Another Modern Fairytale
An air of excitement and expectation pervades the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan ever since its young monarch announced his engagement to a commoner.
Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck’s recent announcement of marrying a commoner has sent the otherwise peaceful Bhutanese society into a commotion, accentuated with excitement and anticipation.
The beloved 31-year old, Oxfordeducated monarch announced his engagement to Jetsun Pema, 21, a student at Regents College, London, during the opening session of parliament in May this year in Thimphu. The address, which was broadcast on national television, was watched across the tiny kingdom. There was not a single soul amongst the 700,000 population that did not participate in the celebrations that followed the announcement.
Within a few days, most local shopkeepers already had pictures of the couple on display along with their wares. Even though the occasion is unlikely to garner the gawking international interest that Britain’s recent royal nuptials did, “his majesty’s” wedding, which, according to media reports, will take place in October, has become the talk of the town. Many in Bhutan have welcomed the announcement and believe that this marriage will give them their next king.
Bhutan is unique in different ways. It is the only country in the world where there are no traffic lights and a few traffic crossings and where police boxes are decorated with dragons. It is also the least urbanized country in South Asia with only a few motor vehicles, no high-rise buildings and no symbols of Western modernity. When one travels to Bhutan, one certainly gets the feeling that one has stepped back in time. An air of mysticism surrounds Bhutan’s attractions, from centuries-old dzongs (fortresses) unique to the area, to medieval monasteries. Situated along the southern slopes of the Himalayan range, Bhutan remains cautious in its contact with the outside world and the flow of tourists into the country is tightly regulated while the government makes great efforts to preserve and strengthen the country’s religious and cultural traditions.
But even more interesting is the history of kings and monarchs of this landlocked kingdom. For centuries, Bhutan was made up of feuding tribal regions until it was unified under King Ugyen Wangchuck in 1907. The British exerted some control over Bhutan until India’s independence. Up to the 1960s, Bhutan chose to remain largely isolated from the rest of the world. Its people carried on with a traditional way of life, farming and trading, preserving a culture which had remained intact for centuries. After China invaded Tibet in 1958, Bhutan strengthened its ties with India in an effort to avoid Tibet’s fate. New roads and other connections to India were built and, in the 1960s, Bhutan undertook social modernization, abolishing the caste system, emancipating women and enacting land reforms.
In 2005, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, Bhutan’s fourth ruler in the dynasty, outlined plans for the country to shift to a two-party democracy. In December 2006, he abdicated in favor of his son, Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk, who became the fifth Druk Gyalpo (monarch) of Bhutan and head of the Wangchuck dynasty. Jigme Khesar Wangchuck was crowned king in November 2008 and at the age of 31 today, he is the world’s youngest monarch.
However, while the country seems to be doing well with its unique concept of Gross National Happiness, social experts believe it can no longer remain unaffected from the trends of globalization. With the Internet having made fast inroads into Bhutanese households, its society cannot remain isolated from the world for long.
Many today question the credibility of the constitutional monarchy of Bhutan in the long run. Monarchies have never lasted long in South Asia. Nepal and the Maldives are two pertinent examples where centuries old monarchic systems were abolished to make way for constitutional democracy. Similarly, with long-sitting rulers fast coming down in the Arab world, doubts arise as to how stable the monarchy will continue to remain in Bhutan in the near future. The writer is Assistant Editor at SouthAsia Magazine. She writes on socio-political and developmental issues of the region.