The History of Bhutan
Haus Publishing 659pp £30
Flattened out, Bhutan's landmass might stretch across as much as half of her southern neighbour, India. But Bhutan is a small, remote and mountainous state nestled in the Himalayas. Unsurprisingly, much of Bhutan's history remains shrouded in mystery, much like the clouds covering the ancient monasteries perched perilously on its mountain slopes, or the accounting methods of the Gross National Happiness Index that claims Bhutan is the happiest place on the planet. Spanning from the ancient period to the present, this book gives readers a glimpse into this remarkable corner of Earth.
To the north, Tibet exerted a tremendous influence on Bhutan and half of the book examines the role of Tibetan Buddhism and imperial expansionism over 1,000 years, from the seventh century to the emergence of a unified Bhutanese polity in the 17th. From the mid-18th century, the balance of power relations shifted towards India. From George Bogle's expedition on behalf of the freshly defeated British East India Company in 1774, to Nehru's state visit on a yak in 1958, Bhutan has been drawn closer into the orbit of (British) Indian commercial and geopolitical concerns and has been profoundly reshaped in the process.
The repercussions of the 19th-century 'Great Game', Phuntsho notes, were felt as far east as Bhutan, via Tibet. By the turn of the century, however, the angst-ridden mind of British officialdom turned from Russian expansion in Asia to the threat posed by the Chinese reconquest of Tibet and to making Bhutan a buffer-state to India. After 1947 this formed the basis of India's 'maternal' relations with Bhutan, especially as China asserted itself in the Sino-Indian borderlands. Bhutan's role and agency in regional geopolitics is a pivotal and fascinating, albeit rushed, aspect of Phuntsho's narrative.
The book's strength is the synthesis into a single volume of the scholarship on Bhutan. However this is also its weakness. Driven by the nature of the surviving sources, political history and the elites figure at the expense of economic, social or cultural history and the changing lives of the Bhutanese. Alas, the book makes little of fascinating details – such as the electric apparatus presented by the Turner mission to Bhutan in 1783 – to enliven the narrative. What did the Bhutanese make of the electric-jolts produced by the device? How did the British describe their response? How did these sorts of cultural encounters transform the diplomatic relations between Bhutan and British India? Such questions are not answered in this fast-paced political history.
Driven by the impulse to compile a comprehensive history of Bhutan, Phuntsho has written a history of a nation state. This is ironic, not only because of his wariness of writing 'nationalist' history, but because, as he acknowledges, Bhutan was for most of its history not a unit at all and in recent times is integrating more deeply into regional and global networks of political influence, trade and tourism. Phuntsho's achievement, though, is a volume that will serve as useful reference for travellers and scholars of Bhutan alike.
Jagjeet Lally is Lecturer in the History of Early Modern and Modern India at UCL.