Bhutan's Dragon King shows he is man of the people

THIMPHU Fri Nov 7, 2008 2:45pm GMT

1 of 12. Bhutan's King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck carries a child in the courtyard of Tashichhodzong Palace during celebrations marking his coronation ceremony in Thimphu November 6, 2008. With medieval tradition and Buddhist spirituality, a 28-year-old with an Oxford education assumed the Raven Crown of Bhutan on Thursday, to guide the world's newest democracy as it emerges into the modern world.

Credit: Reuters/Desmond Boylan

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THIMPHU (Reuters) - He was supposed to look on regally from on high as warriors, monks and masked dancers celebrated his coronation, but Bhutan's new Dragon King instead showed royal star quality by descending to mingle with the crowds on Friday.

The 28-year-old Oxford educated Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who assumed the Raven Crown on Thursday, spent most of the afternoon among the 20,000 spectators, chatting, joking, and greeting old friends, ordinary people, and tourists.

"He is very gracious and he has amazing charisma," said 36-year-old Patty Wu from San Francisco, after the king stopped to jokingly enquire if her friends were wearing suncream, and to talk about California.

"We felt like we were the only people in the stadium," added 37-year-old photographer Jay Hu at her side.

A few steps on, the Druk Gyalpo or Dragon King picked out a 70-year-old man from several rows back in the crowd. Phuentsho had spent most of his life working for the royal household.

"He joked that I had never made the pilgrimage I had promised to, but told me I had worked very hard," said the laughing old man, dressed in a Bhutanese gho, the national knee-length gown, and a woolly Nike hat.

This is the style of Bhutan's new "People's King," as he has inevitably been nicknamed, a young man who has also been educated in the United States and India and now wants to help shepherd his ancient Himalayan kingdom into the modern world.

With his slicked-back black hair, sideburns and winning smile he has the kind of star quality royal families dream of, looking a bit like a cross between a Hong Kong movie star and a young Elvis Presley.

As the entertainment continued, Wangchuck moved through the crowd dressed in a red and gold gho with the bright yellow scarf of the highest office worn across his left shoulder, stooping to talk and pick up or kiss young children.

"THE SUN OF PEACE AND HAPPINESS"

This is a land perhaps best known for its philosophy of Gross National Happiness, the idea that mental and spiritual well-being matter as much as material gain, that the environment, culture and quality of life also count.

Fifty years ago there were no cars or roads in Bhutan, and television and the internet only arrived in 1999.

But slowly Bhutan is entering the modern globalized world, with its young people taking cultural cues from places like the United States and India.

"My deepest concern is that as the world changes we may lose these fundamental values on which we rest our character as a nation and people," Wangchuck said in a national address inside the stadium in the capital Thimphu in the morning.

But the king said he was hopeful his people would continue to "pursue the simple and timeless goal of being good human beings" and that if they did, his country would stay under the "sun of peace and happiness" for many more centuries.

Wangchuck's 52-year-old father introduced democracy to Bhutan and abdicated in favor of his son. Neither move was taken particularly well by his largely adoring subjects but both are now looking like masterstrokes.

The new young king is already enormously popular, especially among the young, and he appealed to them to help him build a better future for Bhutan, a country of just 635,000 people sandwiched precariously between billions of Indians and Chinese.

At the start of the second day of three days of national celebrations, Wangchuck inspected a military parade from the back of a jeep. Soldiers in modern uniforms marched to bagpipes, brass and drums, before the grass stage was given to Bhutan's ancient culture and brand of Buddhism.

Monks in black hats decored with peacock feathers, in flowing robes, dipped and twirled to the blare of long trumpets and the beat of drums, in a sacred dance designed to subdue evil.

Painted elephants, horses with gold and silver saddles, mules, cows, yaks and sheep trooped past.

Then masked dancers dressed as spirits or mythical animals pranced on the turf. Warriors in ghos, cloth helmets and carrying round black shields brandished swords and whooped to ask the gods to bring them victory in battle.

But somehow it was the king who stole the show.

(Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Jerry Norton)

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