Once crowned monarch, he now lives the reclusive life of a monk. Wangchuk Namgyal has preferred to slip into monasteries, caves and resultant oblivion despite being the scion of the Chogyal dynasty that once ruled Sikkim before merging with the Indian Republic to become its 22th province in 1975.
But some four decades later, Namgyal still evokes awe in at least some of his former subjects and derision among those opposed to the erstwhile royalty. Monarchists still speculate about his whereabouts and well-being. ‘Where is he’ and ‘how is he’ are frequent themes of discussions behind closed doors of many homes in Gangtok, the state’s laid-back capital.
Critics, however, are happy to wish him away as inconsequential. “The Chogyal is a forgotten past. He is nothing but a sort of a vague symbol of unity among the handful of royalists within the former ruling class and hardcore Lepcha and Bhutia minorities,” said a minister in the Pawan Chamling-led government in the state.
Namgyal, who ascended to the throne that his father Palden Thondup Namgyal had forfeited, has stayed away from controversies. Rarely seen in public, his mystique has grown instead. Now 64, he has spent the last 35 years meditating, sometimes in the caves of Bhutan and Nepal.
He visits what was the family palace in Gangtok at times. But he never ventures out, slipping out as quietly as he had arrived. “The Chogyal visits Sikkim quietly and leaves the same way,” a close relative said.
The former royal family is overzealously guarded about him. “We want the people to understand that the Namgyal family has lost the kingdom and people should respect our privacy,” one of them told HT.
Old-timers, however, say the Namgyal was a reluctant monk. “Once he realised there was no way of getting back his throne, he could only fall back on religion to seek solace,” pointed out a local.
But monkhood was far from his mind on February 19, 1982, the day he was crowned at the Tsuklakhang Palace atop a hill overlooking Gangtok even as his father’s funeral pyres were being lit at the Luksyama royal crematorium.
Inside the palace drawing room, Namgyal sat on the throne as a motley crowd of people – commoners, relatives and even 10 MLAs of the then 32-member state assembly – trooped in one by one to present him the traditional ‘Khada’ (silk scarf) and wish good luck.
India never recognized the coronation, though those present said Namgyal was the 13th Chogyal of Sikkim. “Prominent lamas from more than 44 monasteries chanted prayers while school students shouted ‘long live the Chogyal’, waving the banned Sikkim national flag,” recollected a former chief minister who happened to be present.
But the excitement died out soon and Namgyal receded to the background. “He can’t even be contacted on mobile as he takes no calls. It is he who contacts people when he needs some work done,” pointed out a cousin.
The family owns cardamom plantations and real estates and hotels across the globe, but Namgyal, it is said, is more at peace leading an austere life. He has not even pursued the compensation claim of Rs 110 crore that his father had sought from the Indian government for taking away his kingdom.
“Forget the throne, even the compensation is not in the realm of possibility,” pointed out one of his cousins, citing the fact that Palden Namgyal had refused to sign the instrument of accession. Taking refuge in religion has therefore been the best option for the monarch who ended up as a monk.