Bhutan’s prehistoric(Bhutan History Timeline) era fell roughly between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500. Natural calamities and man-made activities like fire, earthquake, flood, and battles destroyed whatever records may once have existed. For instance, the fire accident in 1832 in a Dzong (monastery-fortress) in the old capital Punakha, and the major damages caused to the same structure by an earthquake in 1897 were the specific causes of destruction to Bhutan’s historical documentation of that era. Nevertheless, several stone tools and megaliths available suggest that Bhutan was populated as early as 2000-1500 B.C.
Also little is known about the country’s early history. The preserved artifacts available in some of the ancient monasteries indicated, that Bonism, a shamanistic ritual, was followed in Bhutan before the advent of Buddhism. The Bon tradition and ritual are still observed in some rural areas of Bhutan during the celebration of local festivals.
The country’s recorded history dates back to the era of the introduction of Buddhism in the 7th century A.D. Soon after, Buddhism greatly shaped the history of Bhutan and the tradition of its inhabitants. Bhutan’s physical location kept the ancient world at bay and together with the policy of self-imposed isolation this small kingdom was never colonized which is a matter of great pride to the Bhutanese. Its ancient history is a mixture of oral tradition and classical literature and tells of a largely self-sufficient population that had little contact with the outside world until 1900.
Two visible and treasured structures of ancient Bhutan are the Kyichu monastery in Paro and Jambay monastery in Bumthang which were built in the 7th Century A.D., a period when little was known about the land. However, only after the visit of a great Buddhist Saint Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) in 747 A.D., did the foundation of Buddhism become strong in the country. Some of the most revered and sacred sites of pilgrimage related to the Guru still exist in Paro and Bumthang valleys; the places where he meditated, transformed the local demons and left the imprint of his body on a rock.
A subsequent remarkable chapter was added to the history of Bhutan, in the early part of the 13th century with the arrival of a Buddhist spiritual master, Phajo Drugom Zhingpo from Tibet. He was the precursor of the Kagyu institution of Mahayana Buddhism which eventually gained supremacy in the country to date. Over the years, several saints and religious figures helped shape Bhutan’s history and develop its religion. Among the influential figures, the Tertons (Treasure discoverers) played a crucial role with their pre-destined power to unearth the relics hidden for posterity by Guru Rinpoche and other saints.
The Terton Pema Lingpa occupies the most important place among treasure hunters in Bhutanese history for his discovery of relics from a lake called Mebartsho (The Burning Lake) in Bumthang. Apart from discovering religious texts and artifacts he also composed dances and created arts that have become one of the most important constituents of the cultural heritage of Bhutan.
The Zhabdrung (meaning the precious jewel at whose feet one submits) in the 17th Century opened the most dynamic era in the history of Bhutan.
The religious and secular powers were not delineated until then and 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 Desi as the temporal leader. In this system, a spiritual leader looked after the clergy while simultaneously a temporal ruler looked after the affairs of the state.
Besides proving himself a great spiritual personality and a statesman, he also left his permanent legacy as a great architect and builder. The Zhabdrung constructed numerous Dzongs (fortress), monasteries, and religious institutions bringing people of all levels under one faith and tightly establishing the Drukpa Kagyu as the state religion.