Bhutan, the land of the Dragon Kings, overwhelms and moves visitors easily — not with its traditional architecture or intriguing history, but with the nation’s generosity, simplicity and love for its traditions. Like any family, one's children can only be as good as one's parents. And for Bhutan, this little nation has been blessed with having a line of monarchs who were far-sighted, humble, and ruled the nation with the unconditional love any parent had for their child.
Bhutan was founded by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel who unified the country into one religious state in 1616. After his passing, Bhutan was governed by a “dual system of government” implemented by Shabdrung where the Central Monastic Body is led by the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot) and a political system administered by a temporal Desi (Secular Ruler).
However, the dual system of governance ended with Jigme Namgyel’s descendant Ugyen Wangchuck. Jigme Namgyel’s family has a direct lineage to Pema Lingpa (famous saint and treasure revealer) and is related to two reincarnations of the Shabdrung Rinpoche. He was chosen to be the Penlop (Governor) of Trongsa and amongst all the rulers, he was the most powerful one. Jigme Namgyel passed away unexpectedly before he had the chance to unify Bhutan through a monarchy system.
First King – Sir Ugyen Wangchuck (Reign : 1907 to 1926)
Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck, born in 1862, succeeded his father, Jigme Namgyel as the Penlop (Governor) of Trongsa upon his father's death. He held his power base in Central Bhutan and unified Bhutan by defeating political enemies through a period of civil wars and rebellions in the early 1880s.
During the years leading up to his monarchy, he developed close relations with the British by assisting with negotiations between Britain and Tibet. To show their respect for him, the British gave Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck the title of Knight Commander of the Indian Empire in 1904. Following that, he was often known as Sir Ugyen Wangchuck and received many honours from both the British and the Indian governments as evidence of his ability to build diplomatic relations without sacrificing his nation’s sovereignty.
In 1907, Ugyen Wangchuck was elected to be the hereditary monarch of Bhutan, giving rise to Bhutan’s first-ever King, and ending the dual system government. Ugyen Wangchuck was crowned on December 17, 1907, with the title Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King).
During his 19 years reign, he maintained close relations with Britain and India, as part of gaining security from the increasing Chinese influence in Tibet. Aside from that, Bhutan remained largely isolated from the rest of the world.
Sir Ugyen Wangchuck passed away in 1926 and was succeeded by his eldest son, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck.
Second King – Jigme Wangchuck (Reign : 1926 to 1952)
Jigme Wangchuck, the second ruler of Bhutan, born in 1905, ascended the throne in 1926 upon the passing of his father. He was raised as the successor to the throne and received a strict education in English and Hindi and was schooled in Buddhist principles.
The King’s reign saw significant changes as he implemented administrative reforms within the country. He put in place a simple hierarchical system where he had absolute power over all matters religious and secular and appointed a head abbot (Je Khenpo) to set up a central religious administrative body.
During King Jigme Wangchuck’s reign, Bhutan continued its journey of isolation with a focus on centralized power to ensure political stability in the country. King Jigme Wangchuck passed away in 1952 and he was succeeded by his son, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck.
Third King – Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (Reign : 1952 to 1972)
Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, born in 1929, ascended the throne at the age of 23. He is known as the Father of Modern Bhutan. Like his father, he was educated in English, Hindi and Buddhist principles. Additionally, he spent six months in England during his youth.
Bhutan’s isolated journey in the world ended with the third King’s reign. He recognized the need to establish international relations for the world to recognize Bhutan as a country and to protect the country’s sovereignty. The King engaged foreign nations in the development of Bhutan and invited European nations to be involved in developmental projects.
In 1862, he joined the Colombo Plan where Bhutan received technical assistance for infrastructure development and educational scholarships. In 1971, under King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck’s reign, Bhutan became a member of the United Nations.
In his early years after his ascension to the throne, the King understood that he needed to implement socio-economic reforms to ensure that Bhutan could develop further. In 1956, he took the big step of ending feudalism, redistributed land to the landless while monasteries gave up land in exchange for financial support from the government. In 1961, the King drafted the country’s first five-year economic development plan, a practice which Bhutan is still following to date.
The King was far-sighted and learnt from history that centralized power was not the way forward for Bhutan to continue enjoying peace and stability. During his reign, he set up a modern judicial system and the country’s first Council of Ministers. The King also established a National Assembly (tshogdu) who had the power to remove the King or his successors with a two-third majority, allowing Bhutan to take the first step towards democracy.
His reforms and international relations opened the window for Bhutan to the outside world and started a slow but steady journey towards a system of democracy.
King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck passed away in 1972 while receiving medical treatment in Nairobi, Kenya. He was succeeded by his son, Jigme Singye Wangchuck.
Fourth King – Jigme Singye Wangchuck (Reign : 1972 to 2006)
Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth ruler of Bhutan, born in 1955 ascended the throne when he was just 17 years old, making him the youngest monarch in the world then.
The King had received a modern education when he was a child as he studied in India and the United Kingdom. He was very close to his father, often accompanying him on tours to remote parts of Bhutan. Through those experiences, he was able to gain first-hand knowledge of Bhutan and its people. During his reign, he continued with the phase of modernization and socio-economic reforms that his father had set in motion.
The King continued to establish international relations, joining many regional cooperative bodies and making itself heard in the United Nations, cementing the nation’s independent and sovereign status.
The King also kickstarted the process of decentralizing his power, and in 1998, the role of Prime Minister was created. In 2006, the King announced that the time had come for a democratic government. He researched the constitutions of more than 50 nations, seeking comments from the public and consulted with the 20 Dzongkhags (Bhutan’s administrative and judicial districts).
Two years after the King’s reign had ended, the Constitution was enacted in 2008 according to his vision and elections were held in the same year, giving birth to a new system of governance.
King Jigme Singye Wangchuck was also the creator of the world-renowned “Gross National Happiness” philosophy. The GNH philosophy focuses on measuring the country's progress and development more holistically by focusing on balancing the people's physical, emotional, spiritual and psychological well-being. Bhutan created a metric to measure the Bhutanese's quality of life in terms of happiness.
During King Jigme Singye Wangchuck's reign, Bhutan’s economic progress accelerated as he established industries in raw materials, agriculture and hydropower. Extensive roads were built to connect the country from one to the other.
The King, believing in the importance of education, sent many students to pursue an overseas education while Bhutan continue to create more schools for the students.
It was also during his reign that the country’s first airline, Drukair, was birthed. Thus, Bhutan first opened its doors to foreign tourists in 1974. However, being aware of the effects of mass tourism, the far-sighted King also promulgated the 'High value, low volume' tourism policy that's implemented in Bhutan today.
His love for his country was further evidenced when he personally led an army in 2003 and successfully flushed out insurgents from India who had established several powerful bases in the Bhutanese forests. The successful operation surprised the world as the militants were flushed out in three days.
King Jigme Singye Wangchuck created history when he became the first King in Bhutan to abdicate his throne to his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck in 2006.
Fifth King – Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (Reign : 2006 to present)
Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the fifth ruler of Bhutan, born in 1980 was coronated in a ceremony on November 1, 2008. It was a significant time as 2008 marks the 100 years of monarchy in Bhutan.
King Jigme Khesar received a foreign education; he studied in the United States before graduating from Magdalen College, University of Oxford.
Even though King Jigme Singye Wangchuck surprised his people when he abdicated his throne two years ahead of plan. The nation’s doubt and concerns were quickly allayed during the young King’s first speech where he assured his people he would continue to rule with his father’s policies in mind.
Under the fifth King’s rule, he oversaw the implementation of the Constitution of Bhutan, gifting to his people the democracy his father has wished for.
After his coronation, the King’s first landmark project was the National Cadastral Resurvey in March 2009, which focuses on improving the lives of people living in remote parts of Bhutan. In 2011, he launched the Kidu Foundation to provide to the people especially the children, elderly, disabled and those who are sick. The role of the Kidu Foundation is to work with government efforts to address critical issues in areas of education, the rule of law, democracy and media, sustainable economic development, and preservation of the country’s environmental and cultural heritage.
In 2011, he married Jetsun Pema and the Royal Wedding was Bhutan’s largest media event in history. During the ceremony, the King bestowed the Crown of Druk Gyaltsuen (Queen) on Jetsun Pema, thus proclaiming her formally as the Queen of the Kingdom of Bhutan. The youngest queen in the world is often praised for her beauty, intelligence and kind heart.
That same year, the King also launched Desuung (Guardians of Peace), a voluntary programme to encourage citizens to play an active role in nation-building. It's one of the most successful initiatives in Bhutan and more than 20,000 volunteers have been trained under the programme.
The young King, like his father, is popular at home and overseas. Together with the Queen, they travel internationally and have raised the profile of Bhutan as a sovereign country.
In 2015, the King and his Queen visited Singapore to pay their last respects to the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, founding Prime Minister of Singapore.
Visit Drukair.com.sg to read about their official trip to Singapore.
The fifth King is well-loved by the people and is fondly known as the People's King. When the country was faced with the biggest challenges of navigating the COVID-19 global pandemic, the King was at the forefront of the nation overseeing all its pandemic responses. He personally visited the vulnerable areas to ensure that the country and its people are well-protected.
On Sep 24, 2020, the Royal Office for Media and Gyalyum Charitable Trust published a pictorial book titled "Druk Gyalpo - The King of Bhutan" commemorates the 40th Birth Anniversary of His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.
The collection of photographs and narration in this book encapsulates a decade of His Majesty's reign, which began on the 9th of December 2006. This pictorial narrative succinctly describes Bhutan's remarkable journey to the 21st century under the extraordinary leadership of His Majesty the Fifth King.