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Drukyül: The Land of the Thunder Dragon

The standard name for Bhutan currently used by both the Bhutanese people and their neighbours is Druk (འབྲུག་) or Thunder Dragon and, by extension, Drukyül (འབྲུག་ཡུལ་), the Land of Thunder Dragon, and Druk Gyelkhap (འབྲུག་རྒྱལ་ཁབ་), the Thunder Dragon Country. This is rendered in much more dramatic fashion in English today as the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Some go even further with an oxymoronic description: the Land of the Peaceful Thunder Dragon.

The dragon appellation is latest among the local names for Bhutan and gained currency only after the unification of the country in the 17th century. As such, it does not have the same antiquity as other names such as Lhomön (ལྷོ་མོན་), Mön (མོན་), Lhokhazhi (ལྷོ་ཁ་བཞི་), and Menjong (སྨན་ལྗོངས་) although its initial application to a monastery in Tibet is very ancient. Druk was initially the name given to a place near Nam village located south of Lhasa along the Kyichu valley in around 1206 CE. Traditional Tibetan and Bhutanese histories offer us a fabulous story of its beginnings. Tsangpa Gyaré (1161-1211), the renowned meditation master and ancestor of Bhutan’s founding father, Zhapdrung Ngakwang Namgyel (1594-1651), was visiting the Nam area, following the prophetic instructions of his teacher and tutelary deities to set up a spiritual centre. He is reported to have seen nine dragons there, and as he approached, the dragons flew off, triggering a booming clap of thunder in the sky. Subsequently, a rain of flowers fell. Tsangpa Gyaré read these as auspicious omens for found his centre there, and thus named the place Druk and his tradition, which began to spread outward from this and other places, took the derivative name Drukpa.

Thus, like some other names for Bhutan, Druk also originates in Tibet. However, the name Dragon was not given after Bhutan’s fauna, in the way that Menjong was given after its flora, although many Bhutanese would still believe that there existed a reptilian creature which could fly and roar in the sky to cause thunder. Nor does the name have any historical connection to the prevalence of the dragon in Chinese culture as an unsuspecting visitor may assume. Apart from a single case of a Bhutanese mission to the court of Manchu emperor Yongzheng (r.1723-36) in 1734, historical links with China were virtually non-existent and the scanty influence China may have had on Bhutan was filtered through the Tibetan region.

The contemplative Drukpa tradition that Tsangpa Gyaré launched from Druk quickly spread in Tibet and surrounding areas in the 13th century. Soon, the tradition became popular and widespread, so much so that they claimed that the followers of ‘upper Druk were like stars in the sky’ (སྟོད་འབྲུག་གནམ་གྱི་སྐར་མ་ཙམ་), the followers of ‘the lower Druk were like particles on the earth’ (སྨད་འབྲུག་ས་ཡི་དྲེག་པ་) and the followers of ‘middle Druk were like dust in the air’ (བར་འབྲུག་བར་སྣང་གི་རྡུལ་). It reached ‘as far as a vulture could fly in eighteen days’ and adherents of the Drukpa tradition made fantastic claims that ‘half of the world is followers of the Drukpa tradition; of them, half are paupers, and half of the paupers are people with high spiritual achievements (མི་ཕྱེད་འབྲུག་པ་ འབྲུག་ཕྱེད་སྤྲང་པོ་ སྤྲང་ཕྱེད་གྲུབ་ཐོབ་).’

With a major Drukpa centre located at Ralung, located just a few days walk across Bhutan’s northern border, the tradition very quickly found its way to what is now modern western Bhutan. The first person attributed as bringing this tradition to the main valleys of Bhutan was Drukgom Zhikpo, a 12th century eastern Tibetan man who journeyed south on a religious mission following the instructions of his teachers. According to his biography, authored centuries later, in spite of the difficulties he endured, Drukgom Zhikpo managed to successfully establish himself in the western valleys, using Buddhism, diplomacy, sorcery, and warfare. By the end of his life, he had established the Drukpa tradition in western Bhutan enough so that he could bequeath to his heirs several establishments, estates, and the patronage of local chieftains.

Some local historians claim that Bhutan was called Drukyul and its people Drukpa after most people converted to the Drukpa school under Drukgom Zhikpo. However, the name appears to have evolved gradually through a complex process. Firstly, we see a great number of religious centres founded by Drukpa lamas and many of them with names containing the word Druk, such as Druk Chöding, Druk Chökyong Phodrang, Druk Phodrangding and Druk Rabtengang. There was also a gradual rise in the number of toponyms containing the word Druk. However, the name was not used to refer to any area or region, let alone the country as a whole, even when Zhapdrung Ngakwang Namgyel came to Bhutan and began to unify the valleys into one state.

A most common name used for the area that was proto-Bhutan during the 16th and 17th centuries was Lhokhazhi (ལྷོ་ཁ་བཞི་) or just Lho (ལྷོ་) – ‘the south’. A very convenient way of referring to the area was often by using a loose term – the southern region (ལྷོ་རྒྱུད་). Zhabdrung’s historic departure for Bhutan in 1616, for instance, was commonly described as ‘turning the riding pony toward the south’ (ཆིབས་ཁ་ལྷོ་ལུ་བསྒྱུར་). Some Tibetan authors around this time used the term ‘outer south’ (ལྷོ་ཕྱི་) to refer to Bhutan in contrast to the ‘inner south’ (ལྷོ་ནང་) which referred to the Lhodrak area in southern Tibet. There was a clear decline in the use of the term Mön (མོན་) or Mönyul (མོན་ཡུལ་) in reference to Bhutan after the unification. However, the primary referents of the name Druk throughout the 17th century were still Namdruk and Druk Ralung in Tibet.

Contrary to what most Bhutanese historians claim, it appears that the name Druk and Drukyul came to be used for the Bhutanese state and the term Drukpa for its people only in the 18th century. The earliest record is perhaps the Tibetan biography of Pholhaney by Tshering Wangyal (1697-1763) completed in 1733. In it, the author refers to Bhutan as Lhödruk (ལྷོ་འབྲུག་) or Southern Druk, and Drukyul (འབྲུག་ཡུལ་), Land of Druk.[1] Although the term Drukyul remained comparatively rare, Druk appeared frequently after this. In a letter (in Persian) written by the 6th Panchen Lama Lopsang Penden Yéshé (1738-80) to the British in 1775, he referred to Bhutan as Dukpo (འབྲུག་པ་) country. We also know from British records of their mission to Bhutan in 1774/5 that the Bhutanese called themselves Drukpa.[2] During the 18th and 19th century, we see a gradual transition from the vague name Lho to Druk and to Drukyul, and the name Druk, which designated the religious school, became used to refer to the country now controlled by the eponymous religious school.

The use of formal names for the country and its inhabitants was perhaps necessitated by increasing political interactions with Bhutan’s neighbours. By the beginning of the 18th century, the Bhutanese state had become a nation with fairly well defined territorial boundaries, formal administrative structures, and an independent political identity after going through much of the 17th century in a process of emergence. Nevertheless, it was only by the beginning of the 20th century that the name Druk/Drukyul was firmly established and used as standard name for the country both by its own citizens and its neighbours. This is attested by the phrase ‘in our Dragon country’ (རང་ཅག་འབྲུག་གི་རྒྱལ་ཁབ་) in the founding document of the monarchy signed by various eminent statesmen and clergy to endorse the hereditary monarchy in 1907. Today, Bhutan is called Druk or Drukyul by its own people and its Tibetan, Sikkimese, and Monpa neighbours.


Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan from which this piece is extracted.



[1] Tshering Wangyal (1981), dPal mi’i dbang po’i rtogs pa brjod pa ’jig rten kun tu dga’ ba’i gtam, Chengdu: Si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang pp. 748, 753, 760.

[2] See Lamb (2002), Bhutan and Tibet: the Travels of George Bogle and Alexander Hamilton 1774-1777, Hertingfordbury: Roxford Books p. 320-1 for the translation of Panchen Lama’s letter and p. 374 for John Stewart’s account based on Bogle’s report that inhabitants of Bhutan called the country Ducpo.

Bhutan Cultural Library Bhutan
Drukyül: The Land of the Thunder Dragon

One of a series of essays that explores the various names applied to Bhutan throughout its history; this one focuses on the name that Bhutanese call themselves and their nation.

Collection Bhutan Cultural Library
Visibility Public - accessible to all site users (default)
Author Karma Phuntsho
Editor Ariana Maki
Year published 2017
UID mandala-texts-40916