The recorded history dates as far back as the 6th century A.D., while the real historical period started with the introduction of Buddhism from 7th century A.D. Since then, Buddhism has largely shaped the history of Bhutan and the way of life of its people.
The geographical situation kept the world at bay and together with the policy of isolationism this small kingdom was never colonized which is a matter of great pride to the Bhutanese. Its ancient history, which is a mixture of the oral tradition and classical literature, tells of a largely self-sufficient population that had limited contact with the outside world until the turn of the century.
The earliest notable relics visible of the history of Bhutan, today, are the two monasteries, the Kyichu Lhakhang in Paro and Jambay Lhakhang in Bumthang which were built in the 7th Century A.D. Little is known about Bhutan of that period.
But it was not until the visit of Guru Rimpochey (also known as Padma Sambhava) in 747 A.D., that Buddhism took firm root in the country. It is believed that Guru Rimpochey came flying on the back of a tiger and landed in Taktsang, Paro, where the Taktsang monastery, one of the most revered sacred sites and the most distinguished religious and historical icon of Bhutan, stands today. The Kurjey Lhakhang in Bumthang is another important revered site of pilgrimage where Guru Rimpochey had meditated, subdued the evil spirits and left the imprint of his body on a rock.
Another important chapter in the history of Bhutan evolved in the first half of the 13th century when the spiritual master, Phajo Drugom Zhingpo arrived, the precursor of the Drukpa Kagyu tradition of Mahayana Buddhism which ultimately gained pre-eminence in the country. Many saints and religious figures, over the years, helped shape Bhutan’s history and develop its religion of which the Tertons (Treasure discoverers) played an important role who were pre-destined to unearth the ters (relics) hidden for posterity by Guru Rimpoche and other saints. Among the Tertons, Pema Lingpa, born in the Tang valley of Bumthang (central Bhutan), occupies the most important place in the Bhutanese history. His discovery of ters from a lake called Mebartsho (The Burning Lake) in Bumthang is the most famous event. He not only discovered religious texts and arte-facts but also composed dances and created arts which have become one of the most important constituents of the cultural heritage of Bhutan.
With the arrival of Shabdrung Rimpochey (the precious jewel at whose feet one submits) opened the most dynamic era in the history of Bhutan. The religious and secular powers were not clearly delineated until the 17 Century when Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the great leader of the Drukpa school of Mahayana Buddhism, established the dual system of government–the temporal and theocratic–with Je Khenpo (chief abbot) as the religious head and the temporal leader known as the Desi. He was not only a great spiritual personality and a statesman but also left his indelible legacy as a great architect and a builder. The Shabdrung constructed numerous Dzongs, monasteries, and religious institutions bringing people from all walks of life under one faith and firmly instituted Drukpa Kagyu as the state religion.
The first Dzong that he built, Simtokha Dzong in 1627, stands majestically as one of the sentinels of the Bhutanese identity, a few miles away from present day Thimphu.
The Shabdrung’s dual system of government, ruled by 54 Desis and 60 Je Khenpos, steered Bhutan from 1651 until the birth of the Wangchuck dynasty and establishment of hereditary Monarchy in 1907.