THIMPHU, Oct 16 – Bhutan’s rare form of polygamy, in which men or women take several sisters or brothers as partners, is dying out as the kingdom modernises, with this week’s royal wedding another sign of its demise.
The king, 31-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, married and crowned Jetsun Pema, the commoner daughter of an airline pilot, on Thursday in a colourful Buddhist ceremony in the ancient capital of Punakha.
In his speech announcing the nuptials in May, Wangchuck made clear that Pema would be his only wife — a distinct departure from his father, who married four sisters in 1979, all of whom were crowned queen in the same ceremony.
The Wangchuck dynasty dates back to 1907 and includes four other kings before the current monarch, three of whom married multiple women.
The practice has its roots in traditional Bhutanese social structures, explained Francoise Pommaret, an expert and author on Bhutan.
“Living with several sisters, mostly found in the centre or the east, or with several brothers, mostly found in the north, allowed them to keep property in one family,” she said.
The decline in polygamy is linked to changing attitudes in Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan nation sandwiched between India and China that has resisted outside influence for centuries.
The country banned television until 1999 and continues to restrict the number of tourists who visit its stunning mountains and valleys with rules ensuring minimum spends of up to $200 a day.
But with television and the Internet now widely available and foreign education more common, young Bhutanese are increasingly turning their backs on some of the more unusual parts of the local culture.
Polygamy exists now only in small nomadic communities that live with their animals for most of the year high in the Himalayas, according to Dasha Karma Ura from the Centre for Bhutan Studies, a think-tank.
“The king is rooted in the modern age. He announced to the country during his address to the parliament that they’ll devote their life to each other until his death,” he said.
The king’s monogamous intentions are not the only difference between him and his father, who abdicated voluntarily in 2006 to make way for his son and a fledgling democracy.
The young Wangchuck is openly affectionate, holding hands with his new queen and even kissing her in public on Saturday on the last of three days of public celebrations to mark the event.
Public displays of affection are not uncommon in Bhutan, but the sight of the love-struck king being so open with his emotions represents a rupture from the past.
“We know that they love each other so much,” said high-school student Rinzin Dema, who was in the crowd to see the royal couple on Saturday.
“Seeing our king and the queen, it’s like an inspiration to us that in the future we should be the same husband and wife like that.”
Pommaret says the idea of relationships has changed, partly because of soap operas on television.
“Relationships on the basis of practical considerations have given way to the idea of romantic love. And the king is an example,” she explained.
“You should have seen him go red in the parliament when he announced the name of his fiancee!”
The head of the opposition in parliament, Tshering Tobgay, told AFP he remembered many more polygamous couples as a child, but now there are barely any in or around the capital.
He joked that he would be interested in multiple wives — if only it were practical.
“I’d love to do it, but I can’t see how I could be happy,” he said.