How Europe heard about Bhutan

When did Bhutan first appear on a western map? When did Europe first become aware of Bhutan’s existence? With these questions in mind, Dr Romolo G&olfo, an Italian history lecturer & newspaper editor now based in Greece, decided to start investigating the issue by paying a visit to the largest map shop in London two years ago.

After hours of digging in the shop’s drawers, he suddenly came across a map of Northern India dated 1683 in which a ‘Regno di Boutan’ ( kingdom of Boutan) stood where one would expect to find today’s kingdom of Bhutan. Was the search over in an afternoon? Well, not really.

Presenting a paper on Bhutan & Tibet in European cartography: 1582-1800 at the international seminar on Bhutan studies on Wednesday, Dr G&olfo said that many elements in this map, drawn by Italian geographer, Giacomo Cantelli da Vignola, baffled him. For example, Nepal appeared not once, but twice, & in quite distant places. Boutan was plotted north of, rather than south of, Mount Caucasus, as the Himalaya was known in Europe during the 17th century. Besides, the only Europeans known to have visited Bhutan by that time (the Jesuit fathers Cacella & Cabral, in 1627) had written that the country was variously called Cambirasi, ‘the first Kingdom of Potente’, or Mon. If so, where did the Italian cartographer get the name Boutan from?

Speaking to Kuensel, Dr G&olfo points out that Cantelli’s main source was The Six Voyages into Persia & the East Indies, a best-selling travel book written by Jean Baptiste Tavernier, one of the richest & most famous European merchants in Asia. In this book, first published in French in 1676, Tavernier has a section titled “The Kingdom of Boutan” in which he explains that this mysterious country was very large & distant from India; that it is located beyond the mountains of the Raja of Nupal (Nepal); & that it was frequented by rich merchants coming from places as far away as the Ottoman Empire or the Baltic Sea. Tavernier then goes on to describe the ‘King of Boutan’, saying that ‘there is no king in the world who is more feared & more respected by his subjects, & he is even worshipped by them.’

Anyone familiar with the geography & the history of the Himalayan region in the middle of the 17th century, argues Dr G&olfo, should be able to recognise that Tavernier is here describing Tibet & the Dalai Lama, rather than Bhutan & the Shabdrung. Clearly, the Kingdom of Boutan that appears in Cantelli’s map is, in reality, Tibet.

In other words, Boutan was an alias, a synonym, for the whole of Tibet, a name in use across Northern India, from Kashmir to Bengal. Unfortunately Tavernier never mentions Lhasa as the capital, thus making Cantelli & other European map makers unclear.

Names similar to Boutan (Bottan, Bottanter) had begun to appear in Europe as early as the 1580s in reference to a large country north of India, where a pious & light-skinned mountain people was said to live. A description of this newly discovered nation (the ‘Bottanthis’) appeared in a book & a map published in Italy in 1597. Many Europeans thought that the Botthantis might be the lost Christian nation of Prester John, a mythical priest/king who, according to medieval lore, lived somewhere in the heart of Central Asia. It was the hope of reestablishing a contact with this forgotten Christian people that drove a score of Jesuit fathers into Tibet & present-day Bhutan in the 1620s.

From 1700 till the 1770s, says Dr G&olfo, the term Boutan appeared on several important European maps of Asia as an alias for the whole of Tibet (or of the ‘ Kingdom of Lhasa’). The most important & detailed of these maps (published in 1733) is even titled “General Map of Thibet or Bout-tan”.

Despite the fact that, during the first half of the 18th century, a group of Italian missionaries resided in Lhasa & wrote many reports & letters back to Europe in which they clearly mentioned present-day Bhutan under several native names, these documents apparently disappeared in the archives & never reached the map makers. Or, if they did, they were discarded for lack of reliable geographical details.

Until the 1770s, present-day Bhutan failed to appear on European printed maps.

It did appear, however, under the name of ‘Broukpa’, in a beautiful sketch map drawn around 1730 by Samuel van Putte, a Dutch “explorer” of the early 18th century who travelled alone across all regions of Tibet (but not into present-day Bhutan). Showing a reproduction of the map, Dr G&olfo sadly remarks that the original, kept in a Dutch museum, had been destroyed during WWII in a bombing.

So, when did Druk-Yul (also known as Brukpa, Lho Mon) get its present western name of Bhutan? Only in 1775, says G&olfo, after Bogle’s trade mission to the Deb Raja & the Panchen Lama in Tashilhunpo. In his instructions to Bogle, in 1774, Warren Hastings, the Governor General of the East India Company, still refers to Tibet as Boutan. & Bogle initially uses the two terms interchangeably.

It was only after he was detained for four months in Thimphu valley by the Deb Raja in the rainy summer of 1774 that Bogle developed a clear appreciation of the specific features—political, cultural & religious—of Bhutan. Upon crossing the border near Phari, Bogle appears to realise that he was now in a different country. His long & friendly stay at the Panchen Lama’s court definitively convinced him that he had visited two distinct countries. When he eventually returned to Bengal, he wrote a final report to the Governer General in which he formally proposed “to distinguish” the Deb Raja’s country by the name of Boutan & to keep the name ‘ Tibet’ for the large country on the plateau.

James Rennell, the first Surveyor General of the East India Company, who had already plotted part of the Duars, immediately followed his suggestions. It was Rennell who first anglicised the French spelling Boutan into Bootan. & it was he who, in his maps, detached Bootan from Tibet, bringing it down south of the main Himalayan range.

If Bogle ‘discovered & named’ Bhutan, concludes Dr G&olfo, it was Rennell who, with his numerous & authoritative maps, published between 1780 & 1800, made Europe aware of the existence of this new country.

After that Bhutan was no longer, in Europe’s eyes, a be-yul—a hidden country.


Source: Kuensel ( August 24, 2003 ), Bhutan’s national newspaper.