Another Fairy Tale Wedding ... In Bhutan

There will be another royal wedding later this year to rival the colour and pageantry of Britain’s Prince William and Kate Middleton’s a marriage a few weeks ago. Bhutan’s 31 year-old King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck Friday told his country’s parliament that he would be getting married "later this year".

Like Kate, his wife-to be, Jetsun Prema, is a commoner, the daughter of an airline pilot but with distant royal connections, who was educated in India and the UK as well as Bhutan.

The wedding will take place in October when this tiny remote Himalayan kingdom of just 700,000 people, squeezed between India and China, will celebrate the marriage of a young man who combines the revered status of a monarch with informality, modesty and active concern for his country’s development.

King Jigme – known in Bhutan as K5, the fifth king – is steering his country into a developed democracy which also meets the goals of Gross National Happiness (GNH). The happiness aims – focussing on goals such as good governance and protecting the environment as well as economic growth, was set some 30 years ago by his father – King Jigme Singye Wangchuck – who told me about them in a 1987 interview

The wedding announcement came at the opening of the parliament’s seventh session – parliamentary democracy was only introduced in 2008 when Bhutan took the huge step of moving from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy.

The king, who was crowned in November 2008, arrived in a procession (chibdrel) to the tune of long trumpets or horns. He knelt and kissed the parliament’s floor three times, then ascended his large golden throne. To the accompaniment of deep-throated slow chanting, a welcome ceremony (Zhugdrel Phuensum Tshogpai) was conducted with the members of parliament being given food, drink and token envelopes of money.

The programme said that at 11am "His Majesty the Druk Gyalpo [Dragon King] addresses the Parliament", adding curiously in brackets: "If it pleases His Majesty to address the Parliament" – a remnant of an absolute monarchy, I imagine, where the King cannot be commanded!

Speaking without notes, the king dealt with issues such a tourism, industry, agriculture and hydro-power, adding that traditional values needed to be strengthened and combined with democracy to protect "our small society".

He then had a "small announcement" for the people – it was, he said, "time for me to marry". He had chosen Jetsun Prema (together left, in an official photo), who was in his eyes "beautiful, humble, kind and compassionate" as well as "warm and kind in heart and character".

Later he told me that he had felt quite nervous announcing his planned marriage – it was easier to talk about matters of state that such a personal event, he said.

Jetsun Pema was not in the ornate parliament building, but watched the ceremony on television from her home, waiting for her fiancé’s mobile phone call after the deed was done. Later, in the evening, she made her first appearance as her future husband’s fiancé, at a dinner to open Mountain Echoes, an annual India–Bhutan literary festival that starts tomorrow under the patronage of the Queen Mother, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck.

The wedding, the king said, should not be a "grand celebration" but would be "simple in keeping with our age old traditions". He was urged however by Tshering Tobgay, the leader of the parliamentary opposition, to have a large ceremony that could be enjoyed by people from all over the country. William and Kate’s wedding was also billed as being modest and not grand, in keeping with Britain’s economic constraints, but that did not stop it being a spectacular event watched by hundreds of millions of people on television around the world.

King Jigme‘s wedding will not however capture the same television audience, but the setting of Bhutan and the elegance of its Buddhist buildings and national costumes and traditions, ensure that it will have grandeur and style, plus the king’s instinctive informality.

John Elliott blogs at Riding the Elephant. His blog appears on Asia Sentinel.