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Bhutan's king weds commoner bride and crowns her queen

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck smiles at his bride Jetsun Pema during the purification marriage ceremony in the historical Punakha Dzong in Punakha, Bhutan on Oct. 13, 2011.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

In this year's other royal wedding, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck has wed his brainy and beautiful commoner fiancée Jetsun Pema in a ceremony attended by no other royals or heads of state, but by thousands of citizens of the isolated Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

The traditional Buddhist ceremony was held in the 500-year old monastery fortress at Punakha, and celebrations involving elaborate traditional dances are now underway beneath massive banners showing the couple arm-in-arm. Tens of thousands of Bhutanese traveled into the capital to join the celebrations, which will last for three days.

At 8:20 a.m., a time deemed most auspicious by the royal astrologers, the King, wearing the raven crown, came down from his golden throne in front of a huge statue of Buddha to place a smaller, silk brocade crown upon the head of his bride. Monks chanted in celebration as she took her seat beside him as the new queen.

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The couple have become media darlings across South and South East Asia since their engagement was announced in May: the queen, who is 21, is reported to be an excellent student and a sharp-elbowed basketball player. The King had been tagged with the moniker "Prince Charming of the Himalayas"; he is said to be a fierce mountain-biker and to love the music of Elvis Presley. At 31, he was viewed by many of his subjects as badly behind schedule in choosing a queen.

The King took over power from his father five years ago and oversaw Bhutan's transition to constitutional democracy and its first elections in 2008. Oxford-educated, a champion of development who has also vowed to shelter his people from globalization, he is known for his efforts to hear the views of his citizens – he moved out of the traditional palace and into a modest cottage in the capital. Parliamentary opposition leader Tshering Tobgay recently told reporters that the King had met with "almost every" Bhutanese in recent years, which is not as far-fetched as it might sound, as the population is 700,000 people.

The new queen, who has knife-blade cheekbones and a tumble of glossy black hair, is working on a degree in international relations at Regent's College in London. Her father is an airline pilot (if one were to make the obvious comparisons with the House of Windsor wedding earlier this year, it might be noted that Kate Middleton's parents also worked for airlines for years).

The couple wed in a ceremony unchanged from the earliest days of Bhutan's monarchy. At the fort, the country's most senior Buddhist official performed a purification ritual for the couple in front of a massive 100-foot Thongdal tapestry of Bhutan's 17th-century founder, according to the Associated Press. The pair then proceeded to the temple for a ceremony broadcast live on national television but for a few minutes when the King, his father – the former ruler – and the cleric entered the sacred tomb of the founder of Bhutan. Almost the entire population was expected to watch the ceremony on television.

The King's father gave the bride an array of five coloured scarves representing blessings from the tomb. Hesitantly, she then approached the King's throne with a golden chalice filled with the ambrosia of eternal life. They held it together for several seconds and then he drank.

Bhutan has admitted foreigners into the country only since the mid-1970s, and permitted broadcast of foreign television only for the past 12 years. But its population is mostly young people, with a hungry interest in the West and products such as smart phones. The King has walked a delicate line providing guidance to government through the fast-moving changes of recent years, as the country seeks to build the economy while preserving its culture – and has won praise for keeping ostentatiously clear of the functions of parliament.

But it is his romantic life that has most interested his citizens in recent years. He had reportedly been dating the new queen for some time, although the romance was kept out of the brand-new independent newspapers of Thimphu. But once he went public, he made no effort to hide how smitten he was, appearing in public holding her hand, an almost unthinkable act in the conservative culture of the region. Now, it's trendy for couples to hand-hold in Thimphu.

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The King has spoken publicly to audiences of young people in recent months about how much he admires the new queen, and how in love with her he is; he even told one group that they had met at a family picnic 14 years ago and he had proposed, although she was just 7. Bhutanese media quoted him telling the students that he said: "When you grow up, if I am single and not married and if you are single and not married, I would like you to be my wife, provided we still feel the same."

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About the Author
Latin America Bureau Chief

Stephanie Nolen is the Latin America correspondent for The Globe and Mail.After years as a roving correspondent that included coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stephanie moved to Johannesburg in 2003 to open a new bureau for The Globe, to report on what she believed was the world's biggest uncovered story, Africa's AIDS pandemic. More

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