Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Bhutan Gets Royal Wedding Fever

The royal dress weavers are at work and excitement is building in Bhutan ahead of next month's royal wedding that will see the young king of the Himalayan nation wed in a fairy-tale ceremony.

The Oxford-educated mountain-biking fanatic Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, 31, who was crowned in 2008 at the start of democracy in the Buddhist-majority country, is set to marry student Jetsun Pema, a commoner, on October 13.

Organisers have promised a low-key affair from a royal family that is famed for its common touch, but the Bhutanese are gearing up to mark a momentous occasion in the life of the reclusive kingdom between China and India.

In their apartment in the capital Thimphu, weavers Kelzang Choden and her mother are hurriedly working on an outfit for the future queen, an intricately patterned dress of geometric shapes dominated by gold thread and yellow.

Pema, 21, has ordered numerous "kiras," the elegant national dress for women made from raw silk that takes months to finish and can cost up to 3,000 dollars.

Several famed weavers are competing for the honour of clothing her on the big day.

"It would be the biggest privilege," said Choden, whose mother Kuenzang Wangmo has designed outfits for the previous king and his four wives, as well as the younger sister of the present king.

Bhutan, famed for its invention of "Gross National Happiness" to measure progress and its citizens' well-being, is one of the most remote and insular places on Earth.

It had no roads or currency until the 1960s, allowed television only in 1999 and continues to resist the temptation of allowing mass tourism -- preferring instead to allow access to only small organised groups of well-heeled visitors.

The main wedding ceremony will take place in a stunning fortress and monastery in the town of Punakha, set in a steep valley at the confluence of two fast-running mountain rivers.

The giant building, accessible by footbridge and intricately decorated with wall paintings and carvings, is being spruced up for the occasion, with work underway in the gardens and fresh paint in evidence.

King Wangchuck, a keen basketball player and Elvis fan, and four of his forebears have ruled Bhutan since 1907 when the royal family took over and brought stability to the previously war-ravaged nation.

The monarch lives in a cottage in Thimphu rather than a palace, and is famed for inviting his subjects to tea. Among his most recent guests were members of the Thimphu weight-lifting club.

The main celebration will be held in the capital on October 16 where members of the public will get the opportunity to glimpse the newly weds in a ceremony at the city's sports stadium.

It promises to be a spectacle of traditional dance and music, but the Bhutanese themselves will be part of the show as they wear their finest traditional clothing, which is compulsory in government offices.

Many choose to wear the dress -- kiras for women and "ghos" for men -- in everyday life as a statement of national pride, but a royal wedding calls for even more elaborate dressing-up.

At The Traditional Boot House in central Thimphu, manager Tshering Tobgay says average daily orders have doubled since the king announced his intention to marry in May.

Tobgay and his half-dozen team are working frantically in a bid to clear the backlog for their colourful knee-length boots which are worn on special occasions.

"Everyone is working overtime until 09:00-10:00pm at night," he said.

The king was crowned in 2008 after his father, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated to introduce democracy, arguing that the country could not depend on the benign dictatorship of the royal family forever.

Though feted for this magnanimous gesture, the former king was in charge during the major blackspot in the country's recent history: the expulsion of more than 100,000 ethnic Nepalese in the early 1990s.