Bhutan is an independent kingdom in the Eastern Himalayas, lying between the Brahmaputra and the southern face of the mountains. It is bounded on the N. by Tibet; on the E. by a tract inhabited by various uncivilized independent mountain tribes; on the S. by the British province of Assam, and the district of Jalpaiguri; and on the W. by the independent native state of Sikkim.
Bhutan is under various commercial and other arrangements with the government of India, from whom it receives an annual subsidy of £3333. The whole of Bhutan presents a succession of lofty and rugged mountains abounding in picturesque and sublime scenery. This alpine region sends out numerous rivers in a southerly direction, which, forcing their passage through narrow defiles, and precipitated in cataracts over the precipices, eventually pour themselves into the Brahmaputra.
Of the rivers traversing Bhutan, the most considerable is the Manas, flowing in its progress to the Brahmaputra under the walls of Tasgaon, below which it is unfordable. At the foot of Tasgaon Hill it is crossed by a suspension bridge. The other principal rivers are the Machu, Tchinchu, Torsha, Manchi and Dharla. Information respecting the country accumulates but slowly. In 1863 Captain Godwin Austen accompanied Sir Ashley Eden’s mission to the court of the Deb raja, and made a survey of the route to Punakha. There has also been a certain amount of geographical sketching combined with trigonometrical observations; and there are the route surveys of native explorers.
In 1887-1888 two native Indian explorers "R. N." and "P. A." traversed a part of Western Bhutan, but were forced to retire owing to the disturbed state of the districts. They re-entered the country on the east from Dewangiri. Here they explored the Kuru, or Lhobrak Chu, which proves to be the largest river in Bhutan. It drains the tract between the Yamdok Tso and Tigu Lakes, and is fed by the glaciers of the Kulha Kangri and other great ranges. The Lhobrak was finally identified with the Manas river, a geographical discovery of some importance. A previously unknown tribe, the Chingmis, were discovered in Eastern Bhutan, who are socially on a higher level than the Bhutias, and differ from them chiefly in the matter of wearing pigtails.
Some excellent survey work was done in Bhutan by a native surveyor during the progress of the Tibetan Expedition in 1904. The Monla Kachung pass (17,500 ft.), by which "R. N." crossed into Tibet, is nearly on the meridian of Gualpara, and is one of the most important passes between Bhutan and Tibet. East of Bhutan, amongst the semi-independent hill states which sometimes own allegiance to Tibet and sometimes assert complete freedom from all authority, the geographical puzzle of the course of the Tsanpo, the great river of Tibet, has been solved by the researches of Captain Harman, and the explorations of the native surveyor "K. P." The Tsanpo has been definitely ascertained to be the same river as the Brahmaputra. The tracts inhabited by the aboriginal tribes entitled Lo Nakpo, Lo Karpo and Lo Tawa ("Lo" signifies "barbarous" in Tibetan), are described as a pleasant country; the lands on either side of the Tsanpo being well cultivated and planted with mangoes, plantains and oranges.
Nothing is known certainly about the area and population of Bhutan, the former being estimated at 16,800 sq. m. At the head of the Bhutan government there are nominally two supreme authorities, the Dharm raja, the spiritual head, and the Deb raja, the temporal ruler. Recently official correspondence has been written in the name of the Dharm raja, but it is not known whether this change really signifies anything. To aid these rajas in administering the country, there is a council of permanent ministers, called the Lenehen. Practically, however, there is no government at all. Subordinate officers and rapacious governors of forts wield all the power of the state, and tyranny, oppression and anarchy reign over the whole country.
The Dharm raja succeeds as an incarnation of the deity. On the death of a Dharm raja a year or two elapses, and the new incarnation then reappears in the shape of a child who generally happens to be born in the family of a principal officer. The child establishes his identity by recognizing the cooking utensils, &c., of the late Dharm raja; he is then trained in a monastery, and on attaining his majority is recognized as raja, though he exercises no more real authority in his majority than he did in his infancy. The Deb raja is in theory elected by the council. In practice he is merely the nominee of whichever of the two governors of East and West Bhutan happens for the time to be the more powerful. The people are industrious, and devote themselves to agriculture, but from the geological structure of the country, and from the insecurity of property, regular husbandry is limited to comparatively few spots. The people are oppressed and poor. "Nothing that a Bhutia possesses is his own," wrote the British envoy in 1864; "he is at all times liable to lose it if it attracts the cupidity of any one more powerful than himself. The lower classes, whether villagers or public servants, are little better than the slaves of higher officials. In regard to them no rights of property are observed, and they have at once to surrender anything that is demanded of them. There never was, I fancy, a country in which the doctrine of ‘might is right’ formed more completely the whole and sole law and custom of the land than it does in Bhutan. No official receives a salary; he has certain districts made over to him, and he may get what he can out of them; a certain portion of his gains he is compelled to send to the durbar, and the more he extorts and the more he sends to his superior, the longer his tenure of office is likely to be."
Physically the Bhutias are a fine race, although dirty in their habits and persons. Their food consists of meat, chiefly pork, turnips, rice, barley-meal and tea made from the brick-tea of China. Their favorite drink is chong, distilled from rice or barley and millet, and Marwá, beer made from fermented millet. A loose woolen coat reaching to the knees, and bound round the waist by a thick fold of cotton cloth, forms the dress of the men; the women’s dress is a long cloak with loose sleeves. The houses of the Bhutias are of three and four stories; all the floors are neatly boarded with deal; and on two sides of the house is a verandah ornamented with carved work generally painted. The Bhutias are neat joiners, and their doors, windows and panelling are perfect in their way. No iron-work is used; the doors open on ingenious wooden hinges. The appearance of the houses is precisely that of Swiss chalets, picturesque and comfortable—the only drawback being a want of chimneys, which the Bhutias do not know how to construct.
The people nominally profess the Buddhist religion, but in reality their religious exercises are confined to the propitiation of evil spirits, and the mechanical recital of a few sacred sentences. Around the cottages in the mountains the land is cleared for cultivation, and produces thriving crops of barley, wheat, buckwheat, millet, mustard, chillies, &c. Turnips of excellent quality are extensively grown; they are free from fibre and remarkably sweet. The wheat and barley have a full round grain, and the climate is well adapted to the production of both European and Asiatic vegetables. Potatoes have been introduced. The Bhutias lay out their fields in a series of terraces cut out of the sides of the hills; each terrace is riveted and supported by stone embankments, sometimes 20 ft. high. Every field is carefully fenced with pine branches, or protected by a stone wall. A complete system of irrigation permeates the whole cultivated part of a village, the water being often brought from a long distance by stone aqueducts. Bhutias do not care to extend their cultivation, as an increased revenue is exacted in proportion to the land cultivated, but devote their whole energies to make the land yield twice what it is estimated to produce.
The forests of Bhutan abound in many varieties of stately trees. Among them are the beech, ash, birch, maple, cypress and yew. Firs and pines cover the mountain heights; and below these, but still at an elevation of eight or nine thousand feet, is a zone of vegetation, consisting principally of oaks and rhododendrons. The cinnamon tree is also found. Some of the roots and branches were examined by Captain Samuel Turner during his journey to Tibet; but the plant being neither in blossom nor bearing fruit, it was impossible to decide whether it was the true cinnamon or an inferior kind of cassia. The leaf, however, corresponded with the description given of the true cinnamon by Linnaeus. The lower ranges of the hills abound in animal life.
Elephants are so numerous as to be dangerous to travelers; but tigers are not common, except near the river Tista, and in the dense reed jungle and forests of the Dwars. Leopards abound in the Hah valley; deer everywhere, some of them of a very large species. The musk deer is found in the snows, and the barking deer on every hill side. Wild hogs are met with even at great elevations. Large squirrels are common. Bears and rhinoceros are also found. Pheasants, jungle fowls, pigeons and other small game abound. The Bhutias are no sportsmen. They have a superstitious objection to firing a gun, thinking that it offends the deities of the woods and valleys, and brings down rain.
A species of horse, which seems indigenous to Bhutan, and is used as a domestic animal, is called tángan, from Tangastan, the general appellation of that assemblage of mountains which constitutes the territory of Bhutan. It is peculiar to this tract, not being found in any of the neighboring countries of Assam, Nepal, Tibet or Bengal, and unites in an eminent degree the two qualities of strength and beauty. The tángan horse usually stands about thirteen hands high, is short-bodied, clean-limbed, deep in the chest and extremely active, his color usually inclining to piebald.
In so barren and rude a country the manufacturing industry of its people is, as might be expected, in a low stage, the few articles produced being all destined for home consumption. These consist of coarse blankets and cotton cloths made by the villagers inhabiting the southern tract. Leather, from the hide of the buffalo, imperfectly tanned, furnishes the soles of snow boots. Circular bowls are neatly turned from various woods. A small quantity of paper is made from a plant described as the Daphne papyrifera. Swords, iron spears and arrow-heads, and a few copper caldrons, fabricated from the metal obtained in the country, complete the list of manufactures.
Trade connections are rather with Tibet than with India. In 1901–1902 the value of the import and export trade with British India amounted only to £57,000. The military resources of the country are on an insignificant scale. Beyond the guards for the defense of the various castles, there is nothing like a standing army. The total military force was estimated by the British envoy in 1864 at 6000. The climate of Bhutan varies according to the difference of elevation. At the time when the inhabitants of Pun?kha (the winter residence of the rajas) are afraid of exposing themselves to the blazing sun, those of Ghasa experience all the rigour of winter, and are chilled by perpetual snows. Yet these places are within sight of each other. The rains descend in floods upon the heights; but in the vicinity of Tasisudon, the capital, they are moderate; there are frequent showers, but nothing that can be compared to the tropical rains of Bengal. Owing to the great elevation and steepness of the mountains, dreadful storms arise among the hollows, often attended with fatal results.
Bhutan formerly belonged to a tribe called by the Bhutias Tephu, generally believed to have been the people of Kuch Behar. About A.D. 1670 some Tibetan soldiers subjugated the Tephus, took possession of the country and settled down in it. The relations of the British with Bhutan commenced in 1772, when the Bhutias invaded the principality of Kuch Behar, a dependency of Bengal. The Kuch Behar Raja applied for aid, and a force under Captain James was despatched to his assistance; the invaders were expelled and pursued into their own territories. Upon the intercession of Teshu Lama, then regent of Tibet, a treaty of peace was concluded in 1774 between the East India Company and the ruler of Bhutan.
In 1783 Captain S. Turner was deputed to Bhutan, with a view of promoting commercial intercourse, but his mission proved unsuccessful. From this period little intercourse took place with Bhutan, until the occupation of Assam by the British in 1826. It was then discovered that the Bhutias had usurped several tracts of low land lying at the foot of the mountains, called the Dwars or passes, and for these they agreed to pay a small tribute. They failed to pay, however, and availed themselves of the command of the passes to commit depredations within the British territory. Captain R. B. Pemberton was accordingly deputed to Bhutan to adjust the points of difference.
But his negotiations yielded no definite result; and every other means of obtaining redress and security proving unsuccessful, the Assam Dwars were wrested from the Bhutias, and the British government consented to pay to Bhutan a sum of £1000 per annum as compensation for the resumption of their tenure, during the good behavior of the Bhutias. Continued outrages and aggressions were, however, committed by the Bhutias on British subjects in the Dwars. Notwithstanding repeated remonstrances and threats, scarcely a year passed without the occurrence of several raids in British territory headed by Bhutia officials, in which they plundered the inhabitants, massacred them, or carried them away as slaves.
In 1863 Sir Ashley Eden was sent as an envoy to Bhutan to demand reparation for these outrages. He did not succeed in his mission; he was subjected to the grossest insults; and under compulsion signed a treaty giving over the disputed territory to Bhutan, and making other concessions which the Bhutan government demanded. On Sir A. Eden’s return the viceroy at once disavowed his treaty, sternly stopped the former allowance for the Assam Dwars, and demanded the immediate restoration of all British subjects kidnapped during the last five years. The Bhutias not complying with this demand, the governor-general issued a proclamation, dated the 12th of November 1864, by which the eleven Western or Bengal Dwars were forthwith incorporated with the queen’s Indian dominions.
No resistance was at first offered to the annexation; but, suddenly, in January 1865, the Bhutias surprised the English garrison at Dewangiri, and the post was abandoned with the loss of two mountain guns. This disaster was soon retrieved by General Sir Henry Tombs, and the Bhutias were compelled to sue for peace, which was concluded on the 11th of November 1865. The Bhutan government formally ceded all the eighteen Dwars of Bengal and Assam, with the rest of the territory taken from them, and agreed to liberate all kidnapped British subjects.
As the revenues of Bhutan mainly depended on these Dwars, the British government, in return for these concessions, undertook to pay the Deb and Dharm rajas annually, subject to the condition of their continued good behavior, an allowance beginning at £2500 and rising gradually to the present figure. Since that time the annexed territories have settled down into peaceful and prosperous British districts. The recent relations between the Indian government and Bhutan have been satisfactory; and during the troubles with Tibet in 1904 the attitude of the Bhutias was perfectly correct and friendly.
See Report on Explorations in Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet (Deva Dun, 1889); Tanner, "Our present Knowledge of the Himalayas," R.G.S. Proceedings, vol. xiii.
1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 3. pgs. 846-848.