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Geography and Overview of Bhutan

An Introduction to Bhutan's History, Government, People, Geography and Industry


Bhutan Flag

The Bhutan flag is divided diagonally from the lower hoist side corner; the upper triangle is yellow and the lower triangle is orange; centered along the dividing line is a large black and white dragon facing away from the hoist side.

Source: CIA World Factbook, 2007
Updated April 26, 2010

Population: Approximately 672,425 according to the 2005 census.
Capital: Thimpu
Area: 18,147 square miles (47,000 sq km)
Bordering Countries: China to the north and India to the south, east, and west
Highest Point: Kula Kangri at 24,780 feet (7,553 m)

Bhutan, officially called the Kingdom of Bhutan, is a small, landlocked country on the Indian Subcontinent between the Himalayas and India. Because of its rugged terrain, Bhutan is difficult to visit and, until recently, has remained isolated from the rest of the world.

History of Bhutan

Bhutan may have been inhabited as early as 2,000 B.C.E. but little is known about its early history. The first official record of inhabitants appears in the 9th century when Tibetan monks fled to Bhutan.

The Drukpa Kagyupa School, a branch of Buddhism, was established in the 12th century, which established the principal branch of Buddhism in Bhutan today. Since the 17th century, the traditional name of Bhutan has been Drukyul, Land of the Drukpa (Dragon People).

In 1616, after three Tibetan invasions and conflicts with rival religious groups, Ngawana Namgyal, a lama from Tibet, established a new system of law and made himself the ruler of the country. He named his position the shabdrung. After Namgyal's death however, the power of the shabdrung declined and civil wars were frequent until the late 19th century.

In 1885, instability in Bhutan ended when Ugyen Wangchuck took power and was able to unite the country and form ties with the British in India. Wangchuck was elected as the first king of Bhutan in 1907 and was officially crowned on December 17, 1907. In 1910, he signed the Treaty of Punakha with the British to ensure that the British in India would not interfere with Bhutan's internal affairs as long as it maintained peaceful external relations with its neighboring countries.

Ugyen Wangchuck died in 1926 and his son, Jigme Wangchuck, became the next king of Bhutan. Because of the Treaty of Punakha and other actions by King Ugyen, Bhutan was able to maintain peaceful relations with neighboring countries during King Jigme's rule as well. India and Bhutan signed the Treaty of Friendship in 1949 which said that Bhutan would have complete control over its internal affairs but would be guided by India in foreign policy.

King Jigme was succeeded in 1952 by his son, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck and during his reign, Bhutan joined the United Nations and established the National Assembly, new laws, the Royal Bhutanese Army and the High Court.

In 1972, Jigme Singye Wangchuck took the throne and attempted to make Bhutan more democratic. In addition, he emphasized what he called, "Gross National Happiness," modern education, decentralization of government, new forms of electricity, limited tourism and improvements to the country's rural areas. He abdicated the throne in 2006 and his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, took power.

Government of Bhutan

Bhutan's first constitution was drafted in 2003 and it was formally accepted by the parliament on July 18, 2008, marking its shift from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. Following the acceptance of its constitution, Bhutan held its first national elections in March 2008.

Branches of Government in Bhutan

Bhutan has three branches of government: the executive, legislative and judicial. The executive branch consists of the prime minister and cabinet; the legislative consists of the National Council and National Assembly. The National Assembly is made up of 47 members, all of whom were elected in March 2008. The judicial branch is composed of the High Court, District Courts and local area arbitration.

Bhutan's People

Bhutan's population is divided into three ethnic categories- the Ngalops, Sharchops and Lhotsampas. The Ngalops are of Tibetan origin and when combined with the Sharchops, make up approximately 65% of Bhutan's population. Both are of Buddhist religion and the Ngalops dominate the government as their cultural practices have been declared standard for all Bhutanese by the monarchy.

The Lhotsampas, settled mostly in the southern foothills, are of Nepali origin and account for 35% of the population. They are mainly farmers, speak different Nepali dialects and are mostly Hindu in religion.

Geography and Climate of Bhutan

Much of Bhutan's terrain is extremely rugged. It is often divided into three regions that are distinguished by their altitude. The first is the Himalayan region in the north that consists of many mountain peaks reaching over 24,000 ft (7,351 m). The second region is central uplands on the slopes and valleys of the Himalayas. This region is divided by several large rivers; while the third is the Duars Plain that opens out toward India from the Himalayan foothills.

Bhutan's climate varies with these regions. The southern plains for instance feature a tropical climate while the uplands have cool winters and hot summers, and the northern mountains have extremely cold winters and cool summers. Thimpu, Bhutan's capital, is located in the central part of the country has an average January low of 27°F (-2.6°C) and an August high of 77°F (25°C).

Industry and Land Use in Bhutan

Bhutan's central uplands support most of the country's population and the area is cultivated with food staples such as maize, wheat, barley and potatoes.

Bhutan has one of the world's smallest economies and almost all of its trade is with India. Its most important industries include cement and timber. Tourism also plays a role in Bhutan's economy, but it is limited as the amount of visitors is restricted to only 4,000 per year.

To learn more visit this site's Geography and Maps of Bhutan page.


Central Intelligence Agency. (2010, April 21). CIA - The World Factbook -- Bhutan. Retrieved from: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/bt.html

Infoplease.com. (n.d.) Bhutan: History, Geography, Government, and Culture - Infoplease.com. Retrieved from: http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0107341.html

United States Department of State. (2010, February). Bhutan (02/10). Retrieved from: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/35839.htm

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