The present ruler of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, is reputed once to have told a visiting journalist: "History has been unkind to kings". Unlike most kings, however, he is only the fourth in his line. Whereas most monarchies (including that of Bhutan's close neighbour, Nepal) are old institutions that fulfil a largely ceremonial function these days, Bhutan's monarchy was established only 88 years ago and has played a leading role in bringing this isolated, feudal country into an accommodation with the late 20th century.
The creation of Bhutan as a unified nation state is attributed to a refugee lama who fled from Tibet in the early 17th century and is now revered as the shabdrung. It was the shabdrung who built the dzongs - huge fortress-monasteries that still dominate each of the main valleys and function as the administration's regional headquarters.
Most of the first shabdrung's successors were inconsequential figures and there was often civil strife in Bhutan. Between 1788 and 1825, for instance, there were no fewer than 14 regents and continual waves of insurrection. Michael Aris documents the murder and mayhem with a flurry of names, dates, deaths and rebellions that leave the reader with an impression of severe instability, but somewhat bewildered by the detail. Against this background Aris describes the lives of the "Black Regent", Jigme Namgyel (1825-81), his son Ugyen Wangchuk (1862-1926), who was crowned king in 1907, and Ugyen's son and successor, Jigme Wangchuk (1905-52). Ugyen Wangchuk was the governor of the central district of Tongsa, and part of the reason for his rise to power was the role he played as an intermediary between the Tibetans and the British, for which the British invested him with the title of knight commander. His uniqueness lay in his ability to forge reconciliations between factions and reunite and bring peace to a kingdom that would probably otherwise have gone the way of other princely states and become a part of British India. He and his successors wear the raven crown, a raven being the form of the Buddhist deity Mahakala that first guided the shabdrung to Bhutan.
The Bhutanese elite is extremely sensitive to what foreigners write about the country. Aris, who is the foremost western scholar working on Bhutan, is skilled at walking this particular tightrope. While taking care to preserve his credentials as an objective historian, he occasionally skirts around issues whose further discussion he knows would be controversial, and also draws his discussion to a close before it begins to impinge too much on the recent past. Nonetheless, this is a rich and fascinating book, and a highly successful blend of academic treatise and photoessay. The Bhutan of the 19th and early 20th centuries is brought back to life in extraordinary photographs, many from private collections that have never been published before. We see Ugyen Wangchuk in the raven crown standing barefoot outside the dzong at Punakha; with his family in Bumthang; en route to and in Tibet in 1904; at his investiture and coronation; with his ministers, bodyguards and British guests. One gains an unusually vivid impression of this shrewd and appealing character. And one wonders whether Bhutan might not benefit if its rulers applied the lessons of his life to the resolution of the crisis they now face.
Michael Hutt is senior lecturer in Nepali, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.
The Raven Crown: The Origins of Buddhist Monarchy in Bhutan
Author - Michael Aris
ISBN - 0 906026 32 6
Publisher - Serindia Publications
Price - £19.95
Pages - 160