languages are spoken. This is attributed to the fact that in the past, Bhutanese communities settled in the valleys with limited communication. It is for the same reason that the sense of individuality and independence emerges as a strong characteristic of the people.

The Bhutanese are, by nature, physically strong and fiercely independent with an open and ready sense of humor. Hospitality is a built-in social value in Bhutan. People wear colorful clothing. Men wear a Gho, a long robe pulled up to knee height and tied around the waist by a slim fabric belt called Kera. Women wear a dress called Kira, which is an ankle-length wrap- around dress secured by a belt (kera) around the waist and fastened at the shoulders with silver brooches called Koma.

There is no rigid class system in Bhutan, and social and educational opportunities are not affected by rank or birth. Bhutanese women enjoy equal rights with men. Both men and women are free to choose their partners for marriage and both can initiate a divorce. Monks are held in great respect and play an active part in community life. Representatives of the monk body are present at all important occasions. In the past, it was common for one son from each family to enter the monastic order, a custom that is less prevalent today.


Bhutan’s early history is steeped in the Buddhist tradition and mythology. Mystery surrounds Bhutan’s distant past, because books and papers were lost in consecutive fires at the national printing works and at Punakha Dzong in 1828 and 1832. Then a massive earthquake in 1896 and a fire in Paro Dzong destroyed all but a few of the records that outlasted the first disasters. Despite the loss of these records, we know that Bhutan’s history parallels the following of Buddhism in the Himalayas. To properly understand Bhutan’s history, one also needs to understand its religion, because Buddhism has occupied a predominant role in shaping the social, political, economic and cultural evolution of the country.

Although Bhutan was not unified under a central authority until the 17th century, the religious presence in the country had been acting as a spiritual cohesion for many years. In 747 A.D the Buddhist sage, Padmasambhava, popularly revered in Bhutan as Guru Rinpoche or the precious Master, visited the country and introduced Buddhism. Since then, in the century that followed, Lamas or Buddhist teachers and local nobility established their own separate domains through out the country.

In 1616, another saint called the “Shabdrung,” meaning, “at whose feet one submits,” came from Tibet and unified Bhutan under a central authority. He is responsible for building all the Dzongs (fortresses) in the kingdom and also set up a dual system of government that intertwines the religious and secular authorities. To the present day, these Dzongs serve as a center for religious and civil authority.

The country’s recent history begins with the establishment of a hereditary monarchy in 1907. However, it was only during the reign of the third king (1952-1972), His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck also known as the Father of modern Bhutan that the nation emerged from its medieval past of serfdom and reclusion. Until the 1960s the country had no national currency, no telephones, schools, hospitals, postal services or tourists. Development efforts have now produced all these plus a national assembly, airport, roads, and a national system of health care. Despite the speed of modernization, Bhutan has maintained a policy of careful, controlled growth in an effort to preserve its national identity. Under the visionary leadership of the 4th King (1972-2007), His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck has promoted the development philosophy of ‘Gross National Happiness’. Further under his reign Bhutan withnessed the biggest political transformation when His Majesty abdicated the throne for his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and declared democracy as a form of government for Bhutan.