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‘Sorry, madam, there are no ladies on duty at this time.’ So I ended up with two men in my room, struggling with metres of fabric, red and gold, folding this way, that way, under the arm over the arm to no avail.
‘I can’t be late for a Coronation,’ I pleaded, so the youngest ran out into the street to find a woman who knew what to do. Minutes later, I made an almost royal appearance at the top of the stairs.
Like every Bhutanese at home or abroad, I had waited a year and eleven months for this happy occasion, ever since the Fourth King stepped down in favour of his son. But in this small Himalayan kingdom, court astrologers deemed 2007 a ‘black year’ and the country patiently held its breath in anticipation. When would it be, next spring, summer? The auspicious date was finally announced, November 6th, and every flight was booked within hours.
After a week of cloud and mist, we woke to clear blue skies and mountains glowing in the rising sun. This was a good sign. A gentle breeze ruffled the willows down by the river and myriad flags fluttered in brilliant colours.
Draped in smiling posters of king, Thimphu - the usually sleepy capital - was all set to celebrate. There were food stalls along the streets, coronation badges and stickers and lots of flags for you to wave while in the post office, for a limited period, you could buy the first ever personalised stamps - just pop inside, smile for the camera and there’s your face on the stamp. Imagine the surprise when your postcards arrive at home…
A NEW DRAGON KING
In the massive Tashichho dzong up valley, the monks had been up long before dawn, offering incense and prayers while three precious Buddhist images were unfurled from the eaves. Fresh pine needles were laid on the ground, rice patterns adorned the red carpet and the first dignitaries filed through the gate, followed by members of the royal family, greeting each other with hugs and kisses, and the President of India, a close ally and only Head of State to be invited, minimising costs at the King’s request.
We watched in wonder as the glittering Grand Procession graciously escorted His Majesty into the dzong. There were musicians on the rooftops, dancers in the courtyard and gifts of silk sashes and ceremonial wine, before the party retired to the private Chamber of the Golden Throne.
There, at the most auspicious time of 8.31 am, the Fourth King crowned his 28 year old son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, in the presence of Je Khenpo, the chief abbot. No sparkling diamonds, only a traditional silk crown embroidered with Tantric skulls and a blue Raven’s head, representing the protective deity, Mahakala. The Fifth Dragon King was blessed with empowering and auspicious offerings, including curd, incense, yellow mustard and a right-whorled conch shell.
Meanwhile, the public was gathering in the nearby Ceremonial Ground, eager to greet this bright new king, the world’s youngest reigning monarch, who promised to serve rather than rule. He had already toured the country in its most remote corners but still they came, from every direction, yak herders who had walked for days, old folk carried on horseback, nuns who drew lots for a place on an open truck, so many the new Tendrey Thang could not hold them all. The King decided to extend the celebrations by a day so no one would go home disappointed.
The afternoon was a memorable event, 20,000 people, said the papers, dressed in their finest clothes, kiras for the ladies, ghos for the men, woven in intricate patterns, brocade, silk, vivid sashes and belts, silver brooches, sometimes a chunky necklace of turquoise and coral handed down through generations. They had dreamed of this day for a long time and planned to look their best.
Now all waited for their turn as His Majesty relentlessly worked his way through the crowds, humbly bent in half, blessing children, hugging babies, offering a kind word or a joke, receiving armfuls of khadars – auspicious white scarves - and handing everyone a commemorative coin. No rush, no fear, only mutual trust and respect. Draped in red and gold, with traditional boots, sleek black hair and a dazzling smile, the newly-crowned king won every heart around.
That night, I dreamed of barefoot dancers and swirling colours, cymbals, drums, bugles and horns and two days of glorious entertainment yet to come. Now that the King had looked into my eyes and said ‘thank you for coming’, I wanted to see it all.
I am not too fond of military shows but the morning Parade was short and delightful, toy-like soldiers marching to perfection and silver bands in knee-length robes and embroidered boots, my favourites raising alternate shoulders in tune with the music like puppets on a string.
The King addressed the nation, pledging to ‘ protect his people like a parent, care for them like a brother and serve them like a son’ then balloons rose above the stadium, orange, yellow, blue, white, like so many stars floating to eternity. The little girl next to me shaded her eyes with her flag and beamed with delight.
‘Now it’s time for Thri-buel,’ said my guide Rinzin, ‘presents from the people.’ So here they came, two horses, two yaks, two white sheep, two elephants and a calf, five bales of textiles, nine bags of cereals, three stashes of coins and more. All would be returned to their owners, with a royal blessing, but no one would forget the elephants who had never been seen in Thimphu and raised their trunk to greet the Fifth Druk Gyalpo, the Dragon King.
The Bhutanese love to dance and the Coronation was no exception. Schoolchildren had been rehearsing for months to entertain King and Country and showcase the culture of this small but diverse kingdom. In bright simple attire, they took it in turn to celebrate the Beauty of the Land, Gross National Happiness, Peace, Long Life and 100 years of monarchy.
There were sacred dances too, Guru Rinpoche and his eight manifestations under a golden umbrella, the Drametsi Drums, the Black Hats ensuring good karma, but most of all, we enjoyed the herders’ dance when men dressed up as yaks pounced around the grounds. Now and then, I must admit, the hypnotic rhythm saw me twirling around, as discreetly as I could, in my little corner of the stadium.
The King watched it all, leaving the Royal Pavilion from time to time to greet the VIPs in their ornate tents and people in the sunny stands. Family members followed suite, ‘chu chu, sit down’, they’d say as we stood to show respect and when I raised my camera in front of the royal cousins, they beckoned with a smile, inviting me to pose with them and their lady in waiting. That’s definitely an auspicious picture, I’ll keep it on my desk to make sure I return.
FUN AND GAMES
When it came to the games, I was strictly an onlooker. Where else but in Bhutan would you have a pillow fight to celebrate a Coronation? They came in two by two, grown up men hoisted onto a metal frame, hitting each other with a pillow sack, one blue, one red, until the loser fell in a tub of water below.
The King was so amused he strode across the ground for a closer look, laughing at every mighty splash and joining the audience in applause. There were martial arts displays and a hugely popular strong man competition which involved lifting boulders, tyres and logs and racing to the finish with a weight of 250 kilos. On the sidelines, Rinzin was having his own mini-contest, being picked up like a feather, right off the ground, by his friend Sonam. He still looked handsome though, sporting designer sunglasses given by Bruce Parry when he escorted him for BBC Tribes. I was in good company.
Meanwhile the archery was in full swing. This is Bhutan’s national sport, practised by every man in the land, from toddlers with home-made bamboo bows to world-class champions with state-of-the-art equipment. All was done according to tradition, initial prayers and offerings, victory dance and women in colourful kiras lining up at the side, singing to encourage their team or jeering to deter opponents.
The royal princes took part, and the King himself who aimed, shot, hopped on one foot and waved his bow like everyone else. Only the first notes of Tashi Lebey, the Farewell Dance, brought the game to an end as the whole stadium came down on the pitch, swaying and shuffling in ever growing circles to wish everyone ‘Tashi Delek’, long life and good luck. I caught my last glimpse of His Majesty as he danced in the middle of it all, ‘strikingly handsome’, as said his Prime Minister, and truly the ‘People’s King’.
Facts about Bhutan
A TINY MOUNTAIN KINGDOM
ROAD TO CHANGE
The former king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, now 53, is married to four sisters (the Queen Mothers) and his eldest son was crowned on November 6th. As the world’s youngest reigning monarch leading the world’s youngest democracy, the 5th Dragon King vowed to pursue his father’s policy to promote Gross National Happiness. Young, single and with a twinkle in his eye, he is an Oxford graduate and also studied in Bhutan and the United States.
THE LAST SHANGRI-LA
The Buddhist faith nurtures a genuine respect for nature and whether you are on a trek or cultural tour, you will enjoy a pristine environment. Sixty per cent of the land is protected forest and you find a wide variety of flora and fauna, including rare black-necked cranes in winter. Plastic bags and tobacco sales are banned, hydro-electric power has been developed to preserve the forests and is also exported to India.
The national language is Dzongkha though English is the education medium and widely spoken.
The staple diet is based on rice, buckwheat or maize, vegetables and fruit are plentiful and the national dish is the fiery ema datshi or chillies in cheese sauce.
Bhutan travel information
VISAS & IMMIGRATION
VACCINATIONS & HEALTH
Solange Hando travelled with Blue Poppy Tours and Treks (0207 7700 3084, www.bluepoppybhutan.com ), a Bhutanese family-run agency with offices in London and Thimphu, specialising in tailor-made trips. They also arrange Druk Air flights and visas and can advise on festival dates.
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