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.

Southasia - - Region - By Huma Iqbal

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.

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