THIMPHU (Reuters) - High in the Himalayas, in an ancient ceremony, a young, handsome king will be anointed this week, wearing the Raven Crown of Bhutan and taking his place at the head of the world’s youngest democracy.
With his formal coronation Thursday, the 28-year-old Oxford-educated Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck becomes the world’s youngest reigning monarch and perhaps one of Asia’s most eligible bachelors.
Three days of national celebration will follow in this tiny nation sandwiched between India and China, masked dances and ancient rituals ironically marking another stage in Bhutan’s gradual emergence into the modern world.
It is part of a process of cautious and calibrated modernization driven by the new king’s father, 52-year-old Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who abdicated two years ago after forcing his reluctant and largely adoring subjects to accept democracy.
After a two-year-wait for an astrologically auspicious date, the Fourth King will place the crown on his son’s head in the throne room of Thimphu’s huge, white-walled Dzong or fortress, to bring his own, 34-year-long reign to a formal close.
Although the new king will not govern as his father did, he will become an important symbol of national unity and stability in a country undergoing a sometimes traumatic and divisive transition to the modern world, in an often volatile region.
“It is the most significant event in the lives of the present generation of Bhutanese citizens,” Bhutan’s first democratically elected prime minister and staunch monarchist Jigmi Y. Thinley told Reuters in an interview.
“Even though in terms of governance we are now a democracy, there is no elected individual who will enjoy the kind of respect, trust, confidence and reverence our kings enjoy.”
The Fourth King was also the architect of Bhutan’s national philosophy, gross national happiness, the idea that spiritual and mental well-being also matter, that material prosperity should not come at the expense of the environment or culture.
It may be a tough task for the new, young king to come out of his father’s considerable shadow, but Saturday he made a start, walking several kilometres through crowds after another sacred ritual in the Dzong in the central town of Punaka.
Stopping to chat and hug or kiss children, the new king seemed at ease with the crowd. His looks earned him the nickname “Prince Charming” on a previous visit to Thailand. Now, he has been given the almost inevitable title of “the People’s King.”
He has also made an effort to reach out to and identify with Bhutan’s younger generation, something which has been welcomed by commentators like Dorji Wangchuck, columnist, filmmaker and head of Bhutan’s first FM radio news channel.
With drugs use, unemployment and crime all rising, and a more rebellious younger generation emerging, Bhutan’s modernization is not without its growing pains.
“For the youth, to hope for a better future, they feel a little more invigorated by a young monarch,” Wangchuck said.
The celebrations will also help Bhutan come together as a nation after a sometimes divisive general election earlier this year, the first in the country’s history, Wangchuck said.
“There is no way we can be a disunited country,” he said. “It is in that light I see the coronation as important. There is a lot of healing to be done.”
Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Sanjeev Miglani