Sunday, 16 August 2015

Bhutan Place Names Explained

Having blogged samples of my books on English place names and also examined the etymologies of the nations of the world and their respective capitals I thought it time to cast my net a little wider. This time Benin and a look at some of its largest settlements and most interesting names and starting with the capital.

Thimphu is the largest city, although only having a population of 68,000, and the origins of its name are unclear. It is not recorded until the latter half of the 14th century. There is a traditional explanation, one coming from a written account of the travels of Jamyang Kuenga Senge (1314-47) and his meeting with Jagpa Melan, a deity local to the area now known as Thimphu. It is said Jagpa Melan dissolved before the man's eyes, becoming a part of the rock on which he stood. Thus the name of Thimphu means 'dissolving high ground' where thim 'dissolve' precedes phu 'high ground'.

Punakha was the capital city of Bhutan until 1955, when replaced by Thimphu, although it is still the official winter capital owing to its milder climate. This is how Punakha Dzong is usually referred to, although even that is an abbreviation of Pungtang Dechen Photrang Dzong meaning 'the palace of great happiness or bliss'. Said palace was built in the middle of the 17th century and still stands among on the banks of the river.

Trashigang, also given as Tashigang, derives its name from the Tshangia inhabitants of this eastern region of Bhutan and, in their Dzongkha language, means 'easterner'.

Wangdue Phodrang shares its name woth the district. Again the only explanation is a traditional one, said to have been given by Ngawang Namgyal who, when searching for a good site for a new dzong, discovered a boy playing near the river. The boy was known as Wangdi and he therefore named the site 'Wangdi's palace'.

Trongsa was founded with the building of the first temple in 1543 and named as 'the new village'.

Damphu as with Thimphu the suffix here is phu 'high ground' and this by a confluence of two rivers with dam meaning 'joining'.

Gasa is known locally as Tashi Thongmon, also the name of the dzong, and this the name of the local deity.

Jakar quite literally means 'white bird', a reminder of the tradition of the monastery being founded on the site where a white bird signalled to show where it should be built.

Note the spellings of the places are English as the piece is written in English.


  1. Dear Anthony. Thank you for very interesting etymology of several place names from Bhutan, a country almost not covered by specialist in origin of place names from the whole world like Adrian Room, John Everett-Heath, André Cherpillod and E.M. Pospelov. May I ask you which sources did you use? Best regards
    Yann de Caprona (Oslo, Norway)

    1. Thank you for your kind comments. Now you're testing my memory - especially as I will have researched and doubtless written the piece a year or more before publication. Having said that I'm pretty certain I had the assistance of the staff at a couple of Bhutanese embassies and other nationals. I will have made notes somewhere but forgive me if I don't spend hours looking for same.