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Report on 9th Seminar in the Bhutan Seminar Series 2021


At this seminar in the Bhutan Seminar Series for 2021, we watched “The Magnificent History Of Bhutan’s Royal Family,” part of the Real Royalty “Asia’s Monarchies” series. As the title suggests, this was a documentary about Bhutan’s royal family and monarchy, but it was unusual in focusing particularly on what was happening behind the public face of the monarchy.

Bhutan's successive kings

In the first half of the seminar, the documentary traced the achievements of the successive kings while also revealing the previously relatively untold background to heir policies and the conspiracies and power struggles surrounding the kings. It drew on interviews with researchers and various individuals occupying key posts in Bhutan.

One reason why the successive kings have been able to capture the hearts of the people and continue to govern the country right through to the present is apparently the use of Buddhism. According to the documentary, kings have deliberately associated themselves with the Buddha to implant the idea that the king should be worshipped and obeyed, while the king’s crown is surmounted with a raven’s head associated with Bhutan’s founding father so as to win the people’s love and respect.

Anything that might obstruct the king’s governance of the country was also apparently ruthlessly eliminated. Bhutan has a fine reputation as the “land of happiness” but in fact it was probably churning with conspiracies and power struggles that have nothing to do with happiness. This rare video footage of Bhutan’s underside taught us that a lot of sacrifice underpins the “land of happiness”.

Wangduechhoeling Palace

In the second half of the seminar, our commentator, Mr. Takehiro Hirayama, explained information about the royal family that could be gleaned from British documents about Bhutan and photographs of the first king.

According to Mr. Hirayama, knowing the origins of Bhutan’s royal family requires understanding Jigme Namgyel, father of Bhutan’s first king Ugyen Wangchuck. Materials from over 150 years ago referring to Jigme Namgyel suggest that he had a good relationship with England and would become the only powerful figure in Bhutan.

Mr. Hirayama loves gathering materials that reveal the truth of history, and he managed to identify the spot where a photograph was taken of the first king taken around a century ago from the historical backdrop and the detailed characteristics of the wall that appeared behind the king in the photograph. He apparently spent a whole day examining the interior walls of a building called Wanguechhoeling Palace to determine the precise location of the shot. It was fascinating listening to the stories of such a dedicated researcher.

The seminar was a wonderful opportunity to learn about the hidden side of Bhutan and unknown episodes from its history.

(Airi Yamamoto, first-year student, Department of Languages and Culture,
Faculty of Letters and Education)

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