Until the early 1600s, Bhutan existed as a mix of minor warring fiefdoms until unified by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. Starting 1616, he initiated a program of fortification and military consolidation, overseeing the construction of impressive dzongs or fortresses such as Simtokha Dzong which guards the entrance to Thimphu valley. An insightful leader, he used cultural symbols as well as military force to establish a Bhutanese national identity, including the initiation of a number of sacred dances to be performed in the annual tsechu festivals.
The Shabdrung also established the dual system of government by which control of the country was shared between a spiritual leader (the Je Khenpo) and an administrative leader (the Desi), a policy which exists in modified form to this day. After the Shabdrung's death, the civil war eroded the power of the shabdrung for the next 200 years until 1885, when the Penlop of Trongsa, Ugyen Wangchuck gained an upper hand over rival forces. The 1870s and 1880s were marked by civil war between the rival power centers of Paro and Trongsa valleys. In 1885, Ugyen Wangchuck, the penlop (governor) of Trongsa, gained control of the country and ended the civil war. Monarchy as a system of government was formally established on December 17th, 1907 with Ugyen Wangchuck as the First King of Bhutan. This day is celebrated today as the National Day of Bhutan.
In December 2005, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck announced that he would abdicate in 2008 to coincide with the first national election and introduction of Bhutan's new constitution. However, a year later he announced his immediate abdication and handed power over to his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (who was 26 at the time). On March 26, 2005, "an auspicious day when the stars and elements converge favorably to create an environment of harmony and success", the king and government distributed a draft of the country's first Constitution, requesting that every citizen review it. A new house of parliament, the National Council, is chartered consisting of 20 elected representatives from each of the dzongkhags along with 5 distinguished persons selected by the King. The National Council would be paired with the other already existing house, the National Assembly. As per the Constitution, the monarchy is given a leadership role in setting the direction for the government as long as the King shall demonstrate his commitment and ability to safeguard the interests of the kingdom and its people.
Bhutan is a very compact and landlocked nation, with just a small bit more length than width. The nation's territory totals an approximate 47,000 km². Its shape, area, and mountainous location are comparable to that of Switzerland.
Bhutan's territory used to extend south into present-day Assam, including the protectorate of Cooch Behar but, starting in 1772, the British East India Company began to push back the borders through a number of wars and treaties, severely reducing Bhutan's size until the Treaty of Sinchulu of 1865, when some border land was ceded back. The Himalayas dominate the north of the country, where mountain peaks can easily reach seven thousand meters; the highest point is claimed to be the Kula Gangri, at 7,553 m. The highlands are the most populous part of the nation; the capital of Bhutan, Thimphu lies in the western region. The region is characterized by its many rivers (flowing into India's Bramaputra), its isolated valleys that house most of the population, and the expansive forests that cover seventy percent of the nation. Winters are cold, summer are hot; the rainy season is accompanied with frequented landslides.