Gotta love a nation where the king wears a raven crown.
Enter the Dragon King
For more than three decades, the fourth Dragon King of Bhutan steered his people into the modern world, while keeping their traditional culture intact. His recent abdication, at 53, in favor of his 29-year-old, Oxford-educated son, was another stroke of Realpolitik, strengthening the throne even as he moved the country to a parliamentary democracy. In a rare privilege for an outsider, the author joins the royal family at the coronation of Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the new ruler of the world’s last Himalayan kingdom.
by Patrick French WEB EXCLUSIVE April 13, 2009
On a bitterly cold day last winter, high in the eastern Himalayas, the king of Bhutan voluntarily gave up his throne. Watched by his fiercely patriotic people, the fourth Druk Gyalpo, or Dragon King, took the Raven Crown, a ceremonial headpiece with Tantric skulls stitched around the rim, surmounted by an embroidered raven’s head, and placed it on the head of his eldest son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. The new king, a charismatic 29-year-old with a hairstyle that recalls Elvis Presley’s, is not your typical Himalayan monarch. Nor is Bhutan—the world’s last surviving Himalayan Buddhist kingdom, and an odd but successful mixture of ancient and modern—a country like any other. On the night of the coronation my wife, Meru, and I were having a quiet after-party at the Aman Hotel, in the capital, Thimphu, with some members of the Indian delegation, when their security detail went on sudden alert. Agents from New Delhi with spaghetti in their ears sized up an incoming group of Bhutanese men. The men turned out to be security agents, too. “Papa 2 clear,” said one of the Bhutanese, talking into a microphone hidden in the long sleeve of his traditional robe, as if it were an old-fashioned speaking tube. I thought that “Papa 2” might be code for “Prince 2,” because the flurry of activity marked the arrival of His Royal Highness Prince Jigyel, the new king’s brother, who had that day become heir-presumptive to the crown of Bhutan.
The 24-year-old Jigyel, an Oxford graduate who dodged bullets with his father while fighting Assamese insurgents in the country’s southern jungles in 2003, typifies the incongruities of Bhutan. Dressed in impeccable black shoes, knee-length socks, and a gray robe, Prince Jigyel had dropped by the hotel to say hello to a guest—Nakata, the Japanese football star and fashion model, who is known as “the Asian David Beckham.” For the prince, it had been an emotional day. That morning, he had watched his father, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, formally abdicate after 34 years as king. “When I saw His Majesty put the Raven Crown on my brother’s head,” Prince Jigyel told me later that evening, “I didn’t know whether to cry from happiness or from sadness.” It was instinctive for the prince to refer to his father in this reverential, regal way: “He’s the man behind the man. We think of him almost as a god.” Jigyel’s sister Princess Chimi was similarly moved: “I had never seen the Raven Crown before.”
The invitation to the coronation had come from the senior queen of Bhutan, and had reached us in London on a dank October day. It was unexpected, because coronations in Bhutan are usually closed to foreigners, but the queen told me I had been invited to witness the event because the retiring king and the crown prince both liked the books I had written on the history of Tibet and the Himalayas. Despite having little time for the monarchy in my own country, England, I was impressed with the Bhutanese version. The “old king” was in fact only 53, but his 34-year reign had been remarkable by any measure, and he now hoped to see the Raven Crown pass securely to the next generation. Having inherited the job as a teenager after the death of his father, he married four beautiful sisters, sired 10 children, and steered Bhutan into the modern era with extraordinary skill. He introduced effective health-care and education systems, banned Western-style buildings in favor of local designs, refused to let forests be chopped down indiscriminately, and introduced “appropriate technology,” such as Japanese power tillers, which were sold cheaply to Bhutanese farmers. Rather than build smoke-belching power plants or shun electricity altogether, he introduced hydroelectric schemes which now earn Bhutan substantial revenues by selling surplus power to India. (The king once observed, “Water is to us what oil is to the Arabs.”) Then, to coincide with his abdication, the king decided to introduce parliamentary democracy to Bhutan—this against the wishes of many of his loyal subjects, who seemed quite content with Bhutan’s form of benevolent monarchy. In any case, the distance traveled by Bhutan during the old king’s tenure on the throne is truly astonishing. At the time of his own father’s coronation, in 1952, Bhutan had no bridges or roads, and two foreign guests (an Indian political agent and a Sikkimese prince) had to make a nine-day journey from northeastern India to Thimphu by mule.
Modern transportation makes a difference in Bhutan, but only up to a point. To enter Bhutanese airspace is to enter another world. The plane cruises at the height of the Himalayan peaks. To your left you pass Cho Oyu, Mount Everest, and Makalu, each summit spiking in a web of frosted snow and giving way to yet more distant summits, the shining whiteness becoming a filigree of ice trails as your eyes fall to the lower ridges and then to stepped fields and trees—the last great undestroyed forests of the Himalayas. You bump on air pockets as the plane turns at last into a valley and makes its way toward earth. Few scheduled flights come to Bhutan, and those that do need visibility: if the weather turns nasty, instruments won’t suffice to guide you safely to the runway. Rather, the pilot must look for a particular red house on the center of a particular ridge, then skim within 80 feet of its roof in order to land on the lone strip of tarmac in a hayfield beyond. The terminal building, ornate and tiered, might be mistaken for a temple—a testament to classic Bhutanese architecture. Every house in Bhutan must be traditionally built, and the national costume—a smart, multicolored, striped gho—is compulsory during office hours.
Bhutan is the most intact traditional society I have ever seen. Tourism is highly restricted and reserved mainly for the wealthy; if paparazzi arrive in the wake of a Hollywood or Bollywood star, their visas are withdrawn and they are sent home. It is the only country that has “Gross National Happiness” as a mandated government policy. Bhutan has held itself together—sometimes at significant human cost—by keeping aliens and ethnic impurity at bay, even as its neighbors have been fatally undone. Tibet was destroyed by Chinese Communist rule. Nepal has been run by revolutionary Maoists, after the royal family was massacred by the doped-up crown prince in 2001. Neighboring Sikkim became the 22nd state of the Indian union when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi annexed it, in 1975. Bhutan is still Bhutan, in part because it has taken a hard line. When a census was conducted in the late 1980s and tens of thousands of Nepali speakers were discovered to be living in the southern part of the country, they were expelled by force, although some had been there for three or four generations. Many of those expelled are still living in squalid refugee camps.
Arrangements for the coronation were handled by an official who rejoiced in the title “Head, Office of Protocol for Their Majesties the Queens,” a designation that can exist in no country other than Bhutan. The queens had graciously provided us with a driver and a palace protocol officer. From the airport we drove along a hillside road past deodars and blue pines to Thimphu, which has doubled in size during the past four years and now has nearly 100,000 inhabitants. (There are fewer than 700,000 Bhutanese in all, and although many nominally live below the poverty line, forestry and farming ensure a good, if tough, life.) On the way, the protocol officer said to me, “Do you have a lot of hooligans in England?” “What kind of hooligans?” I asked. “Football hooligans. I once saw a film about them, and I couldn’t believe it.” For the Bhutanese, who rival the Japanese in their concern for courteous formality and exquisite good manners, hooliganism is unimaginable. Bhutanese manners are so refined that it can be hard to tell if you’re having an argument.
A smartly dressed military officer named Captain Karma appeared at our hotel. Clicking his heels, he announced that we were summoned to tea with the senior queen. We were whisked up a steep hill through a series of security barriers to the palace compound. (Each of the four sister-queens has her own palace, but the king chooses to live in a simple, secluded log cabin, to which no one but his family has access.) Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo, at 53 the eldest queen, was elegant and relaxed. She had just returned from a ceremony at the dzong, or castle, in Punakha, a day’s drive away. “It was magnificent, like going back in time,” she said. “All the royal siblings were there, even the ones who are at school in Switzerland, and the ministers and chief justice and the central monastic body. His Majesty received the blessing from Shabdrung, like all the rulers of Bhutan had before him—the white, yellow, red, green, and blue silk scarves.”
His Holiness Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal was an exceptionally expeditious religious and military figure who came from central Tibet and effectively created the Bhutanese state, in the 17th century, by uniting rival kingdoms and warring monastic communities. “But His Holiness died,” I said, “three or four hundred years ago … ”
“We say that he is ‘resting,’ and we treat him as if he were alive,” the queen explained. “The chamberlain takes Shabdrung meals and betel nut each day, and water for his hands and face. His Majesty was in the presence of his remains, his holy relic.”
The queen is descended from a reincarnation of this seminal Bhutanese figure. The old king’s marriage to the four sisters thus ensured that any potential distrust between the royal family and the family of the nation’s founder was dissolved. The two lines are now physically embodied, for the first time, in the person of Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the new king.
After studying at Cushing Academy, in Massachusetts, and Magdalen College, Oxford, the crown prince returned to his country to prepare for the advent of constitutional monarchy. Not surprisingly, he had become one of Asia’s most eligible bachelors. Like many Bhutanese he is an avid player of basketball, a sport popularized by his father during his bachelor days, when the women of Thimphu would come and watch in the hope of catching his eye. The new king is sociable and perceptive, with interest in photography and history. An Oxford friend remembers him drinking with Japanese students, and another recalls his nervousness when called upon to meet the British royal family. On a recent visit to Thailand, he was besieged by swooning female admirers. The Thai government ordered Web sites to remove what they regarded as disrespectful photos of him.
The new king is not, however, available. “His mothers would like to be assured of the next generation,” said the queen, on behalf of all the old king’s wives. “But he cannot marry a foreign person. It’s in the constitution—that not only the king, but all his royal siblings, must marry a Bhutanese.”
This new democratic constitution, the brainchild of the retiring king, brims with startling bits of Himalayan wisdom. For instance, prisoners are allowed conjugal visits—provided that one of the parties has been sterilized. Speaking to a retired official, the 84-year-old Dzongpen Kado, I asked what he thought of the outside world he saw on television. (Shows popular in Bhutan include American Idol, Ugly Betty, and, inevitably, Friends. You can also watch The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, though what the Bhutanese make of the monologue I cannot say.) “In other countries,” he said, “people seem more free. Either they don’t have rules, or they don’t follow rules. I think they are not afraid of killing each other. Here, people kill each other, but usually if they are drunk and have a fight.” At a state banquet, I met Bhutan’s chief of police and asked him what the national homicide rate was. “About 15 people a year,” he said. His biggest concern was the new—imported—practice of sniffing gasoline and solvents. “I go on television every night and advise our young people against it. They call me ‘Uncle Chief.’”
Read the rest of the article.