The Classic Buddhist Queen
The first tended plants at Dechenchholing Palace started flowering at extraordinary times under the watchful and loving care of the Young Queen Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck.
North of Bhutan, across the snow mountains, the Chinese invasion of Tibet had begun. In the south, across the malaria-infested forests, diverse India was taking its first steps as a democracy, chaotic yet cautious. It was a whole new era for the new Queen; as a young woman, wonderful artist who loved painting, she did not have time for such pursuits. She had to focus her attention on bigger things that would play a vital role in defining the soverign, cultural and religious identity of Bhutan.
But her attention to details, like the care one needs while stroking a brush on a blank canvas, helped the Third Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck as he envisioned Bhutan’s path from a cloistered Kingdom to a modern nation.
Ashi Kesand Choeden Wangchuck was born on May 21st 1930 to Gongzim Raja Sonam Tobgyal and Rani Choeying Wangmo (daughter of King Thutob Namgyal of Sikkim) in Kalimpong. Her father Gongzim Raja Sonam Tobgay Dorji, from Haa valley, was the second King Jigme Wangchuck’s close confidante on matters relating to external affairs. He was the Bhutanese representative in kalimpong, and her grandfather Kazi Gongzim Raja Ugyen Dorji was a trusted confidante of the First King Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck as well as the Bhutanese representative in Kalimpong.
Childhood and Education
Her Majesty started her education in Kalimpong at St. Joseph’s Convent and then in Loretto College in Calcutta. Under the care and guidence of the Irish nuns of the St. Joseph’s Convent, Her Majesty was given an education quite unlike any other. In her reminiscence, Her Majesty notes:
“The Irish nuns of St. Joseph’s Convent werevery well educated and taught us well. The nuns were most kind and loving to me and I in turn loved and respected them greatly. My favourite nuns were Mother Joseph, Mother Aloysious, Mother John Mary, Mother Peter (A Swiss nun who taught us singing and music) and Mother Cecilia who taught me and who remained my beloved friend till she passed away at the age of ninety.”
As a daughter, she was very close to her mother Rani Choeying Wangmo. With her mother, she travelled the world as a young girl visiting family friends in Hong Kong, Switzerland, England, France and India. Her mother constantly reminded her children to observe religious and cultural values.
At the age of seventeen, Her Majesty attended the House of Citizenship in London where she made long lasting friends that she continues to keep in touch with. Her study focused on the arts
and as a young student she made countless visits to the art galleries and lectures in London. Her passion in the art sand love for preservation of age old culture have rightly transcended to the preservation of culture and religious heritage sites in Bhutan.
With her education and upbringing, Her Majesty therefore not only spoke perfect English but aslo had a great grasp on decorum and etiquette as well as a deep understanding of religion, values that were instilled at home. These qualities were going to prove invaluable in her as Queen.
AS WIFE & QUEEN OF BHUTAN
His Majesty The Third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (the then Paro Penlop) married Ashi Kesang Choeden Dorji in 1951 in Paro in a colorful traditional ceremony. Their marriage was one of the first times the Bhutanese monarchy married into the family line of the Crown’s closest advisors. The story of Her Majesty’s grandfather Kazi Ugyen Dorji who served the first King of Bhutan throws light on the close relationship of the two family lines.
Her Majest presided over a period of Bhutan’s greatest transition – passage to modernisation. “The international outlook Her Majesty brought to this country at that stage is a major milestone. None of the people in the country would have had that kind of influence at that time. It’s difficult to think of anyone else of having an experience of France, Switzerland, England and moving into the Bhutanese society. The situation would have meant isolation for Her Majesty but she chose enrichment,” says Dasho Karma Ura, President of the Centre for Bhutan Studies.
In 1954, the Royal couple went to India on a state visit. During the official visit, it soon showed that Her Majesty’s upbringing helped the Queen engage effortlessly with statesmen. While the King was fully engaged in carefully charting out Bhutan’s future and its now-time-tested relation with India, Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck helped tune the finer details, gracefully impressing the Indians with her charm and conversation skills. Soon after, in 1958, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru made his first historic visit to Bhutan accompanied by his daughter, Indira Gandhi, also forginng a friendship not just between the two countries but also between the Gandhi and the Wangchuck families. Ashi Kesang personally oversaw every detail of the visit; from the crockery to the flowers laid out at the banquet. It was a proud moment for Bhutan as the Kingdom hosted and sealed a special relationship with India that we still enjoy today.
“Her Majesty has always been a wonderful hostess; very gracious, very kind, a woman who could strike an intellectual conversation with anyone. She embodied a new era that Bhutan was stepping into,”says Dasho Benji, Her Majesty’s nephew and also served as Kadrip to the Queen.
Advisor to the Governors of the North Eastern Frontiers, Nari Rustomji makes note of Her Majesty’s delicate attributes in his writings, “When I met His Majesty next in 1955, He was King, and He played host to me with his lovely wife in their charming Palace at Dechenchholing. Their style of life was simple, but it was in perfect taste, with no ostentation or straining to impress.
The Queen was first and foremost a housewife, who took infinite pains in the orderly running of her establishment and keeping her garden trim. And she saw to it, with wifely devotion, that her husband was at all times decorously attired, His tunic ironed with scrupulous care and not so much as a crease or speck on His shirt.” He goes on to write, “As we sat to lunch, I was touched by the Queen’s gentle and constant concern for her husband’s health and comfort-small acts, as when she personally adjusted and readjusted the ceiling fans to the precise speed that was to His liking.”
In Her Majesty’s ‘Reminiscences’, Her Majesty describes the birth of a King prophesised by Guru Rinpoche to Terton Drukdra Dorji:
“My son the Fourth King of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuk was born on 11th November, 1955, in Dechenchholing Palace or “Womdong” according to Guru Rinpoche’s prophecy to Terton Drukda Dorji at Tsalu Ney, “ that a King would be born in th eWood Sheep year in a place called Womdong who would do great for Dharma. But an Evil Damsi born in the Iron Dragon Year would be waiting to harm the Pelden Drukpa.”
Due to this lungten (prophecy), I invited His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, the mind incarnation of the first Great Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, to Paro in the autumn of 1965 to perform the powerful and sacred Kurims in the Kichu Lhakhang. For 26 years of his life, His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche bestowed his greatest love, blessing, protection and guidance upon my beloved son His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuk since he was ten years old and upon our family and the Kingdom of Bhutan.”
A Queen is normally seen as someone who plays a silent role in the shadow of the King. But for Ashi Kesang Choeden, she had to step in to play a larger role while, especially after the demise of her brother, Prime Minister Jigme Palden Dorji. She brought up her children in uncertain times and protected the Crown Prince Jigme Singye Wangchuck. After the passing of the Third King, it indirectly fell upon her Majesty to look after the situation with the crowning of the world’s youngest monarch in 1974. Her Majesty was the official host of the country for almost ten years. Her Majesty also looked after many important foreign dignitaries and hosted a number of banquets and dinners for guests of the Fourth King during the 70s and 80s. Her Majesty meticulously paid attention to every detail of the kind of service and comfort given to the King’s guests.
“Her Majesty is a very calm, serene and a level headed person because she started taking very important decisions at a very early age. I think our Fourth King got an amalgamation of two great minds, Her Majesty and His Majesty the Third King,” Dasho Benji said.
Her Majesty’s education and exposure abroad had also laid foundation for close relationships with people who helped Bhutan in many fields.
Ex Colonel Rinzi, ADC to Her Majesty says, “Her Majesty invited many of her friends who were doctors from India and abroad to help cure Bhutanese people who were seriously infected with venereal diseases and especially leprosy. I escorted them to many rural parts of the country where it was mostly affected and these doctors helped a great deal.” One of Her Majesty’s biggest contributions is the establishment of the Leprosy hospital in Gidakom that was supervised by Her Majesty’s close friend, Dr Albert Craig.
Dr Albert Craig was the superintendent of the Charterish Scottish Mission Hospital in Kalimpong and was later invited by Her Majesty to treat Bhutanese suffering from leprosy, goiter and other venereal diseases. He is remembered as the doctor who contributed immensely in the country’s medical field and also as the doctor who saved the third King’s life when he had a heart attack in 1962.
From an early age Her Majesty showed great interest and concern for the preservation of Buddhist sacred sites and restored countless religious sites as early as 1961. By becoming patrons to masters such as Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, she stressed the importance of respecting different schools of Buddhism. She patronized key holy spots in the country like Kichu in Paro and Kurjey in Bumthang. Ashi Kesang Choeden is widely known and celebrated for her deep devotion to Buddhism. The deeply rooted spirituality that she developed became a foundation for her responsibilities that she took on herself. Ashi Kesang Choeden played and still continues to play an important role in maintaining and strengthening Bhutan’s rich Buddhist heritage. She built and restored archaic religious institutions and rituals, and preserved the pristine core of the country’s Buddhist legacy. “Her personal keen interest to uphold the religious sector in the country is a key component in the country’s overall religious consolidations,” adds Dasho Karma Ura.
“The Bhutanese Royal family is known for having a strong tradition of patronage and support for the Dharma, especially the Queens. In partivular, Her Royal Highness Ashi Wangmo and Ashi Phuntsho Choden Wangchuck and the present Royal Grandmother Ashi Kesang Choden Wangchuck have created a legacy throughout Bhutan. You won’t find many gold butter lamps in the temples of Bhutan that have not been offered by one of them,” His Holiness Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche once said.
Her Majesty also influenced the establishment of the National Library and generously sponsored the construction of the new temples such as Guru Lhakhang at Kichu, as well as the Demchog Lhakhang in Punakha Dzong, the Kagongphursum and Zangdopelri in Kuje, amongst others.
Her care for the environment and attention to culture and heritage ahs greatly influenced His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck who always stressed that for a small country like Bhutan, the preservation of cultural heritage and conservation of its environment is important. “I remember during a trip to Lingzhi when I was serving Her Majesty, she would hike up to the mountains and
loved viewing the flowers,” recalls retired Colonel Rinzin Dorji who was Her Majesty’s ADC. “I have always seen Her Majesty as a goddess born as a human being because she is very kind hearted and she’s always been concerned for the people of Bhutan. Her Majesty has also influenced me especially as a soldier because when I joined the army my mind was more focused about security but gradually I have also learned to be a social worker under the guidance and blessing of Her Majesty. And I shall be forever grateful for that.”
Her Majesty presently resides in Thimphu in her Palace in Motithang. She makes annual visit to her family Home, Bhutan House in Kalimpong for losar (annual new year) holidays. She makes frequent visits to both Paro and Bumthang to conduct her annual Drupchens for the King , country and people of Bhutan. She continues her work in contributing to the preservation of culture and religious sites both physical and through publications of religious history. Her Majesty’s most recent undertaking was the launch of the book ‘Palace of Lotus Light’ which is a detailed documentation of Guru Rinpche’s paintings and murals in temples an d monasteries across the Kingdom.
In classic Bhutanese theory, Tsuenmo Rinpoche (the Queen) stands as a symbol and an essential part of a stable and flourishing state. Her Majesty The Royal Grandmother Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck is truly the embodiment of the Classic Buddhist Queen. She is indeed the serene and regal figure of the Bhutanese line of Royal Queen Mothers who have contributed immensely and still continues to preserve the pristine image which forms the core of Bhutan’s well being, development and happiness.