Until the seventeenth century, Bhutan did not exist as a unified entity under a central government, but instead consisted of a number of small independent fiefdoms. It was only after the arrival in 1616 of Ngawang Namgyal, the leader of a Tibetan Buddhist sub-sect called Drukpa Kargyupa, that Bhutan began to emerge as a unified nation state. He subdued and united the local chieftains in the country and became the both the temporal and spiritual leader of the country that came to be known as Druk Yul or the land of the Thunder Dragon. Taking the title Shabdrung, which can roughly translate as "at whose feet one submits," he promulgated a code of law and established an administrative system. He also built a network of 'Dzongs,' or fortress monasteries to fortify the country against invasions from Tibet and bring the local chieftains under his control.
Much of Shabdrung's legacy remains intact today - both in spirit as well as physically in the form of the Dzongs which can be seen throughout the country. However, after his death in 1651 the country once again slid back into instability with frequent infighting and civil wars between the local chieftains. It was not until 1907, that power was once again consolidated in a central authority when all the local leaders unanimously agreed to instate Ugyen Wangchuck, who was at the time the Trongsa Penlop, or Governor of Trongsa district, as the first hereditary King of Bhutan. Since then successive generations of Kings have provided strong leadership to the country and successfully guided Bhutan's emergence as a modern nation state.
It was during the reign of the Third King, HM Jigme Dorji Wangchuck from 1952-1972 that Bhutan began to emerge from its centuries of self-imposed isolation. Serfdom was abolished, sweeping land reforms were decreed and a program of planned development was initiated – primarily building roads, schools and other essential infrastructure. A National Assembly was created and a new code of law was promulgated and a High Court established. Bhutan became a member of the United Nations in 1971.
HM Jigme Singye Wangchuck ascended the throne in 1972 as the Fourth Druk Gyalpo. From the very beginning of his reign he emphasized modern education, decentralization of governance, and economic development. During his reign the pace of modernization was greatly speeded up and tremendous progress was achieved in Bhutan's socio-economic development. His Majesty is known internationally as the originator of Bhutan's unique development philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) and for voluntarily transforming Bhutan into a democratic constitutional monarchy. GNH is a holistic development concept which aims to measure a nation's progress not just in terms of its economic output, but also in terms of the quality of life as reflected by factors such as social harmony, personal contentment, environmental quality, etc. Click here for a short explanatory video on GNH.
In December 2006 HM the fourth King abdicated in favor of his son, the fifth and current Druk Gyalpo Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck whose coronation took place in November 2008. Popularly known as the "Peoples King" because of his genuine concern for the people and the spontaneous and informal manner in which he interacts with them, His Majesty continues to work tirelessly to build on the achievements made during the reign of his father.