Part 1: The early period of camaraderie 

The founding of Bhutan as a nation-state in the seventeenth century was completed based, among other conditions, on the affirmation of its new sovereign status by existing polities in its neighbourhood. However, the creation of the new state was aggressively contested by the then inimical Tibetan government.

The friendly Maharajah of Cooch Behar, Padma Narayan (who may have been a conflation by Bhutanese historians of Laksmi Narayan, r. 1587-1621 and Bir Narayan, r. 1621-26), became Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel’s devoted spiritual patron on the persuasion of a wealthy merchant from Chapcha. He also emerged as a key political ally and played a central role in securing Bhutan’s sovereign status. Cooch Behar also mediated Bhutan’s contact with the larger world, including with the Mughal and British rulers of India, both before and after the formalization of diplomatic relations between the two polities.

Based on Cooch Behari and British sources, this three-part series will explore the Bhutan-Cooch relation, which over centuries of its evolution was marked by both great friendship and inescapable neighbourly contestations. The amazing history of these two neighbours shows how one emerged as a thriving modern country, while the other was structurally set up for failure as it tragically disintegrated through nefarious British colonial interventions.

The historical interaction between Bhutan and her southern neighbour has been substantial in terms of trade, both human and materials, but was not limited to it. Both Bhutan and Cooch Behar exerted considerable influence on each other’s respective domestic and foreign policies. There are interesting stories of the Bhutanese capturing Maharajahs and interceding in political conflicts while deposed and exiled Maharajahs sought protection in Bhutan.

The Bhutanese traded musk, furs, high altitude plants, silver and horses in exchange for silks, cotton, and slaves. The trading area that is modern-day Cooch Behar attracted Chinese, Persian, Tartar and Indian traders. Ancient sources provide information about trade with India from the third century BC to the first century AD. The earliest mention of Bhutan in the records from Cooch Behar is a 12th-century account of the Bhutanese having firearms and gunpowder presumably sourced from China.

The Bhutanese were recorded to have had an impressive army. Although the 1773 situation involving the capture of the Cooch Behar Maharajah and the intervention of the East India company resulting in the Anglo-Cooch treaty is widely known, there are a host of incidents before and after this time that illustrates the close and often fractious relationship between Bhutan and Cooch Behar. For example, there is a record that in 1505, the founder of the Cooch royal dynasty, Maharajah Vishwa Singha, attacked Bhutan defeating its then ruler.

Later, when Vishwa Singha died in 1533, his son, Nara Singha, ascended the throne. This was disputed by his brothers, Naranarayan and Sukladhwaja (alias Chilarai), who were then at Benares.

The other brothers joined them, and Nara Singha escaped to the Morang Kingdom. Subsequently, he was pursued by Maharaja Nara Narayan (now the king) and was forced to take shelter in Nepal before fleeing further to Kashmir. Finally, he and his son took refuge in ‘Gelung Bhot’, which is arguably in present-day Bhutan.

One of the earliest European reports of the Bhutanese comes from the trader Ralph Fitch, a merchant from London who visited Bengal in 1583. Below is a record of the information he gleaned from fellow traders about Bhutan.

“There is a country four days’ journey from Cuch [Cooch]… which is called Bootaner [Bhutan] and the city Bhoteah, the King is called Durmain, the people whereof are very tall and strong and there are merchants who come out of China and they say out of Moscovia or Tartary and they come to buy and sell musk, cymbals, agates, silk, pepper and saffron of Persia”.

Cooch Behar, it may be inferred, was in those days a place where the traders chiefly assembled.

In 1627, Stephen Cacella, a Christian missionary journeyed to Bhutan through the kingdom of Kamata. He has written that several years before, the uncle of King Lakshmi Narayan travelled to the hilly country of Bhutan. He was arrested there and made to plough the land. King Lakshmi Narayan was so angry on learning this news that he ordered all the Bhutiya subjects of his kingdom to be imprisoned.

These reprisals continued until the Bhutiyas released his uncle. In a letter written by Cacella dated 4 October 1627, it has been stated that they met Maharajah Lakshmi Narayan in September 1626. The object of their visit was to obtain information regarding the route to Bhutan.

The letter of Cacella reads that on April 10, they met with the Dharma Raja of Bhutan, which they referred to as Cambirasi supposedly following the idiom of Cooch Behar. This Dharma Raja was 33 years old and was a King and a Lama.

It can be seen from Cacella’s reports that during the last part of Lakshmi Narayan’s reign, he had no authority in Bhutan. Cacella remarked on the export of female and male slaves to Bhutan. Lakshmi Narayan became Maharajah in 1606 and in 1618, he met the Mughal Emperor Jahangir on the banks of the Mahi River about 17 miles from Ahmedabad.

Jahangir’s son, Shah Jahan, rebelled against his father and tried to seize the throne. He was defeated in battle but escaped at the end of 1623 and attacked Bengal and the country came under his rule with Ibrahim Khan, the Subahdar of Bengal, being killed in battle with him in 1624.

From Maldaha, Shah Jahan conveyed to Maharaja Lakshmi Narayan the news of his victory by a firman and requested him to act under the advice and guidance of Shetab Khan. The firman was delivered to Lakshmi Narayan at Hajo.

In another account by Sihabuddin Mohammad Tali, the companion of Mir Jumla, there is a mention of the Bhutiyas. In the account, it is written that the Dharmaraja of Bhutan was 120 years old at the time. He lived on milk and fruits and was always engaged in prayers. There is mention that the three persons sent in 1659 by the Duke of Moscovy went to China through Bhutan.

This information is also contained in the account of the famous 17th century French gem merchant and traveller, Jean Baptise Tavernier, who was travelling to India and visited Dacca, the then capital of Bengal. He recorded impressions of Assam and Bhutan in his work. Tavernier is most famous for the discovery or purchase in 1666 of the 116 carat Tavernier Blue Diamond. It is uncertain, but it seems that he confused and conflated Tibet (Bhot) with Bhutan.

In December 1661, the Mughals launched an invasion of the recalcitrant Pran Narayan (who was their vassal ruler of Cooch Behar) and the neighbouring Ahom Kingdom. When the Mughal army was within three days’ journey, Pran Narayan escaped to the Bhutan hills and on 19 December, Muazzam Khan (Mir Jumla) occupied the capital of Cooch Behar without resistance. He then sent a letter to the Dharma Raja of Bhutan (Desi Tenzin Drukdra, r. 1655-1667) to send the Maharajah to him but received a polite refusal saying that a guest cannot be turned away.

Those were the heydays of the Bhutan-Cooch Behar friendship. For a brief period, there was even regular goodwill royal visitors from Cooch Behar to the Bhutanese capital. In 1681, Pran Narayan’s daughter attended the coronation of the fourth Desi Tenzin Rabgay. In 1690, Rup Narayan, who would become the Maharajah in 1693, paid a visit to Punakha with lavish gifts. He received a befitting royal reception.

The following decades saw relations sour as longstanding tensions between the neighbours simmered before Bhutan eventually sought complete domination over Cooch Behar. The resulting events and the involvement of British India, which set the relationship on an irreversible course of decline, will be dealt with in the next article in this series.

Part 2: The middle period of neighbourly contestations

Bhutan enjoyed a historical relationship with Cooch Behar that predated the founding of the Bhutanese state by Zhabdrung Rinpoche who consolidated and promoted this relation. Successive Maharajahs of Cooch Behar offered their sovereign recognition to Zhabdrung’s newfound state. 

However, everyday interactions, particularly along the long fluid border, was often fractious. As well as trade, there were invariably border disputes including the involvement of the Bhutanese in raids often for livestock, gold, coins, jewels, and most importantly, slaves. 

In 1700, the Bhutanese had been called to Sikkim to assist Pendiongmu (Phende Wangmo) the half-sister of the Chogyal of Sikkim in overthrowing her brother. The Deb Raja of Bhutan (the 5th Desi Gedun Chophel, r. 1694-1701) sent a force that overran Sikkim. The Bhutanese stayed in Sikkim for six years before the exiled Chogyal Chadhor Namgyel (1686-1717) returned from Tibet. The Bhutanese retreated but still maintained substantial land tracts.

The historical archives from Bhutan make only passing reference to Bhutan’s forceful expeditions into neighbouring territories as they were predominantly concerned with hagiographic descriptions of spiritual leaders. However, more reliable accounts of its forceful conduct of foreign affairs, particularly during the reigns of strongman lay rulers like the fifth and sixteenth Desis, have been recorded in the annals of the neighbouring countries as well as in British records. 

Throughout the 18th century, the route through Bhutan and the Chumbi valley continued to gain significance when the rising Gurkha power in Nepal blocked the passes through Morung and Demising. 

Bhutan’s trade in the plains extended to Rangpur and annual Bhutanese caravans to that place were already ancient custom. Further, the Bhutanese had gained control of large parts of the western Duars, which traditionally belonged to Koch chieftains before attempting an outright annexation of Cooch Behar. 

In around 1770, the capital of the Limbu kingdom, Vijaypur, which was under Bhutanese suzerainty failed to pay its annual tribute. Therefore, Cooch Behar aligned with its suzerain power, Bhutan, and the joined forces invaded Vijayapur and killed its ruler, Kamadatta Sen. They installed the Prime Minister Buddhi Karna Raya Khebang as the next king. 

Meanwhile, in Cooch Behar, Debendra Narayan, the cousin of Dhairjendra Narayan (the king who joined the Bhutanese expedition to Vijaypur), was ill-treated and eventually assassinated by the Maharajah of Cooch Behar. The Bhutanese strongman, Deb Zhidar, intervened and took Dhairjendra and his son as captive to Buxa in 1770 installing Rajendra Narayan, a royal relative, as a nominal ruler. 

Bhutanese interventions in the royal household affairs were an ongoing reality in Cooch Behar from the end of the seventeenth century onwards. The Bhutanese professedly took side of the Mahi Narayan line as the legitimate royal line of Cooch Behar against rival claimants. 

By this time, Cooch Behar was virtually controlled through the Bhutanese frontier official called Pagsam Drungpa (Buxa Subba in British record). However, this particular incident set in motion a train of events which precipitated the first Anglo-Bhutan war (1772 – 1774). 

Formal relations between the East India Company and Bhutan originated with the expedition sent in 1773 for the relief of the Raja of Cooch Behar, who had appealed for help against the Bhutanese who continued to raid and take hostage their people, livestock and jewels. Captain Jones won the battle of Cooch Behar and the Bhutanese were driven out although they continued in the Duars till 1774. 

Through the intermediation of the 6th Panchen Lama (1738-1780) who was then the regent of Tibet, the Anglo-Bhutan peace treaty was signed with mutually favourable terms on 25 April 1774 formalising the Anglo-Bhutan relations. 

The treaty kindled Warren Hasting’s (the first Governor General of Bengal, r. 1772-1785) imagination of the prospect of commercial relations with Tibet through Bhutan. The Anglo-Bhutan treaty of 1774 secured the northern frontier of Bengal against Bhutanese incursions. 

The political acumen of Warren Hastings’s policy toward Bhutan is unsurpassed in the annals of Northeastern frontier of India. George Bogle led the first British mission to Bhutan and Tibet for a commercial reconnaissance. Bogle’s report from Tashichhodzong dated 11 October 1774 records the first ethnographic details of everyday life in Bhutan as well as the country’s political and economic structures. Bogle advocated for preferential treatment towards the Bhutanese, and led to the establishment of dedicated trade and other facilities for Bhutanese citizens in Indian territories. 

In 1815, Babu Krishnakanta Bose and Rammohan Roy were sent to Bhutan by David Scott. Krishnakanta Bose undertook the journey ostensibly to settle boundary disputes between Cooch Behar and Bhutan. His impressively extensive account of Bhutan was translated into English by David Scott. 

The British conquest of Assam (1826) projected Bhutan as a major factor affecting the Northeast frontier. For the first time, the Bhutanese hierarchy became apprehensive of British intentions.

Pemberton’s mission of 1838 to Bhutan was a political fiasco only less dramatic than the later mission under Ashley Eden (1864). The Court of Directors admitted its failure though they recommended it for the collection of “valuable miscellaneous information”. In his report, Pemberton recommended the attachment of the Assam Duars. He thought it perfectly practicable either to open a dialogue with the Tibetan authorities or to dictate terms to the Bhutan government “as long as the Duars continued attached”. 

The opposition of the Trongsa Penlop frustrated the plan for a formal treaty with Bhutan. The idea of placing a British representative in Bhutan was given up. The pervading distrust and jealousy in Bhutan ruined hope of securing the cooperation of the Bhutanese hierarchy in reopening communication with Tibet. 

In fact, the fate of Cooch Behar after 1772, the territorial losses sustained by Nepal and Sikkim in 1816 and 1817, and the annexation of Assam in 1826 had deeply disturbed the Bhutanese mind. The Bhutanese officials on the border from the Penlop down to the Zinkaff (Zingarps, minor court officials) rested in a manner which British officials described as delinquency. But the ceaseless disturbances on the Cooch-Bhutan frontier were the result of their fear of British intentions. 

After 1850, there were new men with new ideas, most of which were either indifferent or inimical to the tradition of appeasement towards Bhutan. When Major Jenkins became in charge of the Bhutan frontier in 1851, he recommended that “there ought to be no interference unless we are called upon to settle a dispute and then only as to the particular case in question”. 

The policy was dangerous since it did not envisage a settlement of the entire boundary through negotiations with the Bhutanese authority, central or local. In fact, the idea of negotiations receded and the idea of retaliation against Bhutan gained ground. This in turn led to more wars and annexations.

The failure of Ashley Eden’s mission to Bhutan in 1864 directly led to the outbreak of the famous Duar war. The unpublished correspondence of Sir John Lawrence, the Viceroy of India (1864-1869) and Sir Charles S. Wood, the Secretary of State, reveal the strategy of economic blockage enforced against Bhutan. It was eminently successful. The Paro Penlop and the leaders in western Bhutan who monopolised the lucrative trade with Cooch Behar and the plains became apprehensive. 

Bhutan accepted the terms offered by Col. Herbert Bruce at Sinchula. By the Treaty of Sinchula signed on 11 November 1865, Bhutan surrendered the Eighteen Duars bordering the districts of Rangpur, Cooch Behar and Assam, and accepted the principle of free trade although the way to Tibet was still closed.

The principal conditions dealt with the surrender all British subjects, and all subjects of Cooch Behar and Sikkim detained in Bhutan against their will; and maintaining free trade and allowing the arbitration by the Government of India of all disputes between the Bhutan Government and the Chiefs of Cooch Behar and Sikkim. Thus, Bhutan’s relation with Sikkim and Cooch Behar became formalised and arbitrated by the British. 

The Government of India used gun salutes to indicate the relative status of a state. In June 1911, Bhutan was granted a permanent salute of 15 guns, which was two more than was afforded to Cooch Behar. 

Part 3: Modern disintegration of a good neighbour

The previous two parts of this series of Bhutan-Cooch history have revealed how a relation of mutual goodwill and reliance turned sour through neighbourly contestations exacerbated by external interferences. 

Relations between Bhutan and other Buddhist polities in its neighbourhood, like with Tibet, Sikkim and Ladakh, are extensively documented because of shared culture, religion and language. Despite the comparative strategic and economic significance of Cooch Behar to Bhutan, one can argue that emic documentation of similar rapports with Cooch Behar was conspicuously overlooked by our Buddhist historians for two reasons. 

Firstly, understanding the predominantly Hindu culture of Cooch Behar through a foreign language would have been beyond the capacity or interest of these scholars. Secondly, the extensive dealings that Bhutan had with Cooch Behar as its suzerain power were in the domains of everyday economics and politics, areas generally treated as insignificant or inappropriate for Buddhist hagiographic works. 

A study of this deeply complex suzerain relationship reveals that historically, the Bhutanese political leadership had an intricate knowledge of Cooch Behar including its own official policy and preference for the legitimate line of the Cooch royal family. However, with the interference of British which became the formal mediator between the two polities, there was significant reduction of engagement at not only the official, but also at the people level. 

Maharajah Sir Nripendra Narayan

Even this circumscribed knowledge of the Bhutanese of Cooch Behar all but vanished when Cooch Behar acceded to the newly independent India in 1947. Today, the average Bhutanese has hardly any understanding and appreciation of this once significant Indian kingdom in our immediate neighbourhood, and how we were connected by not only shared geography but also history. 

So, how did Cooch Behar disappear from not only Bhutanese memory, but significantly, ceased to exist as a Princely State through deliberate colonial design? This final part of the series reveals the tragic history of modern Cooch Behar, and how it was precipitated by structural manipulations, and systematic weakening and assertion of corruptive influences on its ruling family. One may also recall the brief glory of Cooch Behar as it proceeded towards a European style modernization with a new palace and the first planned capital city in the region.

The Bhutanese invasion of the Koch Kingdom compelled it to sign a subsidiary treaty of 1773 with the British. This reduced Cooch Behar to a feudatory state of the British. As Maharajah Dhairjendra Narayan noted, Cooch Behar merely changed “one master for another” by inviting British interference in their polity.  

During the 19th century, the British laid the foundation of the process of colonial modernisation in Cooch Behar. From 1860, the British wanted to build Cooch Behar into a ‘model state’ among the contemporary Princely States of India.

Cooch Behar had been ruled by the Narayan dynasty for 400 years by the middle of the 19th century. Maharajah Sir Nripendra Narayan was born in 1862 and became a ward of the British Government from his infancy. In 1863, Colonel Houghton, the Commissioner of Assam was ordered into Cooch Behar to put the young Maharaja on the throne. There was, however, an imbroglio. 

The late Maharajah had died months ago leaving his state and family under the protection of the British Government after agreeing to nominate Nripendra as a successor. Nripendra’s father had a number of wives and followed a very common custom of polygamy in a princely family.  However, the widow of the late Maharajah asserted that she was pregnant and protested against the British Government installing the adopted ‘illegitimate’ son of the late Maharajah pending the results of her pregnancy.

The British invoked the authority of paramountcy and exerted influence on the crucial inter-generational transfer of power. 

Nripendra was educated by the British in India. They removed him from Cooch Behar at five as the Maharani had been against a foreign education. He was raised in a ward’s institution at Benares with close connection to the Cooch royal family. 

In 1877, Nripendra attended the Delhi durbar when Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India. The experiment for training the ideal ruler for the ideal Indian state had succeeded beyond the highest British expectations.

To ensure final success for the scheme, it was necessary that the young ruler should marry an equally ‘advanced’ girl who would support him in his efforts to modernise Cooch Behar. They arranged a marriage with Suniti Devi, the eldest daughter of Keshub Chandra Sen, leader of a reformist Hindu movement called the Brahmo Samaj.  

Cooch Behar became the most anglicised of all Indian principalities. In a span of 14 years, through increasing the state’s annual revenue, Nripendra regularised the administration and established the first railway link to Bengal. He also improved communication throughout Cooch Behar by constructing numerous roads and bridges. He created a planned city with sanitation and drainage system besides constructing the earliest buildings in the country dedicated to the principles of modern justice and administration. 

His modernization effort also led to the construction of a fully equipped hospital in the capital and public dispensaries in the countryside. He founded Cooch Behar’s first public library, park, garden, marketplace, and a girl’s school and college. He also abolished polygamy in the royal family and capital punishment throughout Cooch Behar. 

Nripendra built the Cooch Behar Palace modelled on Buckingham in 1897. The palace shows the acceptance of European idealism without renouncing their Indian heritage. 

He invested a fortune in Darjeeling and by the late 1880s, nearly half of the registered properties in Darjeeling were owned by him. The royal family also had properties in various Indian hill stations as well as in Britain. After 1947, all the family kept as private properties were the Cooch Behar palace with others having been sold off. 

Cooch Behar was beset with many structural issues and a corruptive Western influence on its Royal successors. Nripendra’s sons, Rajendra Narayan (1911-1913) who ruled for only two years dying from alcoholism at the age of 30, and Jitendra Narayan who also died of alcoholism in 1922 at the age of 36, continued an extraordinarily glamorous life; tiger hunting, large parties, travels to Europe and a modernised Cooch Behar. 

Jitendra’s wife Maharani Indira Devi held the position as regent until her young son came of age. In that time, she continued the modernisation of Cooch Behar and fought against British influence. Cooch Behar fought alongside the British loyally in two world wars. At the end of the Second World War, Britain was economically exhausted. 

In 1947, Britain granted independence to India forcing in the process the Princely States to sign the Instrument of Accession. Without the British, the Princes were no longer protected, and they could no longer collect the same levels of revenue despite trying unsuccessfully to diversify by such means as turning their palaces into hotels. 

Cooch Behar did not move quickly enough in a commercial direction and by 1970, with the death of the Maharaja who had held power since 1936, the world was very different. There was no longer sufficient income to retain their properties. Under Indira Gandhi, the Privy purse was removed, and the Princely families were taxed at a crippling rate. 

Cooch Behar did not have enough income sources to sustain itself. The curse of alcoholism in the Cooch royal family was also part of its tragic decline. The last Maharaja, Viraj Narayan, died of an alcohol related illness in a rented flat in Calcutta, but not before he sold off many of his family’s antiquities and properties. As the Maharaja died childless, the Narayan dynasty perished on his death. 

The tragedy of Cooch Behar is that the British created a state that was entirely dependent on their support and when that no longer existed, the state fell into disrepair. The tale of these two neighbours tells of two kingdoms who shared an ancient relation of love and hate. Through the Wangchuck Dynasty’s visionary leadership, Bhutan became progressively more independent and emerged as a vibrant nation state, while Cooch Behar tragically disintegrated into a nondescript district of modern India.



Contributed by 

Julia Booth (University of Sydney) and Dendup Chophel (The Australian National University). 

Photo credit: Pablo Bartholomew