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Bhutan royal wedding: Who is the young beauty who has captivated a king and a nation?

13 October 2011
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Surrounded by red-robed monks, the young bride gliding along in a traditional wraparound skirt and ornate coloured heels was clearly trying to master her nerves. On Thursday, Jetsun Pema, a 21-year-old student, became queen of Bhutan, after crossing a wooden footbridge over the confluence of two rivers to take her place at the elaborate marriage ceremony.


In a 17th-century fortress, where his lavish coronation took place, her groom King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck came down from his throne to meet her, wearing the red Raven Crown which symbolises his role as the people's protector. "She carried her responsibilities superbly well. I was very proud of her," he said afterwards. "She is a wonderful human being. Intelligent. She and I share one big thing in common: a love and passion for art." At 31, according to the Bhutanese, the king is old to be tying the knot. Not that he is bothered by traditional opinion. "It doesn't matter when you get married as long as it is the right person," he said. "I am certain I have married the right person." His bride's delicate beauty and modest demeanour mark her out as the new crown jewel of the tiny Asian country sandwiched between India and China. Indeed, Thursday's Buddhist ceremony was broadcast live to a riveted nation and her face now adorns thousands of posters.


But this is a role that the pilot's daughter never envisaged. The principal of Lungtenzampa secondary school, Kinley Pem, taught both the king and the queen at different times. She remembers her stunning student, who has two brothers and two sisters, as an accomplished captain of the school basketball team and someone who won prizes for public speaking. "She doesn't have any airs. I think she didn't even dream of becoming a queen," the school principal told AFP.


Jetsun's family has, however, always enjoyed close links with the royal clan, which has ruled Bhutan for 100 years. (Jigme Khesar Namgyel is the fifth Druk Gyalpo or Dragon King.) Her paternal great-grandfather was lord of the eastern province of Tashigang, and her maternal grandfather was the half-brother of the wife of Bhutan's second king. Their connections and resources made it possible for Jetsun to study in Britain and she is currently pursuing a degree in international relations. It's not clear if she'll be able to continue those studies. Her new duties involve supporting her husband on his many tours around the country of 700,000, listening to his people's worries. "The fifth king in a short space of time has performed exceedingly well," parliamentary opposition leader Tshering Tobgay told AFP.

"He has walked the length and breadth of the country and met nearly every citizen." The impact of these personal audiences is not to be underestimated. Until a few years ago, the monarchy had absolute power. His father Jigme Singye Wangchuck changed all that, abdicating in his favour and paving the way for democracy.

Wangchuk junior recast himself as an advocate for ordinary folk, and in doing so won their steadfast devotion and loyalty.

Now his adoring subjects expect the couple to provide them with an heir. The Oxford-educated Elvis fan is one of 10 siblings born to the former king and his four wives, who are all sisters.


Which goes some way to explain why she has captivated the nation. In contrast to the polygamous match of the previous generation Jigme Khesar Namgyel openly adores his wife, often taking her hand in public and speaking of his love for her. And the newlyweds even lived together before the nuptials. Locals in a land famous for pursuing "Gross National Happiness" instead of economic growth are overjoyed about the match. "The king has finally got a companion who is from a noble family, and she has very good qualities," Bago Dem, a local resident in her 60s, told AFP. "They understand the problems of the people." Meanwhile, Karma Tshiteem, the head of the Gross National Happiness Commission joked: "You can be sure that our happiness is increasing".

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