A Royal Wedding in Bhutan


This past Thursday, Bhutanese King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck wed his long-time girlfriend, Jetsun Pema. The very popular King attended college in America and is a huge Celtics fan, according to ABC News. Known as Druk Yul, “land of the thunder dragon,” Bhutan was isolated until recent decades but is now in the process of evolving into a more modern nation, one where success is measured not in profits, but rather in Gross National Happiness. Read about the evolution of a country in National Geographic magazine and the unusual access granted National Geographic almost 50 years ago at another Bhutanese royal wedding.

Often called Shangri-la, mountainous Bhutan has retained an isolation almost unheard of in the 21st century. In Bhutan’s Enlightened Experiment (March 2008), Brook Larmer reports that television access was granted to the population only in 1999, making Bhutan the last country in the world to have TV. Larmer describes the impetus for the emergence from isolation: “When King Jigme Singye Wangchuck ascended the throne in 1972, Bhutan suffered from some of the highest poverty, illiteracy, and infant-mortality rates in the world–a legacy of the policy of isolation.” Find out about the development plan based on Gross National Happiness, and how the country is now balancing democracy and a constitutional monarchy. Photos by Lynsey Addario.

In December, 1952 National Geographic magazine published “Bhutan, Land of the Thunder Dragon,” by adventurer Burt Kerr Todd. He was the first American to visit Bhutan, and after enduring a leech-filled journey to the tiny country he engagingly described all he saw of the people and countryside during his travels; the article includes numerous color photos he took. While in Bhutan he was invited to attend the royal wedding of Ashi Kesang-La Dorji, whom he had met at Oxford, and the Governor of Paro, the new King. The wedding reception lasted 12 days and included the Black Hat dance, which commemorates the assassination of a wicked monarch in ninth-century Tibet. Todd said, “Performed by the light of bonfires, it far exceeded any of the previous entertainment in elaborate routine and fanciful costume.” He humorously noted that his white tie and tails didn’t go over well at the wedding, as a woman in the crowd “thought it rather pathetic that an official guest should appear with such a terrible split in the back of his coat.” Other observations included that archery was a daily entertainment, much as baseball is in the United States, and that the last day of the reception was for the people of Bhutan, with 8,000 fed at the feast.

Todd also visited the “Tiger’s Nest” Monastery, up a sheer cliff (you have to see the photo), and was inadvertently roped into hunting a rogue elephant on the way home. These were apparently a few of many adventures for Todd.  He was later an adviser to the Bhutanese royal family and helped introduce postage stamps in the nation, according to a 2006 New York Times obituary.

Note: To obtain the 1952 article, check your local library or purchase the Complete National Geographic.

Human Journey