King of Bhutan Secretly Wed Four Sisters, and Now Has Four Queens
by Richard S. Ehrlich
NEW DELHI, India -- The "Dragon King" of Bhutan has suddenly married four sisters in public, inside his hermit Himalayan kingdom, nine years after the group secretly wed to spawn an heir to the fragile throne.
King Jigme Singye Wangchuk and his four queens reign over 1.4 million people in one of the poorest nations on earth, bordered mostly by India and nestled close to Tibet, Nepal, Burma and Bangladesh.
The monarch claims he married his four queens -- aged 23 to 28 -- nine years ago but never announced it, for reasons not fully explained.
King Wangchuk, 34, is a former Ascot classmate of Britain's Prince Andrew and enjoys Cuban cigars, playing basketball, golf and hunting.
He usually wears a traditional striped, raw silk robe, imported knee-socks and shiny black slip-on shoes.
Hailed officially as "The Dragon King," Wangchuk's polygamous marriage was essentially used to announce his heir to the throne, eight-year-old Jigme Gesar Namgyal Wangchuk.
The king's desire to publicly legitimize an heir apparently prompted the October 31 marriage and the convoluted claims of an earlier secret ceremony in 1979.
The little prince is the oldest son of Tshering Yandon, who is the next to the youngest of the king's four queens.
Altogether, the five royal parents have quietly given birth to a total of four sons and four daughters.
The latest wedding was performed in the huge, white-walled, 17th Century "Dzong," or Tibetan-style fortress in the ancient former capital, Punakha, in central Bhutan.
It was attended only by members of the royal family, red-robed Buddhist lamas of the Drukpa sect, and some Bhutanese officials.
Foreign diplomats and journalists were not invited.
"It is done," a jubilant Royal Bhutan Embassy official.
"They were married today in front of the embalmed body of the founder of our theocratic system of government," he added, referring to the mummified remains of Shabdung Ngawang Namgyal which was present during the wedding, according to the monarchy's tradition.
In a central monastery inside the fortress, the king received scarves from the head lama, symbolizing respect, in the presence of the embalmed body at the altar.
The day was "very auspicious because it is the day Lord Buddha descended from heaven," an official said. Three days of festivities followed the wedding.
"The four queens will not hold government portfolios, but will work with very important social service groups and volunteer organizations," the official added, asking not to be identified.
During the past nine years, foreign visitors were always told the king was a lonesome bachelor.
For example, in a 1983 interview inside his palace in Thimpu, Bhutan, the king told me:
"The National Assembly and people say it is high time I get married. Some Bhutanese marry foreigners, but as far as I'm concerned, I'd have to abide by the majority wishes of the people, which means I'm expected to marry a Bhutanese. I haven't any plans."
Asked if he there were any potential brides, he shyly replied: "Not that I know of."
In 1985, he told Asiaweek magazine, "I'm under heavy pressure from various quarters to choose a queen. I guess I'll have to do something about that very soon."
Bhutanese officials, however, now claim his nine-year-old marriage was "private" but "known" inside his tiny mountainous country.
Bhutan Foreign Minister Dawa Tsering said, "Within these nine years, a lot of pressure has been building. People feel a private wedding is not enough for a king, that the line of succession needs to be laid down.
"There was a feeling that there could be complications if the line of succession was not laid down," the foreign minister said.
Tsering stressed the obscure 1979 ceremony had "full validity in religion and the law."
"Marriage to sisters is a very common practice," Tsering added. "There is a lot of justification, even for economic reasons."
The monarch's late father, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, had a messy public scene when his mistress claimed their illegitimate son was to be heir instead of the present king.
Unable to have her son seize the throne, she later left the kingdom with him.
Coronated in 1974, the current king sits atop a throne dominated by neighboring India, though he is trying to gain greater international stature while not alienating New Delhi.
Under a 1949 treaty, "Bhutan agrees to be guided by" India in its foreign affairs, a clause seen by some outsiders as permission for New Delhi to manipulate the king.
Bhutan once enjoyed close links with China but was forced to cut its ties when India, in the 1960s, declared the Chinese were a destabilizing factor in South Asia, diplomats said.
His four wives are the daughters of Dasho Ugen Dorji and his wife Aum Thujee Zam, and descendants of ancient Bhutanese royalty.
The king is fourth in a monarchy set up with the help of the British Empire in 1907.
Copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich
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Richard S. Ehrlich's Asia news, non-fiction book titled, "Hello My Big Big Honey!" plus hundreds of photographs are available at his website http://www.oocities.com/asia_correspondent