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The king and I

I've no idea what particular Shangrila James Hilton had in mind when he wrote Lost Horizon. But if he had visited Bhutan I'd be prepared to bet this was his vision. Except Bhutan is not illusory and it's not lost. If anything, it's a magical horizon. And it's very real. Karan Thapar writes.

columns Updated: Oct 22, 2011 22:08 IST

I've no idea what particular Shangrila James Hilton had in mind when he wrote Lost Horizon. But if he had visited Bhutan I'd be prepared to bet this was his vision. Except Bhutan is not illusory and it's not lost. If anything, it's a magical horizon. And it's very real.

I was entranced by this mountain kingdom from the first glimpse I caught of its beauty up in the air before we landed. As the plane banked to circumvent the green carpeted mountains that stand as sentinels over the Parochu Valley, a breathtaking picture spread out before us - emerald terraced paddy fields staircasing the steep sides with colourful mud cottages, their shiny steel roofs reflecting the midday sun, dotted in between, while a gurgling and rippling river bounced along the bottom. A collective gasp of awe emerged from xinside the plane.

I had come to Bhutan for the king's wedding. Having foolishly missed his coronation in 2008 because it clashed with Obama's inauguration, this was the occasion to fulfill a promise I made seven years ago.

At the time His Majesty was crown prince and studying at the National Defence College in Delhi. We met at Aroon Purie's India Today Conclave dinner. The story that follows reveals something of the charm and easy manner that is today recognised as his hallmark.

It happened when a tall good-looking young man joined a group I was talking to. "Mr Thapar, I'm Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk," he said, introducing himself. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek but guessing nonetheless, I replied: "As in the crown prince of Bootan?" "Shorten the O and you're dead on,"came the response, a warm reassuring smile covering his face while his eyes twinkled with playful mischief.

Over the year I've repeatedly seen the power of that smile. I've witnessed it captivate sophisticated women, charm curmudgeonly old men, beguile children and put at ease an army of eager followers who are too embarrassed to speak when they gain the royal attention they seek.

There's no doubting the affection and pride the Bhutanese people have for their monarch. But the truth is they also have an amazing royal family. The previous king abdicated at 51 after giving his kingdom a democratic constitution that requires his successors to retire at 65 and even envisages the possibility of a royal impeachment. I doubt if there is any other monarchy that has embraced such republican concepts.

The marriage I witnessed at the ancient capital of Punakha, in a 16th century dhzong located between two rivers, was the culmination of a fairytale romance. The king first met his bride when she was 8. He was 18. She clung to the young prince asking him to take her with him. The promise he made was that if, after they had both grown up, she was still unmarried he would. Last Thursday when he claimed her he invited his friends from across the world to share the special moment.

This was a royal wedding with a striking difference. There were no kings, presidents, prime ministers or aristocrats. The star guests were the king's friends and, even more so, his countrymen. And His Majesty found time to speak to almost everyone.

"You finally made it!" he said, when he greeted me before the ceremonies began. "I had a horrible feeling you'd find an excuse to miss this occasion. I hope you're enjoying Bhutan?"Here's my considered reply: So very much, I shall return again and again!

The views expressed by the author are personal