Bhutan’s history is vibrant, but turbulent. In 2006, after centuries of warlords, a theocracy, and an absolute monarchy, one king made a seismic decision that would change everything. Six years ago today, his son would take the reins of his father’s dreams and drive Bhutan to a more democratic future.
Bhutan’s monarchy is comparatively young, beginning in 1907 with Ugyen Wangchuck. He ruled with support from the ever-expanding British Empire, just around the corner in neighboring India.
The British were influential friends to have and governed Bhutan’s foreign affairs, but they remained outside of the country’s internal affairs. The two nations even signed a treaty to that effect. This lack of interference was mostly thanks to Bhutan’s geographical location within the Himalayas. It was nearly impossible to colonize, and as a result, British and other foreign influence were slim.
Bhutanese are proud of their royals and their culture. They have the distinction of being one of the last Buddhist monarchies in the world. To retain their way of life, former King Jigme Singye and Bhutan’s leaders only recently allowed things like television and tourists within the last twenty-five years. The king felt it was time to integrate Bhutan, but swore to uphold Bhutanese culture. Cautiously optimistic, he opened the doors to the world.
In 1972, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck came to the throne. He was merely a teenager when his father died, but his depth of character and maturity was clearly beyond that of a typical 16-year-old.
On June 2, 1972, young Jigme Singye took an oath before the great Golden Buddha in the grand hall of Tashichho Dzong: he vowed to promote the well-being and happiness of his people during his reign, and even after it.
To increase the people’s well-being, the king decided to proceed with opening Bhutan to the wider world. This journey towards progress was guided by the royal philosophy of “Gross National Happiness”. Instead of placing value on a country’s material claims, Bhutan’s Buddhist king placed value on the measurement of the people’s happiness and spiritual fulfillment instead.
To increase that happiness, that meant Bhutan’s standard of living needed to be improved. An infrastructure was put in place to develop agriculture, industry, and other modern devices. Since then, the country has raised its standing in the world.
One last objective for the king was to make way for his people in government. They needed a voice, but a king making all the decisions would impede that. After several years of developing a democratic infrastructure, Jigme Singye announced in 1998 that power would be decentralized and a constitution would be drafted. Their monarchy was now a constitutional one, with voting rights and political parties beginning to take shape.
In 2006, the king announced that he would abdicate in favor of his eldest, Western-educated son, Jigme Khesar. The 26-year-old would continue to steer Bhutan in its journey into the 21st century. Like any country, some issues still need to be addressed, but Bhutan is working successfully at becoming modern and developed.
Tradition & The Next Generation
Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was crowned on November 6, 2008. His father placed the Raven Crown on his head making Jigme Khesar the fifth Druk Gyalpo, or Dragon King. The people gave him a rapturous welcome.
The new monarch even lives differently than his predecessors, and even from his father. When Jigme Khesar married commoner Jetsun Pema in October 2011, she accompanied him on all official visits, becoming a very public face of the monarchy. She is also his only wife. The king’s father had four wives at once – all sisters – a traditional marriage arrangement in Bhutan.
The royal couple does not live in extravagant splendor. Though the image of a king and queen conjures the image of elaborate palaces or glittering jewels, the Druk Gyalpo and his queen live in simple surroundings. Instead of jewels, they wear beautifully-made traditional clothes abundant with color.
While Jetsun is a more public queen consort, the previous four queens stayed largely in the background while Jigme Singye handled all official duties. Devoted to Bhutan, all four wives carved a role for themselves to help support their people and promote their culture.
All are styled “queen mother”, but it is Jigme Singye’s third wife, Her Majesty Queen Tshering Yangdon, who is the mother of Jigme Khesar. Queen Mother Ashi Tshering Yangdon is patron of the Bhutan Nuns Foundation, created to “improve living conditions and economic vitality of rural villages, and preserving Bhutan’s strong, sustainable culture and spiritual heritage, as it faces rapid economic development”.
Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo is the patron of Thimphu’s Mountain Echoes literary festival, which brings together Indian and Bhutanese writers. This queen is a writer herself, penning a cultural book on Bhutan in 2007 titled “Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan”.
Queen Mother Ashi Tshering Pem is a co-chair of The Bhutan Foundation. The foundation focuses on conservation and preservation of culture in Bhutan. It is the only American non-profit organization that serves and helps the people of Bhutan. Her Majesty is also the President of the Youth Development Fund in Bhutan, with a focus on youth with mental and physical disabilities.
Queen Mother Ashi Gyalyum Sangay Choden is patron to several cultural organizations in Bhutan, with one especially close to her heart. In 2004, Her Majesty established a local non-profit organization called RENEW, dedicated to the development of women and girls. With support from the Australian Himalayan Foundation, RENEW helps to provide education for girls and assists women in domestic violence situations.
Striving For The Best
Thanks to the many reforms established by Jigme Singye and carried out by King Jigme Khesar, Bhutan’s history continues to be as vibrant as ever, embracing change but staying true to her roots. That decision for democracy implemented by the fourth Druk Gyalpo and the coronation of his son, along with the excellent work accomplished by all five queens, has made Bhutan’s future brighter than ever.
UP NEXT: An interview with Krista Waddell, who has trekked the Himalayas and raised funds for girls’ education in Bhutan.