King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk is a man who goes against the grain. This was clear from the fact that he chose what many say was an inauspicious day for his wedding. In this land where legends of mysterious spirits, both benevolent and vengeful abound, many believe that the day a King is born, a demon also follows. The result is a lifelong battle between good and evil. By choosing this day when the demon is apparently at its strongest, the King, many say, was signaling that he would overcome evil by bringing such joy to the people.
The dashing young King is quite a departure from the straitjacketed past in the Himalayan kingdom. On Saturday, in front of a crowd of 30,000 people in the Changlimithang stadium in Thimphu, flanked by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, the 31-year-old King showed off his nervous bride Jetsun Pema, 10 years younger to him, with not just a kiss on the cheek, but, by popular demand, on the lips.
On Friday, after she became Queen, it was a walk in the clouds for Jetsun Pema, as she and her new husband walked 15 km into Thimphu en route from Punakha where the royal wedding took place. It was in a stunning 17th century monastery-fortress that the young King finally wed the woman he has loved since she was seven. He apparently proposed to the little girl then and pursued her relentlessly, waiting only for her to complete her education first in Sanawar school and then Regent College in London.
The monastery situated at the confluence of two rivers formed the perfect backdrop for the wedding. Set in the midst of mist-wreathed mountains with its soaring coniferous candlebra, it was tradition all the way for the King and his bride, from their dress to the prayers led by the portly chief abbot Je Khenpo.
As the abbot bounced about conducting the rituals, the willowy Jetsun Pema was visibly nervous, her fumbling vulnerability often amusing her King. After she was crowned Queen, the two went on a walkabout both among the dignitaries and among the people who had gathered in droves.
The King with his rockstar looks is among the most touchy feely monarchs in the world. Unlike his father Jigme Singye Wangchuk, whose demeanour is as glacial as the Himalayan mountains that surround his kingdom, the young King kisses babies and is visibly embarrassed at the manner in which people refuse to look upon his visage. He embraces them, poses for photographs and travels across the country extensively to visit them.
During the celebrations post-wedding, he held his wife’s hand, encouraging her gently to mix with the crowd. She seemed hesitant at first, but seemed to come into her own after a while. It is not hard to see why this young girl has so captivated the monarch. At 5’10”, she is waif-thin, has an extraordinary bone structure and a Dianesque shyness. But apparently she is a mean basketball player and avid art lover, both passions shared by her husband. And, she will not have to compete for his affections as his father’s four wives may have done. Though polygamy is permitted in Bhutan, the young King has decided that this is the one for him for all time.
Happiness is never far from the surface in Bhutan, famed for is gross national happiness quotient. The historic setting for the wedding was the Punakha dzong or palace of great happiness. Yet, this happiness is not overtly visible in what is essentially a quietist nation. The celebrations were orderly, respectful, spiritual and low key as the King had sought.
There is not a soul in Bhutan who will say one word against the monarchy. In fact, many people I spoke to seemed to wonder why democracy, introduced by the King’s father was necessary at all. “With the monarchy in place, we did not have to chose between one party or the other,” a taxi driver told me. Unlike the royal weddings of South Asia, the guest list seems to have been confined to friends of the family and those who have had a strong association with Bhutan. Some former ambassadors, minister of state for commerce and industry Jyotiraditya Scindia, former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, West Bengal governor MK Narayanan were those from India present at the actual ceremony.
The Gandhi family was absent at the main event, but this, according to a highly placed source was to ensure that security did not detract from the quiet solemnity of the event. Traditionally, the Kings do not stay with their wives, the former King stays on his own with his four wives in their different palaces. Will the new King depart from this practice? Is his younger brother marrying his new Queen’s younger sister? These are all questions floating around in Thimphu. We can expect answers to all these but in true Bhutanese way, all in good time.
If the royal wedding were a symphony, it would have been written by Mozart, muted, seamless, infinitessmal. Much like the Wangchuk dynasty which seems to have overcome all odds, including fearsome curses, to continue keeping the harmony in this isolated land.