Thimphu: With mediaeval tradition and Buddhist spirituality, a 28 year old with an Oxford education assumed the Raven Crown of Bhutan on Thursday, to guide the world’s newest democracy as it emerges into the modern world.
As the chief abbot chanted sacred sutras to grant him wisdom, compassion and vision, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was given the red and black silk crown by his own 52 year-old father, who imposed democracy on Bhutan and then abdicated two years ago.
Dressed in a red and gold gho - the knee-length gown all Bhutanese men wear - he then sat cross-legged on the ornate Golden Throne, looking solemn but allowing himself one fleeting smile, as offerings were made to the new king and the gods.
This handsome young man, who also studied in the United States and India, embodies the changes sweeping the conservative Himalayan kingdom -- a young country, a young democracy, with an eye on the outside world but one foot firmly planted in its past.
The crown, embroidered with images of white skulls and topped with a blue raven’s head, represents Bhutan’s supreme warrior deity and a monarchy that united this country 100 years ago and remains enormously popular.
Freed from the burden of government that his father bore, Wangchuck remains an important symbol of national unity and stability in a country of just 635,000 people undergoing a sometimes traumatic and divisive transition to the modern world.
“His Majesty the King will always play a very important role as a moral force in our country,” said Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley, elected in the country’s first elections last March.
“The king will be the force that will ensure the long-term sustainability and resilience of democracy in our country.”
The day-long ceremony is taking place in the massive white-walled dzong, both fortress and monastery, in the capital Thimphu. Monks stood on the roofs blowing on their long horns, clashing cymbals and beating drums at significant moments.
Thousands of people lined up outside to pay tribute to their new king, and each was to be given the chance to give him a ceremonial white scarf in the afternoon. Two more days of national celebration will follow.
At dawn, three vividly painted tapestries were unveiled inside the dzong, each four-storeys high, depicting Buddha and the gurus who brought his religion to Bhutan.
As the morning sun rose higher in the clear blue sky, the king arrived, led by a procession of red-robed monks, courtesans carrying colourful banners, immaculately dressed officials and soldiers in round helmets carrying swords and black shields.
The watching crowd included close ally India’s ceremonial President Pratibha Patil, its most powerful politician Sonia Gandhi, and her two children Priyanka and Rahul -- the Gandhis have long been close family friends of the Bhutanese royals. Barefoot dancers pranced and twirled in ancient costumes, banging small drums, performing “The Dance of the Heroes” before the ceremony began in the Supreme Chamber of the Golden Throne.
THE FOURTH KING’S RULE
Five decades ago, Bhutan was a feudal, mediaeval place with no roads, proper schools or hospitals and scarcely any contact with the outside world. Today education and healthcare are free and life expectancy has risen to 66 years from less than 40.
For most Bhutanese, credit goes to the outgoing monarch, the Fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who saw that his tiny country, perched precariously between India and China, had to be stronger to survive in a dangerous neighbourhood.
He was also the architect of Bhutan’s widely admired national philosophy, Gross National Happiness, the idea that spiritual and mental well-being matter as much as money, that material gain should not come at the expense of the environment or culture.
But the Fourth King’s rule was not without controversy. In the late 1980s, tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis, mostly Hindus living in the southern lowlands, protested that their language and culture were being crushed by the Buddhist north.
Many were forced into exile, and today 100,000 live in refugee camps in eastern Nepal, excluded from this new democracy.
Inside the country, though, the charming new king, with swept-back black hair and sideburns, has already won the hearts and minds of his subjects. He mingles freely with crowds and is enormously popular with the younger generation.
With drugs use, unemployment and crime all rising, and a more rebellious younger generation emerging, Bhutan’s modernisation is not without its growing pains.
But the celebrations will help the country come together as a nation after a sometimes divisive general election, analysts say. (Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Bill Tarrant) REUTERS