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Bhutan celebrates coronation of new king

The tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan crowned its new king today after a two-year wait for the precise moment deemed most auspicious for a successful reign.

At exactly 8:31 a.m., former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, 52, placed the Raven Crown on the head of his son, 28-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, giving him the title of Druk Gyalpo, or Dragon King.

The elder Wangchuck, who was crowned in 1974, announced two years ago he was abdicating in favor of his Oxford-educated son as part of reforms yielding much of the monarchy's power and transforming the country into a democracy.

Although the son has been effectively acting as king since December 2006, the coronation was delayed as court astrologers waited for an auspicious date.

The ceremony was seen as deeply reassuring for the last independent Himalayan Buddhist kingdom — once one of the most cut off, tightly controlled places on earth, but now slowly opening up to the uncertainties of modernity and vagaries of democracy.

Tens of thousands of people came from all over the country for the coronation, including nomadic yak herders who trekked for days from the icy Himalayan mountains of northern Bhutan and members of the Hindu minority who came from the subtropical south.

Conducted in the Tashichho Dzong, a massive 17th century white-walled fortress that serves both as administrative headquarters and a monastic center, the ceremony was an elaborate display of pageantry mingled with sacred Buddhist rituals.

After being greeted by troupes of brightly clad dancers, who whirled through the frigid morning air to the sounds of drums, cymbals and trumpets, the royal family, heads of government and the chief abbot went up to the throne room.

There, the new king received his satin and silk crown topped with an embroidered raven's head from his father before taking his seat on the intricately carved golden throne.

The new king then walked through an honor guard, past three four-story-high banners depicting the lives of Buddha and the gurus who brought the faith to Bhutan, to a temple on the other side of the fortress.

Led by the Je Khenbo, head of the Bhutanese Buddhists, dignitaries placed offerings of fruit, wine and food before the king and eight objects — including the umbrella of supremacy and the fish of wisdom — symbolizing the virtues a good king should have.

Later in the day he was to re-enact much of the ceremony in front of thousands of citizens who gathered at a large amphitheater next to the fortress.

Thimphu, the capital, was decorated with bright lights and multicolored banners for the three days of festivities.

The monarchy has been at the heart of Bhutan's idiosyncratic recent history, at times imposing strict laws to maintain traditional medieval ways of life and at other times prodding a reluctant nation toward change.

Most Bhutanese believe it is the kings who have allowed the small nation of some 700,000 people to survive with their culture and sovereignty intact while sandwiched between 1.1 billion Indians to the south and 1.3 billion Chinese to the north.

These two Asian giants have already swallowed the other Buddhist kingdoms, like Sikkim or Tibet, that once thrived across the Himalayan range.

"We have enjoyed progress, sustained peace, security and growth. These are all attributed to the great kings, benevolent kings, selfless kings that Bhutan has had," Prime Minister Jigme Thinley, who was elected in the country's first democratic elections in March, told reporters yesterday.

With so much faith being placed on guidance from the monarchy, the last two years have been somewhat bewildering for Bhutan after the elder Wangchuck announced he was giving up much of the monarchy's power to transform the nation into a democracy.

Under his reforms the king remains the head of state and will continue to have extensive powers, but Parliament can impeach him with a two-thirds majority.

The kings first decided to begin opening the country to the outside world in the 1960s, embarking on a program of deliberately slow-paced reforms.

At that time Bhutan was a medieval society with no paved roads, no electricity and no hospitals.

It was only at the coronation of the last king in 1974 that foreign dignitaries and the media were allowed into Bhutan for the first time. Foreigners are still restricted, with only 20,000 tourists allowed in each year on heavily supervised, expensive trips.

Television and the Internet were first allowed in 1999.

Some methods of preserving Bhutanese culture seem heavy-handed to some, particularly to members of a Hindu minority concentrated in southern Bhutan. More than 100,000 of them were driven out in the early 1990s. Most now live in refugee camps in Nepal, and Bhutan refuses to take them back.

Bhutanese say the slow pace of exposure to the outside world allows them to maintain their own culture and pursue Gross National Happiness, an overarching political philosophy which seeks to balance material progress with spiritual well-being.

They hope the new king will follow the ways of his gentle-spoken, much-loved father.

"This ceremony, it's not just about crowning a prince," said Tinle Tenzin, 39, who owns a shoe shop in Thimphu. "It is about a new king who we hope will bring much good for the country and the people in the future."