The announcement of the decision by the fifth king of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, to marry did not come as a great surprise to the Bhutanese people, although initially the choice of his bride did. He was marrying a commoner, and outside of a small circle of people most Bhutanese did not have a clue who she was. But from the moment Jetsun Pema was introduced to the Bhutanese public – through a limited set of photographs released by the royal photographers and some well-chosen low-key public appearances – few considered her anything but an intelligent, demure, well-educated and truly beautiful young woman. Once Pema was slowly and carefully exposed to the public, the people were hooked.
In fact, being the daughter of a senior airline pilot and having been educated in both Kalimpong and London hardly constitutes what would normally be considered a commoner. Pema does not really look or behave like one either. But to comprehend just what effect the new queen has had on the population, consider this. My neighbour in Thimphu has a very pretty daughter. She will be 16 this month. She is bright, articulate, studious, quiet and even-tempered. I have come to know her and her family quite well, but when I mentioned the royal wedding recently, this sweet girl showed me a very different side of her personality.
‘She’s so beautiful!’ she wailed. ‘I wanted the king to marry me!’ She then thumped her fist on the table.
‘You’re a bit young…’ I ventured timidly.
‘You think I don’t know that?’ she yelled, almost wild-eyed. ‘And if they give birth to a handsome prince, I will be too old for him by the time he marries!’ She then broke down at the table, her head resting on her arms, sobbing uncontrollably. Wow.
There have been some fascinating changes in recent years in Bhutan, as the young democracy evolves. But this was the first royal wedding in decades. I have come to realise that my neighbour’s behaviour was probably played out, in a similar fashion, everywhere from the humblest cottage to the grandest house. Tears, mixed with a strange brew and taste of envy and happiness.
The fact is, nearly all Bhutanese seem to feel that they know their young king, who does seem like a genuinely nice person. But throughout the build-up to the wedding, all eyes, interests and words were projected onto Pema. Boys and girls, men and women alike seem fascinated by her because they did not know her, they were so keen to find out as much as they could. Just who was this quiet, elegant lady with a smile like a fairy tale – their future queen?
In fact, the king had known Pema since her childhood. They first met at a school outing when she was just seven and he was 17. She loved his kindly, good fun, big-brother-like company; he liked her quiet demeanour and strong spirit. He told her that if, when she grew up, they both continued to feel the same way, he would ask her to be his queen.
Even children at my local school squealed in delight at the mention of Pema’s name, suddenly jumping up and down and clapping. As for teenage boys, they have seemed quietly infatuated by her; in one school playground recently, a group of them all started to jostle one of their members, a boy named Sonam. ‘He’s in love with her!’ they teased, and poor Sonam just stood there blushing.
Today, the king is 31. Pema, his bride, has just turned 21. On a recent visit to the Thimphu school my neighbour’s daughter attends, he told those in attendance that he has told Pema to think that she is five years older, while he has been trying to convince himself that he is five years younger. Everyone laughed. A few girls cried – guess who was one of them.
In many ways, and with many people, the real depth is in the sheer delight of seeing a young good-looking couple who are in love. Everyone I have met appears less concerned about the pomp and majesty, the statehood and history of the Royal Wedding; instead, they have seemed far happier just to dwell on the love and romance of the whole story. And though my neighbour may shed another tear, it will be out of happiness. In some ways, the whole thing is a communal dream fulfilled. Well, almost.
A quick peck
And then it clicks. This marriage was a celebration of youth: a young couple, a young democracy, a whole new future for the monarchy and a kingdom where the monarchy, rightly or wrongly, still has resonance. There is still a strong belief in Bhutan that prime ministers and political parties may come and go but the monarchy is a constant. For better or worse, that appears to give enormous comfort to a huge cross section of Bhutanese, many of whom are still suspicious of democracy. ‘It will only bring corruption and infighting,’ one local businessman told me.
Just a week before the royal wedding, the capital appeared oddly quiet, just people going about their business. There was no bunting or flags. No visible excitement. But then, the Bhutanese almost never rush things. In almost every element of life in the country, things seem to happen only at the last moment, and then all at once. This time, certainly, that is precisely what happened: the last few days felt like standing in a beehive.
On one of those last days, I was sitting at my desk in downtown Thimphu when I saw a massive steel-framed poster of the royal couple being hoisted up the outside of the wall of a nearby building. With every tug of the rope the couple gained height, and I reckoned that if I walked across the room to the window I would have been able to give the princess a quick secret kiss on the cheek. As I did not have an invitation to the wedding, or have the right clothes or the correct shoes, it might be the only chance I would ever have of being that close…
In fact, in the end I got very close indeed. On 13 October, the wedding ceremony was held in the stunning 16th-century dzong in Punakha, one of the most sacred monastery in Bhutan, a three hour drive from the capital. People came from all over the country to witness the event, farmers, villagers, high-mountain yak herders. Some had travelled for days; others had walked for many miles. But they were not allowed into the dzong, where only members of the royal family, ministers and foreign VIPS were invited, but most seemed content just to sit and wait on the grass outside. Dressed in their best finery, they picnicked and drank, enjoying the warm sun and knowing that they would, eventually, get a chance to see the royal couple.
And, indeed, they did. In this sense, the king seems personal and inclusive. That afternoon, as he strolled slowly among the people with his bride, he must have pressed thousands of hands, hugged long lines of old people and kissed countless babies. Although security was ever alert, the whole event seemed relaxed, almost informal – like a huge family party.
The next day, the newlyweds and the royal party slowly made their way back to the capital, where thousands more were waiting. The city had rarely looked so good, with the anticipation incredibly high. By 11:30 that morning, schoolchildren were lined up in the shade on one side of the Thimphu’s main drag to await Their Majesties’ return from Punakha. The kids waved flags, ate ice cream and chatted. The youngsters were well-behaved, good natured and excited. Even the dogs woke up from their noonday slumber, seeming to wonder what all the fuss was about.
The schoolchildren were told by their teachers that the king and his new bride would be arriving at around 2:30. (The fact that the royal couple did not reach the traffic roundabout in the centre of Thimphu until 8:30 that evening was of little concern. The Bhutanese can be very patient when necessary, and especially for a once-in-a-lifetime occasion like this. Anyway, it was a day off school.) By mid-afternoon, the city centre was packed with adults, children, foreign tourists and the international press, with members of the latter having been requested to stay inside two cordoned off areas just above the roundabout. Their huge camera lenses bristled like guns. Impromptu interviews by Singaporean and Indian TV crews were carried out with members of the public, but it was hard to illicit many answers other than, ‘We are delighted for the happy couple and can’t wait to see them!’ There was plenty of jostling and elbow work among the Indian and Singaporean TV crews, which provided some amusing entertainment while the crowds waited.
Then the news filtered out that the king and his new queen would be walking from Simtokha, five kilometres from the city centre, and would enter Thimphu on foot. And so began the royal walk into the capital. In front were slow moving cars with flashing lights and a phalanx of Youth Police and security officers. Even with the crowd straining to catch a glimpse of the newlyweds and moving forward onto the road, the officials were very patient, as the king and his new bride zigzagged across the road, making sure that no one was left out. The elderly and children were let through to the front of the crowds. There were many a tear shed by grandmothers and old men – this would not happen again in their lifetimes.
The royal couple, anxious not to keep the crowds waiting but also determined to greet as many people as possible, finally reached the centre of the capital six hours later. Even after the long walk, they seemed energised by the outpouring from the gathered crowds. Camera flashes from the international press went off like a barrage. ‘They’re here!’ exclaimed an elderly lady on the road outside Hong Kong Market. She had been sitting on the pavement since noon and, when the king came over to say hello to her, she looked as though she would faint with pleasure. The children looked up in awe as their tall king and beautiful bride smiled and walked slowly past.
Then, for some reason, the king and his bride turned to me, asking, ‘Are you enjoying yourself?’
‘Absolutely, Your Majesty,’ I responded. I may not have gotten a kiss from the royal bride, but I did get a gorgeous smile. I felt like sitting down next to the old lady on the pavement – I felt a bit faint, too.