Page last updated at 12:05 GMT, Saturday, 8 November 2008

Coronation in the Dragon Kingdom

A process of modernisation and democratisation is under way in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan and a new, young king has just ascended the throne in a ceremony steeped in Buddhist ritual. Charles Haviland was in the capital, Thimphu, to watch the celebrations.

As I write this, in a simple wooden house on top of a hill, the suburb around me is quiet.

Jigme Khesar Namgyel is crowned by his father
King Jigme Khesar Namgyel is the world's youngest reigning monarch

But the city down below is immersed in coronation fever, above all in the stadium specially built for the royal celebrations.

At this moment, if the minute-by-minute timetable is correct, the king is being presented with one horse with a golden saddle, one horse with a silver saddle, one mule with a leather saddle and other treasures.

The ground is packed with 20,000 people, one-fifth of Thimphu's population.

Over these days of festivities, strings of glistening lights will continue to bedeck the city, even its petrol stations.

Ceremony

The coronation itself, a day earlier, was the height of pageantry.

In a massive, whitewashed fort-cum-monastery, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel had the crown, mounted with a raven and adorned with skulls, placed on his head by his retiring father.

Bhutanese folk dancers
The coronation was a riot of colour, dance and tradition

That day a troupe of monks in scarlet head-dresses had greeted the wintry dawn from the rooftop, with clanging cymbals and long, droning horns.

Folk dancers from all over the country whirled, young lads dressed as warriors performed, and VIPs both local and foreign paid homage.

Underneath all this technicolour is a country taking deliberate but slow steps towards democracy.

While crowds and then voters in Nepal - a short step away along the Himalayas - were sacking their king, Bhutanese people in their thinly populated forest kingdom were voicing the fear that democracy would bring chaos.

What role the new king, with his swept-back hair and gentle smile, might have in political evolution is unclear

But the previous King, Jigme Singye, mindful of the need for reform, insisted they needed some democratic medicine. So there were elections in March, which just two parties were allowed to contest.

For good measure, the king also stepped down in favour of his well-liked son. So this is a democracy led by the royals - introduced at His Majesty's pleasure.

Bhutan is a nation of subjects and, as the banners say: it loves its kings.

And many would say it is doing very nicely as it is.

Modernisation

Thimphu does not feel like a city of the Indian subcontinent. It is a neat little place with white railings, roundabouts and white lines in the middle of the road.

Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan
Thimphu is the only world capital without traffic lights

Its beautiful houses, with ornate friezes and carvings, have the Tibetan feel that so many foreigners are drawn to. Men and women are dressed neatly in the bright national costumes that are compulsory for government and public work.

In more material terms, the country has made strides that its populous neighbours might envy.

It has free education, free healthcare and universal child immunisation, and laws that protect a good portion of its pristine forest land.

It is not paradise, though. Bhutan's drive to modernise while keeping its traditions has gone alongside a vigorous assertion of national identity which has tended to alienate some of its many ethnic minorities, especially, but not only, the large Nepali-speaking community.

Refugees

In the 1990s, the then king was quoted as saying Bhutan was too small to afford the luxury of pluralism. A little earlier, some 80,000 Nepali-speakers were expelled from Bhutan or fled it, fearing for their safety.

Bhutan map

Many had apparently been stripped of their citizenship as the teaching of their language in school was banned. Bhutan insists many of them were illegal immigrants.

But the United Nations said they were unjustly expelled. Stuck in camps in Nepal, none have returned.

Will Bhutan break with its past and ease up a little on this?

As the coronation music re-echoed around the fort, the affable Foreign Minister Ugyen Tsering told me the refugee issue was "a matter to be resolved". He thought it was important that thinking on such matters should evolve and change.

That is hardly revolutionary, but if serious political change is under way, debate and ferment - even on previously taboo issues - are inevitable.

Constitutional monarchy

And that seems to be the direction Bhutan is taking. A foreign scholar on Bhutan, and frequent visitor, told me he could barely keep up with the changes afoot in politics and the mushrooming of media outlets.

Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk
Bhutan offers its citizens free education and healthcare
What role the new king, with his swept-back hair and gentle smile, might have in political evolution is unclear.

The monarchy is now deemed to be a constitutional one, less politically involved than before.

What is clear is the huge goodwill the king has fostered among a lot of people. After he was crowned on Thursday, I watched him at dusk meeting thousands of people gathered in a huge open ground outside the fort.

Instead of having them file up to him, he moved among them, meeting them in small clusters, leaving them astonished as he handed out special coins and chatted to them.

To an American friend of mine, he whispered: "I'm so glad you came."

With a Bhutanese family, he spoke, smiled, and then gathered up the baby in his arms.

This was no mere walkabout. It was serious bonding, and something that seems to be a speciality of this new leader of the Dragon Kingdom.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 8 November, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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