Rethinking Royalty: Bhutan Princess Khendum

Jambay Ihakhang, in Bhutan.
Jambay Ihakhang, in Bhutan.

An Interview With A Princess of Bhutan

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?

Bhutanese Princess, Khendum Dorje. Maile Allen Scott photo.
Bhutanese Princess, Khendum Dorje. Maile Allen Scott photo.

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.

Dorje Family of Bhutan

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.

Medieval Fiefdoms

Bhutan‘s history had been that of a loose confederation of medieval fiefdoms until 1907 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.

English Mother

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’s mother is Ashi’s aunt. The King is her cousin. Aha!

Shirley MacLaine

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 ’60s 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, Dechen 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 the 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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5 thoughts on “Rethinking Royalty: Bhutan Princess Khendum

  1. Apologies, here’s more hypocrisy….Government employees are required to wear their national dress, fair enough.

    The travel website mention the do’s and don’ts when visiting Bhutan….short dresses, shorts are frowned upon, yet the New Queen and her sisters-in-law are photographed in Off shoulder dresses. One Nation, one people does not apply to the royal family.

    Their PM is no better. Wrote an article about how is wife and daughter did not feel safe walking, as the men would leer at them and make cat calls, some are police men, Llamas …

    1. Now here’s an author who nust have come from a country totally free of social differences lol…what a biased writing I couldn’t even finish reading.
      Who said shorts are frowned upon by bhutanese?..who said reincarnations are o ly born in wealthy family? does our royal princesses wearing off shoulder dresses affect one nation one people policy?..and what’s wrong with wearing ghos and kiras in offices?…
      *Aufffff….immature foreign bloggers are such a nuisance, have been in the country for a couple of days and just jots down all the rumours to the utter irritation of other people…

  2. Her father Lendup Dorji was a PM for 3 months or so and was exiled to India. He was a totally debauched human being. Her ancestors were all Prime Ministers and not Kings. Before the first King there were only waring tribes.

    With regards to having more than one husband and not knowing who the father is in the case of all brothers living at home, however with only one brother living at home, it is obvious that who the father is. This practice could not be more backward. India has a similar practice but amongst the dirt poor in one is the states.

    Gross National happiness is a figment if their
    Imagination. When the poor do not have shoes to out on their feet, how could they be happy.
    The masses are so brain washed they can’t see past the King. They can’t see what the whole world can.

    Where did the money come from for the Wangchuck and Dorje clan to send their children to Choate, Harvard, Oxford?

    Men and woman are not equals. In order to be a Bhutanese citizen the father has to be Bhutanese.

    Ethnic cleansing of Hindu Butanese of Nepalese
    Descent. The government denies it, yet the Human rigjts watch has proof. The Buddhist Bhutanese of Nepalese descent were allowed to stay. All religion and economics. The Hindu Nepalese were towards the southern part of Bhutan and fairly prosperous farmers had start to question the King’s politics.

    Why were the Bhutanese of Tibetan descent allowed to stay?

    The Wangchucks have been married to the Dorje
    Family so many times that if they do not watch they will be like the Hapsburgs of Europe, carry a host of rare disorders with no cure, as is the case within some Jewish communities.

    The rule of the Royal Family offspring can only marry a Bhutanese is such boloney, Bhutan has a shortage of women. Marrying 2 sisters to 2 brothers, as is the case with the current king is going to add to further strife within the royal family.

    Last point, how is that reincarnations of some of their saints are always born into a wealthy family, as is the case of a nephew of the current king?

    It’s called illiteracy and ignorance.

    1. There is a Utube video of interview with a Bhutanese refugee titled ” Bhutan” by guy named Hem Rai, Rajalim. Please watch it to clarify your doubts. who told you that Bhutan has negative male to female ratio? Please use valid evidence or your ignorance will be revealed. We had 5 generation of royal family but only one reincarnation.

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