Rethinking Royalty: Bhutan Princess Khendum Dorje
An Interview With A Bhutanese Princess
By Theodosia Greene
It’s not every day that an ordinary American woman meets an honest-to-goodness princess in a remote, relatively untouristed Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, or Druk Yul, Land of the Thunder Dragon! I had visions of an exotic creature straight out of “The King and I,” with long curved fingernails, spangled eyelids veiling almond-shaped eyes, all curvaceously sheathed in a tight-fitting gown of gold. It was Shangri-la, wasn’t it?
Several days after flying into Bhutan, Maile, my traveling photographer friend, and I were driven to Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital and the home of Ashi (“Princess”) Khendum Dorje, who had been described to us as a fun-loving, active young woman in her thirties.
In she walked. To my surprise, this Bhutanese princess was as beautiful and fair-skinned as any Irish movie star. It was arranged that the princess meet us at our hotel. It was a chilly, late afternoon in March and our room, decorated in deep burgundy tones was growing dark. Outside the window, a tall clock in “Times Square,” a square-shaped hotel garden, clanged five o’clock.
Wearing a western style black dress and low-heeled black pumps, Ashi settled gracefully into the hotel room chair by the window and ordered a bottle of fine wine from a waiting attendant. Sitting across from someone so like myself made me forget that she was a member of the powerful Dorji family, second only in rank to the royal Wangchucks.
Bhutan’s history had been that of a loose confederation of medieval fiefdoms until l907, when its first hereditary king was elected. King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, the present king’s father, abolished the practice of serfdom, built the first highway and began to open up the country to the outside world. The present king’s mother, Queen Mother Ashi Kesang Wangchuck, represents the progressive Dorji family.
I remarked on Ashi’s British accent and watched as her slender white hands adjust a red scarf at the neck of her black dress then brushed back her dark hair.
She smiled at my observation. “My mother is English but my father’s family has lived here for generations. His family are Dorjis, hereditary Prime Ministers for four generations and long associated with the kings. My father is brother to the King’s mother. When his brother, my uncle, was assassinated, my father was made Prime Minister. There was a problem with the administration of the previous king — not the one now — and my father was exiled to Nepal.”
I secretly wondered if all royal family histories were as convoluted and confused. I had to count it out on my fingers: the Queen mother is Ashi’s aunt. The King is her cousin. Aha!
Suddenly, I remembered reading in Shirley MacLaine’s book, “Fall Off the Mountain,” about her 1968 visit to Bhutan. Shirley described her encounter with the attractive deposed Prime Minister who was rumored to have become her very good friend.
“Oh, Shirley MacLaine?” said Ashi. “She came in the 60’s when all the problems of my father were occurring — when he left for exile. She wrote about it. She made it sound very glamorous as if she’d smuggled out money for him or some papers. She didn’t do very much, but made it all very dramatized.”
My friend, Maile, was angling to take a photograph. Her camera wasn’t working and she was muttering.
Ashi folded her hands calmly in her lap. “When my father was exiled, I attended school in Nepal. When we returned, I went to a local high school in Thimphu where my daughter goes now. I worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Conference Division as a political advisor and traveled around the world for four or five years.”
So much for my romantic ideas about medieval-style Oriental Princesses trailing their long fingernails in lotus pools. To the contrary. When the young King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck assumed office in 1974, he established his 20-year old sister, Dechhen Wangmo, as head of the Ministry of Development and another princess, Sonam Wangmo, as head of Bhutan’s purse strings.
“Then I got married. Because my husband was in business, I resigned from the government,” Ashi explained. “They had a rule then — no longer — that if you married someone engaged in the private sector, you couldn’t work for the government. That was to avoid corruption. Now it has relaxed a bit. For example, if you worked in the agricultural department, you couldn’t be married to someone selling tractors. But now I am divorced and work for my father who has several businesses in mining and tourism.”
Cousin the Monarch
Ashi’s cousin, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, is a popular and progressive monarch. As leader of a polygamous and polyandrous country, he is married to four beautiful sisters, each of whom maintains her own house. He lives very simply in a log cabin and is interested in fostering education and preserving the environment.
“You see, we started our development process so late, we’ve had a chance to observe other countries and see the mistakes they’ve made,” Ashi explained. “We emulate those whom we thought have gone in the right direction. Instead of a Gross National Product, ours is a Gross National Happiness — the King’s idea.”
I liked the idea of Gross National Happiness, but frankly, I was more interested in Bhutan’s sexual mores. “Yes, the custom of multiple spouses exists, but this isn’t so common anymore,” Ashi smiled.
In Thimphu, I learned that there are about ten women who have more than one husband. One of those women has four husbands who all work in her restaurant (Hey, that sounds good to me.)! Or, as in the case of the King, several sisters may take one husband.
“Who’s the breadwinner in a family?” I asked, meaning where do the facts hit the sheets or where does the rubber hit the road?
“Usually the woman,” said Ashi. “Right from the beginning, we’ve had no discrimination against women. In fact, women are more equal than men! Traditionally, daughters inherit their parent’s property. Where there are several husbands, the offspring equally inherit because it is not known which is the father.”
“You see the basic idea is to keep the property together. Like: five brothers take one wife. They’re not all in the house at the same time. One husband might be in the army; another, a traveling salesman; another, a government worker, a farmer, etc. Polygamy and polyandry happen when people have a plot of land or a holding which they don’t want to separate — at least, for one generation.”
That could work for us in America. I had visions of giant, mushrooming family condominiums. As my imagination boggled at the thought, there was a blinding flash.
“Got it!” Maile stopped muttering at her camera and sighed with relief.
Ashi looked at her watch and rose from the seat. “I’m so sorry. I must go. I have an early plane tomorrow morning to New York. I’m giving a talk at The Explorer’s Club.”
Well, Bhutan just might be Shangri-La, after all, but even a princess can’t turn down New York.
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