September 13, 2014 – Day 12 – Punakha, Bhutan

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This was the day that I chose to stay at the hotel to work on the blog and rest up. However, I did manage to sneak in a spa treatment, which was wonderful.

After reading the Lonely Planet and other guide books I discovered that much of Bhutan’s history has been based on legends, stories and folklore because it’s original records were destroyed in fires and earthquakes over the years.

Bhutan’s Buddhist history begins with Guru Rinpoche, who was a Tibetan monk, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the first Century around 746 AD. Previous to this the Bon religion was practised in Bhutan. The Bon religion was much like Shamanism where people worshiped the sun, earth, water, trees etc. Guru Rinpoche was responsible for bringing the Red Hat Buddhism or Nyingma Buddhism to Bhutan. (Today’s Dali Lama belongs to the Yellow Hat sect of Buddhism).There were many stories of Guru Rinpoche saving kings of different territories in Bhutan from demons by using his supernatural powers. Guru Rinpoche had 8 different manifestations. He was said to have been born from a lotus flower and was also to have been the reincarnation of the first Buddha, Sakyamuni.

In 1616, the monk who united much of Bhutan through Buddhism was Ngawang Namgyal, a Tibetan monk who was being challenged in Tibet by another religious leader. Fearing for his safety he eventually left Tibet at age 23 and moved to Bhutan. He soon established himself as “THE” religious leader in Bhutan and gave himself the title of Zhabdrung Rinpoche. It was this monk who built the first Dzong, which housed both the religious and administrative facilities as well as being a fortress or citadel for the protection of the locals. This same system of Dzongs was still being used in Bhutan today.

The Tibetan religious leaders were jealous of Zhabdrung and eventually there were 7 invasions by Tibet on Bhutan between 1656 and 1730. Luckily the Tibetans were unsuccessful in their attacks against Bhutan. (Probably because it is much easier to shoot arrows down than up a mountain).

Zhabdrung wanted to establish a Bhutanese identity separate from Tibet to preserve Bhutan’s culture. It was he, who defined the traditional dress still used today. The Gho for the men and the Kira for the women. He also established a code of laws for the layperson and the Buddhist community. He set up a system of taxes and free labour, which was in place until the 3rd King eliminated them in 1956!

In December 1907, Ugyen Wangchuck was crowned King of Bhutan. This was the beginning of the monarchy system in Bhutan. Britain and Bhutan had good relations during this time because Bhutan’s King wanted protection from China. This first king was decorated with the Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India. K1 died in 1926 and was succeeded by his 24 year old son. After India received its independence from Britain in 1947, India and Bhutan signed a treaty. K2 died in 1952 and K3 became the king. K3 was known as the father of modern Bhutan because he reformed the society and it’s economics by abolishing serfdom, reorganized land holdings, established an army, a police force and a court. K3 died at the age of 44 and his son at the age of 16 became K4. King 4 continued with his father’s modernization of Bhutan including education and health services and he also established the GNH, Gross National Happiness Ministry.

In 1998 K4 gave up absolute power by sharing authority with the National Assembly and Council of Ministers. In 2006 K4 brought in democracy, much to the dismay of the Bhutanese citizens who loved the monarchy. But the king said, “I do not know how my son or grandsons will govern over Bhutan; therefore, I want to put in a system of democracy to protect the population”. A compromise was reached where both monarchy and democracy would work together hand in hand. Democracy was started in 2007 at the same time as K4 abdicated his throne to his son who is now, K5. King 4 is quoted as saying “Monarchy is not the best form of government because a king is chosen by birth and not by merit”.

Although known as Bhutan to the outside world. The locals call the country Druk Yul, land of the Thunder Dragon and they call themselves Drukpa. A white dragon is shown on the Bhutanese flag because of this. The Wangchuck Royal Family have certainly shown themselves to be good dragon leaders!

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