by Rachel Brown:
No heads of state or fancy hats appeared at this royal wedding, and the bride wore a traditional silk kira instead of a white gown. On October 13, the 31-year-old King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuckto, wed Jetsun Pema, a woman ten years his junior. The king and his bride dated for three years before their marriage and both were educated abroad. While the newly crowned Queen is a commoner (her father was an airline pilot), she comes from an elite family in Bhutan, and the two reportedly first met at a family picnic when Pema was only seven.
The formal Buddhist ceremony took place at a fortress monastery in the ancient capital of Punakha, but the celebration didn’t end there. Flags, multi-hued lights, and large photographs of the smiling couple abounded in the capital city of Thimphu, as tens of thousands of well-wishers from across Bhutan poured into town. The three days of festivities accompanying the marriage culminated in musical and dance performances in the city’s main stadium on October 16th (pictures can be seen here).
Although a relatively low-budget affair, the wedding was described by a government official as “the biggest international media event we’ve ever had in Bhutan—ever.” Indeed this is the first time a wedding in Bhutan has been such a public spectacle. The Himalayan nation has a long history of isolation; it maintains diplomatic relations with few nations (the U.S. is not amongst them) and restricts tourism. Television was not introduced until 1999.
Major political and cultural changes have swept the country since then. In 2006, in a move designed to introduce democracy to Bhutan, the current king’s father abdicated the throne to his son. Two years later the nation became a constitutional monarchy and held its first elections. Both King Khesar and his father are widely respected in Bhutan, and King Khesar has traveled extensively around the country by foot and bicycle.
Not everything is peaceful in the birthplace of Gross National Happiness, however. A few days prior to the nuptials, two small bombs exploded in southern Bhutan. The bombs were planted by the United Revolutionary Front of Bhutan, a group founded by Nepalese refugees from Bhutan. In the 1980s and 1990s, many ethnic Nepalese left or were exiled from Bhutan due to tensions surrounding the prior king’s “One Nation, One People” policy to standardize language and dress in the country. The current king has made an effort to bridge these divides and has visited many ethnic Nepalese communities.
The royal wedding also reflects another change in Bhutan: the demise of polygamy. In 1979 the king’s father married four sisters in one ceremony, an example of the old Bhutanese practice of maintaining family property through marriage to several siblings. Pema, however, will be the only queen of the current king’s heart.
Rachel Brown ’15 is in Saybrook College. She is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger on events in South Asia. Contact her at email@example.com.