One of the most important national events in Bhutan is Gyalyong Duechen (རྒྱལ་ཡོངས་དུས་ཆེན་) or the National Day. It is not the day when Bhutan was founded because the state of Bhutan started in the 17th century. The day commemorates the installation of Sir Ugyen Wangchuk as the first hereditary monarch of Bhutan on 17 December, 1907 or on the 13th of 11th lunar month in the congregation hall of Punakha dzong. The hall was decorated with wall hangings, banners and silk brocades and three thrones were installed for King Ugyen Wangchuk, the 50th Je Khenpo Jampal Shenyen and the British representative John Claude White. They were flanked by rows of clergy and state officials, and the sacred space filled with officers and spectators. In course of a traditional zhugdrel ceremony, the guests presented their gifts to King Ugyen Wangchuk.

The pinnacle of the ceremony was the endorsement of the document containing the contract for the new monarchial system. The state clerk read out aloud the oath of allegiance to the new King written on a scroll. Then, the Je Khenpo placed the large seal of the Zhabdrung’s Ngachudrukma at the top of the document in vermillion. The others including thhe members of the State Council and other high officials followed suit to put their seals on the document in black ink. The document bore altogether 50 different seals.

The National Day we observe annually now is a celebration of this auspicious and momentous beginning of a new chapter in Bhutan’s history. King Ugyen Wangchuk secured peace and security in the country, initiated the process of modernisation although it fully took off only several centuries later, built a strong relationship with neighbours both to the north and the south, and introduced a politics of leadership which focussed more on the welfare of the people than personal power and control.

According to the information in the Kuensel archives, the National Day was celebrated for the first time on 17 December 1971, sixty-four years after King Ugyen Wangchuk was crowned. Since then, the celebrations continued to become more elaborate and festive and the day was attributed with great national significance. Today, as we celebrate 112 years since King Ugyen Wangchuk was crowned, the day has become a sacred and joyful occasion for the Bhutanese people to come together to celebrate the blessings and achievements of the past, be mindful of the challenges, and to reinforce their commitment to carry on the legacies of the forefathers and work even harder towards the common goals. 

Contributed by 

Karma Phuntsho (PhD)

Karma Phuntsho is a thought leader and social worker. He is the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan.