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"Bhutan - The Last Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom" 




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The Last Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom


      During the turn of the 19th Century, there were quite a number of Buddhist Kingdoms in the Himalayas. Some were big, some were small. Some were ruled by reincarnate lamas, some were ruled by kings and noblemen. Protected and isolated from the outside world by the high Himalayas and sustained by the Lamaist Buddhist faith, these kingdoms flourished alongside one another on the roof of the world.


     The biggest among these kingdoms was Tibet, which lied north of the other kingdoms, sharing borders with China. In the west was the Kingdom of Ladakh which shared borders with Muslim princely states in Kashmir and Pamir knot mountains of Central Asia. Lying along the Southern aspect of the Himalayan range from West to East were the Kingdoms of Mustang, Sikkim and Bhutan.   


      These Buddhist kingdoms were a different world altogether. There was very limited trade with the outside world and among themselves. The main preoccupation of the state as well as that of the peoples was on the spiritual attainment of the individuals and well being of the religious monastic institutions, rather than on the worldly well being and economic activities. Of course, there were some sections of the population engaged in daily economic activities like farming, cattle rearing, handicrafts and small scale trading. These farmers, artisans and traders supported the monks and religious practitioners in the monasteries and temples, while the monks and religious practitioners looked after the spiritual well being of the lay people in return. Buddhism might have disappeared from the land of its birth in India, but it was flourishing behind the high Himalayas, albeit mixed with local rituals and deities. 


      The once fierce warriors on horseback charging across the roof of the world gave way to pacifist societies nestled by the gleaming Himalayan peaks. The expansionist warrior kings of the Tibetan plateau who once even threatened China itself under the Tang dynasty were recast by the then historians as protector of Buddhism. As Buddhism took root, previous Kings and nobility surrendered their power to the prestigious Buddhist Lamas. These countries saw the establishment of a unique political system of hereditary theocracy where principle of reincarnation was used to supply a line of Lama rulers based on the rebirths of the founding lama. 

       The theocratic kingdoms in the Himalayas last only for 300 years. Frequent feuds for recognition of rival reincarnate lamas would regularly rock the foundation of such a state during the period. By the second half of the 19th century, there were much scientific and economic progress in the outside world, and the old power balance had shifted in favour of industrialization and modern science. Powerful western countries like Great Britain was at the doorsteps of these kingdoms. Russian empire was looking to expand southwards. The Chinese claimed suzerainty over the area. Suddenly, the roof of the world became one of the stages for the Great Game of Central Asia. Many of the Himalayan Buddhist Kingdoms were just pawns for the big players of the Great Game.


       The largest of the Himalayan Buddhist Kingdoms, Tibet never could wriggle out of the grip of the Chinese suzerainty claim. It was invaded in 1949 and fully occupied by 1959. Kingdom of Ladakh which was  under constant threat from the neighbouring Muslim princely states, acceded to the Indian Republic one year after India's independence. Mustang, which was the smallest of the kingdoms, never had high aspirations of a modern nationhood. It became a part of Nepal. Kingdom of Sikkim was over run by Nepalese migrants. By 1900s when the first census was taken, Sikkimese were a minority in their own country. When the ethnic riots broke out in 1970s, Indian Army intervened and later annexed the kingdom in 1976.           


Bhutan is the last Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom. In 1900, when the other kingships were either dying or dead, Bhutan's Wangchuck dynasty was being established. The people, the clergy and the officials in the country gathered in Punakha and unanimously pledged to the founding of a hereditary monarchy to bring peace, stability and prosperity in the country. Bhutanese were by then so tired of the constant dissensions and civil strife among the rival chiefs and rival valleys that was the mark of the theocracy which lasted in Bhutan for 250 years.


The establishment of the monarchy in Bhutan was indeed the dawn of a new era in Bhutanese history - a united, peaceful and stable one. There was unprecedented peace and stability. The Bhutanese monarchs fashioned themselves after the great Buddhist kings of the history, who was always accessible to the lowest of his subjects. This made the Bhutanese monarch's true monarchs of the people.

On the international front, Bhutan united under a single leadership could establish friendly relations with its neighbours. It was indeed under the leadership of the monarchs that  Bhutan steered through the challenging times of great geo-political changes during the first half of the 20th century, a time when some of Bhutan's next door neighbours lost their independence while others were gaining theirs.


Bhutan's monarchs have guide the kingdom gentle into 21st Century. On the eve of the 100 Years of Monarchy in Bhutan, the fourth king His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, known for his justice and firm belief in democracy, has laid the foundation for a parliamentary democracy in Bhutan through the introduction of a written constitution.


The last of the Buddhist Kingdoms in the Himalayas would be ushering in democracy in 2008. She has indeed made a giant leap from the remote roof of the world to stand tall among modern nations in the 21st Century.     


Article ©2007 Alpine Bhutan Travel. This is an original article on on Bhutan History. No part of this article maybe reproduced without prior permission from Alpine Bhutan Website.





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©Alpine Bhutan Travel February 2007