Establishment of the Hereditary Monarchy, 1907

Bhutan Table of Contents

Ugyen Wangchuck's emergence as the national leader coincided with the realization that the dual political system was obsolete and ineffective. He had removed his chief rival, the ponlop of Paro, and installed a supporter and relative, a member of the pro-British Dorji family, in his place. When the last shabdrung died in 1903 and a reincarnation had not appeared by 1906, civil administration came under the control of Ugyen Wangchuck. Finally, in 1907, the fifty-fourth and last druk desi was forced to retire, and despite recognitions of subsequent reincarnations of Ngawang Namgyal, the shabdrung system came to an end.

In November 1907, an assembly of leading Buddhist monks, government officials, and heads of important families was held to end the moribund 300-year-old dual system of government and to establish a new absolute monarchy. Ugyen Wangchuck was elected its first hereditary Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King, reigned 1907-26). The Dorji family became hereditary holders of the position of gongzim (chief chamberlain), the top government post. The British, wanting political stability on their northern frontier, approved of the entire development.

Britain's earlier entreaties in Lhasa had unexpected repercussions at this time. The China, concerned that Britain would seize Tibet, invaded Tibet in 1910 and asserted political authority. In the face of the Chinese military occupation, the Dalai Lama fled to India. China laid claim not only to Tibet but also to Bhutan, Nepal, and Sikkim. With these events, BhutaneseBritish interests coalesced.

A new Bhutanese-British agreement, the Treaty of Punakha, was signed on January 8, 1910. It amended two articles of the 1865 treaty: the British agreed to double their annual stipend to 100,000 rupees and "to exercise no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan." In turn, Bhutan agreed "to be guided by the advice of the British Government in regard to its external relations." The Treaty of Punakha guaranteed Bhutan's defense against China; China, in no position to contest British power, conceded the end of the millennium-long Tibetan-Chinese influence.

Much of Bhutan's modern development has been attributed by Bhutanese historians to the first Druk Gyalpo. Internal reforms included introducing Western-style schools, improving internal communications, encouraging trade and commerce with India, and revitalizing the Buddhist monastic system. Toward the end of his life, Ugyen Wangchuck was concerned about the continuity of the family dynasty, and in 1924 he sought British assurance that the Wangchuck family would retain its preeminent position in Bhutan. His request led to an investigation of the legal status of Bhutan vis--vis the suzerainty held over Bhutan by Britain and the ambiguity of Bhutan's relationship to India. Both the suzerainty and the ambiguity were maintained.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress