How the country 'Bhutan' got its name
Sandwiched between two sovereign South Asian giants, the small Himalayan kingdom where king and queen still rule, is known to the outside today as 'Bhutan'.
The origin of the name 'Bhutan' and what does Bhutan mean?
Though there is no precise etymology of ‘Bhutan’, traditionally it’s taken to be a transcription of the Sanskrit word Bhoṭa-anta "end of Tibet", a reference to Bhutan’s geographical position at the southern extremity of Tibet. Some say that it’s rather from the Sanskrit word 'Bhu-uttan' meaning 'high land' which is also true given the physical geography of the nation consisting mostly of steep and high mountains crisscrossed by a network of swift rivers.
Prior to being plunged into the western world with its singular Gross National Happiness story, Bhutan was a secluded country – far from the sight of prying eyes and heard about by many with different names.
The evolution of the name
In ancient times, Bhutan was called ‘Lho Mon’ meaning ‘Southern Land of Darkness’. ‘Lho’ means south (located to south of Tibet) and ‘Mon’ means darkness because practice of Buddhism had not flourished in Bhutan like in Tibet and India and thus the people were into the dark (without the light of religion). Until Guru Padmasambhava first introduced Buddhism in the 8th century, people were practicing Bonism, a religion that worshiped all forms of nature, remnants of which are still evident in some remote villages in the country.
Bhutan was also called ‘Lho Mon Khazhi’. It meant ‘southern Mon country of four entry points. Given the steep terrain and thick blankets of forests infested with insects and animals, entering Bhutan was difficult for travelers and traders then. There were only four points: Dungsamkha to the east, Dalingkha to the west, Pasakha to the south and Taktsherkha to the north.
Due to its wide altitudinal and climatic range, the flora and fauna available in Bhutan has always been unparalleled. Tibetans who were one of the two close traders of Bhutan in the past found Bhutan rich in medicinal herbs. They named the nation ‘Lho Jong Menjon’ meaning ‘Southern Land of Medicinal Herbs’. The meaning of Men is medicine. The name may not have picked up in popularity, as did the name Bhutan, but the country currently remains a biodiversity hotspot for flora and fauna owning to its conservation efforts.
Perhaps the most obvious yet least known to most must be ‘Tsendhen Kaypai Jong’ as another name for this landlocked country. In Dzongkha (the national language), Tsenden refers to cypress. Cypress is found across the country. Thus, the ‘land covered with cypress trees' for a name.
An alternate name for Bhutan from the list that has stood the test of time and is also used commonly in everyday language and literary forms of expression is ‘Druk Yul’ meaning ‘Land of Thunder Dragon’ and ‘Druk Gyalkhab’ meaning ‘Thunder Dragon Country’.
A name infused with spirituality
History has it that the word ‘Druk’ first originated in Tibet. Tsangpa Gyarey, a renowned meditation master and ancestor of Bhutan’s founding father was visiting Nam Village in Lhasa, Tibet to set up a spiritual center. On his visit there, he is reported to have seen nine dragons that flew off triggering a clap of booming thunder in the sky as he approached them. It also said to have rained flowers. Reading all these as auspicious omens for the foundation of his center, he named the place Druk or Dragon and his tradition took the derivative name Drukpa.
An eastern Tibetan man called Drukgom Zhigpo journeyed south on a religious mission following instructions of his teachers. He established the Drukpa tradition in western Bhutan. He had many heirs who then spread the Drukpa tradition to the whole of Bhutan. Local historians thus, claim that Bhutan was called Drukyul and her people Drukpa after the conversion of most people to the Drukpa school by Drukgom Zhigpo. Necessitated by the increasing political interaction with Bhutan’s neighbours, the use of formal names for the country and its inhabitants as Druk/Druk Yul and Drukpas respectively started by the beginning of the twentieth century (source: History of Bhutan by Karma Phuntsho)
Bhutan and Drukyul
Today, Bhutan uses two standard names to identify itself – Bhutan and Druk or Drukyul. The people are called Bhutanese or Drukpas and are ones in the world who take such pride in their identity.
The country flag also features a white dragon in its center symbolizing purity and the loyalty of various ethnic groups within the country.