Till the visit of Guru Padmasambhava in the 8th century, the people by and large worshipped all forms of nature. The religion that they practiced was animism that they referred to as Bon. People believed that the invisible forces were the rightful owners of the different elements of nature: mountain peaks as abodes of Guardian deities (Yul lha), the lakes inhabited by lake deities (Tsho mem), cliffs resided by cliff deities (Tsen), land belonged to the subterranean deities (Lue) and land deities (Sabdag), water sources inhabited by water deities (Chu gi Lhamu), and dark places haunted by the demons (due) etc.
As part of nature worship communities organized festivals that ranged from animal sacrifice in honor of the major deities to performing simple rituals and propitiation sufficing the minor deities. Even now, after the arrival of Buddhism, these practices carry on with some degree of change.
It was in the 8th century during the three visits of Guru Rinpoche that Buddhism began to take firm roots in Bhutan. His first visit was on his mission to treat the gravely ill Sendha Gyab, the king of Bumthang in 746 A.D. His visit led to the propagation of the Nyingmapa (the ancient or the older) school of Buddhism.
The second visit was from Tibet across the high frozen passes through Singye Dzong in Lhuntse. From Singye Dzong, Guru, in his wrathful form of Dorji Drolo flew to Taktsang on the back of a tigress, who was actually his consort, Tashi Khyeuden. He meditated there for three months and subdued the demon. Today this place is considered one of the sacred places in Bhutan. His third visit was not very significant as it was just to put in exile Khikharathoed, the Dog mouth and goat skull king who was anti-Buddhist.
Phajo Drugom Zhigpo’s arrival to Bhutan in 1222 is another landmark in the history of Bhutan. He introduced the Drukpa Kagyu school of Buddhism. Further his sons also worked in spreading the tradition of Drukpa Kagyu especially in western Bhutan.
One of the greatest historical figures of Bhutan is Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal who came to Bhutan in 1616 after a conflict with the King of Tsang in Tibet. Besides unifying Bhutan, he also strengthened the Drukpa Kagyu school of Buddhism. Today, Drukpa Kagyu is the state religion of Bhutan. However, people also follow Nyingmapa school of Buddhism and Hinduism.
Besides Guru Rinpoche, Phajo Drugom Zhigpo and Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, many other lamas had also contributed to the propagation of Buddhism in Bhutan.
It is a country where Buddhism is still vibrant and alive. The Dzongs, monasteries, stupas, prayer flags, and prayer wheels punctuate the Bhutanese landscape. The chime of ritual bells, sound of gongs, people circumambulating temples and stupas, fluttering prayer flags, red robed monks conducting ritual, among many others are all living case in point to reveal that Buddhism is an essential ingredient of Bhutanese life.