The little monk and the Crown Prince (now 5th King), Trongsa, 2004

The little monk and the Crown Prince (now 5th King), Trongsa, 2004

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Bhutan is no "Shangri-La". Its history is filled with feuds, conflict, and intrigue. In the fall of 1931, during the reign of the 5th King's great-grandfather, King Jigme Wangchuck, Shabdrung Jigme Dorji allegedly died in his sleep at age twenty-six.

This Shabdrung, the reincarnation of Bhutan’s founder, was a simple misguided monk with no political ambition. However, his ruthless, power-hungry brother-in-law and Chamberlain, Sonam Tshering, wanted to control Bhutan by reinstating the Shabdrung as the rightful ruler and use him as a political pawn. That summer the chamberlain sent a delegation, led by the Shabdrung’s brother-in-law, Choekyi Gyeltshen, to meet Mahatma Gandhi in Calcutta, and ask for his help to restore the Shabdrung’s rule and overthrow the King. Gandhi declined, handing Choekyi Gyeltshen a coconut along with a message advising Shabdrung to work for the good of his people.

When the King learned of the meeting he sent three hundred soldiers armed for battle to the Shabdrung’s monastery. They arrested the chamberlain and confined the Shabdrung to his apartment.

What happened next remained the subject of whispered speculation among the Bhutanese until 1991, when the 5th King’s aunt, the eldest Queen, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, published Of Rainbows and Clouds: The Life of Yab Ugyen Dorji as told to his Daughter. Her Majesty quotes her father, who was six years old at the time and staying with his family at the Shabdrung’s monastery: “In all honesty, I cannot pretend to be ignorant about the circumstances leading to the death of my uncle Shabdrung Jigme Dorji. His death was attributed in some sources to heart attack and in other sources to suicide. Most Bhutanese know that he was assassinated but it was not disclosed and has never appeared in print.”

The Queen’s father then goes on to recount how eleven of the King’s men entered the Shabdrung’s chamber (as witnessed by two monks hiding behind an altar) and brutally attacked the young reincarnate as he slept. They pinned him down, grabbed his neck, kicked him in the testicles then stuffed a silk scarf down his throat until he stopped breathing. The next morning the murderers announced that Shabdrung Jigme Dorji had died in his sleep. Many of those in the Shabdrung’s entourage (those spared execution) lost their lands and eventually fled to Tibet and then to Sikkim and India. Upon return to Bhutan they retreated high up into the steep mountains of Haa to avoid continued persecution.

Not until 1947 did the plight of the Queen’s family abate when the government returned some of their ancestral lands. This political crisis was finally put to rest decades later when the 5th King’s father married the assassinated Shabdrung’s grand-nieces, Ashi Dorji Wangmo and her three younger sisters, Ashi Tshering Pem, Ashi Tshering Yangdon and Ashi Sangay Choden. The birth of the 5th King, Jigme Khesar Namgyal united the blood of the descendants of the Shabdrung, the country’s founder and Ugyen Wangchuck, the first King, in the rule of Bhutan and future heirs to the throne.

From BHUTAN: Hidden Lands of Happiness, by John Wehrheim (Serindia 2011)

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