In ancient times, Bhutan was known as Lho Mon, meaning the Dark Southland, referring to the land south of Tibet. And there was a reason why it was called Lho Mon. In Tibet at the time, Buddhism had already taken roots while in Bhutan Bonism was widely practiced. This involved worshipping nature and performing animal sacrifices and animalistic rituals. And as the practices were dark, so was the name.
Over the years, the country was also referred to as Lho Menjong, meaning the southland of medicinal herbs. Today, according to the National Institute of Traditional Medicine, there are over 500 species of medicinal herbs recorded in the pharmacopoeia of gso-ba-rig-pa (codified traditional medical system in Bhutan). So, you can understand why Bhutan was called the land of traditional herbs.
Another name by which the country was known is Lhomen Khazhi. It means the land of four gateways namely Dungsam Kha, Pagsam Kha, Tagtser Kha and Daling Kha. These four approaches served as strategic and important gateways into Bhutan.
The name ‘Bhutan’ is relatively new but what is interesting is how the name evolved over the years. It all began with an English merchant named Ralph Fitch. He is credited to be the first European to have sighted Bhutan. This was around 1585. He spelt Bhutan as ‘Bottanter’ and described it as a land that took ‘four days’ on foot to reach from Cooch Behar in India. Then, almost a decade after him, Italian cartographer Giacomo Cantelli da Vignola marked Bhutan on the map of India as ‘Regno di Boutan’ or ‘Kingdom of Boutan’ in 1683.Over the years that followed, the name was spelt ‘Botton’ and even ‘Buton’ by European Jesuits and explorers.
However, etymologically, the word Bhutan is derived from the Sanskrit word Bhotant, meaning the end of Tibet. Some argue that it is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Bhu-uttan’ which translates into highland. Both words make sense as Bhutan consists of high mountains and begins where Tibet ends.
There is no clear record of when the standardized spelling ‘Bhutan’ came into use. Today, Bhutan has two standard names. One obviously is Bhutan itself and the other is Druk or Drukyul. The Bhutanese call the land Druk and take pride in calling themselves ‘Drukpa’.