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Foreign Perceptions of Bhutan
valley sceneTwo Portuguese Jesuits, Father Caella and Cabral, are believed to be the first westerners to enter Bhutan. In 1627, they spent several months with the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, whom they described as the "King and at the same time the chief Lama." They had set out from the Province of Malabar, East India, to convert Bhutan and Tibet to Christianity. Despite less than cordial experiences on the way, once in Bhutan they found the Bhutanese a trustworthy and good natured people. Cacella wrote of the Shabdrung, "He received us with a demonstration of great benevolence, signifying this in the joy which he showed on seeing us."

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the arrival of the British, who were moving north from their Indian stronghold. Several British missions were sent to Bhutan to try to acquire trading privileges, and in particular, a right of passage for goods between Tibet and India. Missions led by Bogle and Hamilton in 1774-75, by Hamilton in 1776 and 1777, and by Turner and Davis in 1783 were characterized by mutual understanding and good Bhutanese-English relations. In the 19th century, things began to turn sour, and successive missions by Bose in 1815, Pemberton in 1838 and especially by Eden in 1863-64 saw increased animosity between the two countries, culminating in the Duar war in 1864-65.

During the 20th century, only a few politicians, including Claude White and Lieutenant Weir (who were British Political Officers in Sikkim), and other public figures have come to Bhutan.

houseFor 350 years, Bhutan was only known to the outside world through the often impressionistic accounts of these travelers. When Bhutan joined the U.N. in 1971 and subsequently opened up to tourists in 1974, the popular image of the country was either as a kind of Shangri-La or as one of the least developed nations in the world. Both of these descriptions are obviously naive when one takes into account the unparalleled ethnic and geographical diversity of the Kingdom, which has a long and rich history, and overt pride in its customs. Above all, it remains a land whose civilization and culture have flourished beyond the gaze of prying eyes.

The long self-imposed isolation of Bhutan can be explained in part by the country's geography. Located between India and Tibet, its 47,500 square kilometers (30,000 miles) of territory form a gigantic staircase between the narrow lowland region of the south (approximately 300 meters or 900 feet above sea level) and the lofty Himalayan peaks of the north (over 7,000 meters or 21,000 feet high). The most densely populated region of Bhutan, the central region, is difficult and dangerous to reach from the south due to a 2,000 meter (6,000 foot) high chain of mountains interspersed with unhealthy jungle-covered gorges. Until the border with Tibet was closed in 1959 due to the Chinese invasion, the high Himalayas gave easy access through certain high mountain passes, and there was a considerable amount of trade between the two countries.


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