The Name ‘Bhutan’: A British Legacy

The region now known as Bhutan has many old names, but we have little knowledge of what Assamese, Bengalis or Biharis used to call the state that formed to their north before the British took over India. The scanty records that survive reveal that people from the northern highlands where often called Bhoteas or Bhutias, terms which are used even today to refer to people of Tibetan-Mongoloid racial descent. Even today the term Bhotea carries a pejorative connotation in some places and does not refer to a specific nationality. It is quite likely that the areas that are now Tibet, Sikkim, and Bhutan were either known loosely as the place of Bhoteas, though it is unknown how much their nomenclature affected the British name later attached to the nation.

The modern name Bhutan is a British legacy, and is partly an outcome of British ignorance of the countries and the political and demographic realities that laid beyond the Himalayan foothills. Although some people from the Indian plains certainly visited Bhutan as merchants, pilgrims, or refugees, the British had very little information on Bhutan when they took over the Bengal and Assam plains and became Bhutan’s southern neighbours. There had been few accounts of the region to that point. Portuguese Jesuits Estêvão Cacella (1603-1721) and João Cabral (b.1599), travelled through Bhutan in 1627 and met its founding father, Zhapdrung Ngakwang Namgyel (1594-1651). They were the first Europeans to visit Bhutan and in their report dated 4 October, 1627, they called the country Cambirasi. The origin as well as the etymology of this name has perplexed historians. As farfetched as it may sound, this might be a Portuguese rendering of Lhokhazhi. This is highly plausible as the Bhutanese used this name at that time and the Jesuits seem to make a clear distinction between Bhutan and Tibet by using Cambirasi for Bhutan and Potente for Tibet, a distinction they did not create themselves, nor would they have known prior to their arrival in Bhutan.

The name Potente used for Tibet is interesting. It not only evokes the romantic idea of a mystical country ruled by a potentate, matching the idea of the fabled Christian kingdom Cathai ruled by father Prester John, which early European explorers—and perhaps even the two Jesuits—were bent on finding. But this name is also clearly a prototype of the name Bhutan. Potente was one among a medley of names early European explorers and cartographers used to refer to the mountainous area north of the Bengal and Assam plains extending as far as China and Tartary. Other names used by explorers and cartographers include Bottan, Bottaner, Botton, Boutan, Bootan, Butan, Botenti, Pettent, Bhotanta, Porangké, Tobat, Thebet, Thibet, and Barontola. These names were used variously to designate either the whole of the Tibetan world or parts thereof; sometimes two or three of these names appear on the same map referring to different regions and other times they are applied, often synonymously, to the same place.

Prior to the 18th century no one in India seems to have had a clear knowledge of the political landscape to the north of Assam plains. The multiplicity of the names and variations suggest significant confusion and uncertainty among various audiences. Ralf Fitch (c. 1550-1611), an adventurous English merchant is said to be the first European to have sighted Bottaner to the north of Bengal around 1586 and a book by Giovanni Peruschi (1525-1598) published in 1597 contained a map showing a Botthanti populi, undoubtedly referring to the Tibetan people. Long after that, the Italian cartographer Cantelli di Vignola (1643-1695), in his maps produced in 1682 and 1683, placed Boutan in a number of locations between India and the Tartars and used the names Boutan, Thibet, Barontola, etc. in a number of ways.

Similarly, Guillaume Delisle (1675-1726), the French father of modern cartography put Boutan as an alternative for Tibet in his maps. Jean-Baptiste d’Anville (1697-1782) did the same but added the Pays de Porangké roughly where modern Bhutan is located as did many other mapmakers and writers. Thus, Romola Gandolfo, who has carried out an incisive study of the name Bhutan on European maps, concludes that “all supposed references to ‘Bhutan’ based on western historical sources produced before 1765 should be understood as having nothing to do with present-day Bhutan: they refer instead to the whole of Tibet, or at least to that large portion of it which was called Greater Tibet and had Lhasa as its capital”.[1]

In spite of what the Jesuits reported in 1627, it is somewhat surprising that European explorers and cartographers did not know about the separate geo-political existence of two different states until 1765. They used the names Boutan and Thibet interchangeably and were not aware of a small Drukpa state north of Bengal but independent of Tibet. It was with such ignorance that George Bogle (1746-1781) ventured into uncharted territory in 1774, in what was to be the first British mission to Bhutan and Tibet. The mission came about as a result of the military confrontation between Bhutan and Britain concerning the installation of the King of Coch Behar, the small north Indian state which subsequently fell under the control of East India Company.

Bogle and his team made their journey through modern Bhutan, where they stayed for about four months and met the 17th Deb Raja, and finally reached the place of the 6th Panchen Lama (1738-1780), who they called the Teshoo Lama, after his monastic seat of Tashi Lhunpo. In the course of the mission, Bogle learnt that there were two different countries with distinct political jurisdiction, and referred to the first one initially as the Deb Raja’s country and the other as the Teesho Lama’s country. Then, he seems to vacillate between the Deb Raja’s country and Boutan, perhaps not being able to make up his mind about which name to choose and veers to using Boutan for the Deb Raja’s country and Tibet for the Teesho Lama’s. Finally, it was in a report dated 30 September 1775 which he wrote after returning from Tibet and while staying in Bhutan, that he decisively nailed the name to the country. ‘This country, which I shall distinguish by the name of Boutan’, he wrote referring to the Deb Raja’s country. It was thus an amiable Scotsman named George Bogle, who, in a stroke of historical accident, for once and all distinguished the two countries of Bhutan and Tibet for the Western world and secured the name Boutan for the Drukpa state.

Bogle’s distinction of the two countries changed the imagination of the Himalayan world in Europe. This was further reinforced by the maps of James Rennell (1742-1830), a British surveyor who returned to become a mapmaker in 1777. Rennell’s map effectively showed Bhutan as a separate country and also switched the French Boutan to an anglicized Bootan. The orthographic form, Bhutan, which is in currency today is a later Indianized version although Indians generally pronounce it Bhotan. Despite the orthographic change, the British still pronounce it Bootan.

Several efforts have been made by local and Indian scholars to explain the etymology of the name Bhutan, quite oblivious of the gradual development mentioned above. With a nationalistic proclivity to find an ancient justification for modern socio-political realities, some proposed that Bhutan derives from the Sanskrit term, Bhoṭānta – the end of Bhoṭa, or Tibet. This is to say that Bhutan was at the edge of Tibet but never part of it. Others argue it comes from Bhū-uttan meaning highland in Sanskrit where bhū is land and uttan elevated. Needless to say, the Bhutanese country drastically rises from the Indian plains to be thought of as upland. Rejecting these hypotheses, Chakravarti suggests that the word Bhutan is perhaps simply a derivative of Bhoṭānām, i.e. of the Bhoṭas, just as Iran is derived from Āryānām.[2] There is no doubt that the main part of the name Bhutan is derived from the word bod (བོད་) for Tibet. Even the name Tibet is derived from Thobod or high Bod. The Indians rendered Bod as Boṭa or Bhoṭa and the ending tan, one can surmise to have come from stan, which refers to a ground or land as in the case of Pakistan, Hindustan, etc. Whatever the historical origins and etymologies may be, the name, Bhutan, is now used internationally and is also what the Bhutanese themselves use when referring to their country in English. The French use the Francocized Bhoutan and the Chinese use Sinicized Bùdān.


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] Romolo Gandolfo (2004), ‘Bhutan and Tibet in European Cartography (1597-1800)’ in Karma Ura & Sonam Kinga, The Spider and the Piglet, Thimphu: Centre for Bhutan Studies, pp. 90-136.

[2] Chakravarti (1992), A Cultural History of Bhutan, Calcutta: Self Employment Bureau Publications, p. 1.

Bhutan Cultural Library proper place names Bhutan



One of a series of essays that explore the names associated with Bhutan throughout its history; this one highlights theories behind the name "Bhutan" and its various sources.

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