When this nation's monarch next holds court, he may be wearing sneakers.
Husband to four beautiful women (all sisters), a knowledgeable fan of the National Basketball Assn. and occupant of a hillside log cabin, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, head of the last surviving Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas, is no ordinary absolute ruler.
"For power to be in the hands of one individual, as well as the future of our country, is not safe," stresses this unusual sovereign, who is determined to get his 600,000 subjects to take a more active role in forging his nation's destiny.
The fourth member of Bhutan's line of Wangchuck kings, Jigme Singye will turn 40 on Nov. 11. Like the Meiji Emperor of Japan in the 19th Century, he is trying to lead a poor, backward country into the mainstream of modern life but also to safeguard its culture and folkways.
In an era where bluebloods are better known for high-rolling lifestyles or scandalous romantic indiscretions, this earnest, pleasant-mannered man who reigns over a landlocked kingdom slightly larger than Switzerland seems like an anachronism.
The king, in a one-on-one meeting, proved that he can be alternately charming, camera-shy, funny, candid and dead serious. But it is the seriousness that, without a doubt, constitutes the bedrock of the royal personality.
Being king, he confided to an American journalist granted a recent audience, "is like taking an examination that never ends. Except you don't have the right to fail."
At 5 feet, 9 inches, Bhutan's ruler may be the world's only king who is an avid basketball player and fan. To be precise, he is a shooting guard with a penchant for trying the three-point shot. For years, he played with students and members of Bhutan's small army.
"Previously, I liked the Boston Celtics," the king says. "In the past two years, though, it's been the Houston Rockets. Not because they won the NBA championships. But because they had no bench. No bench. And five starting players who weren't as good as many of the other teams in the league. And yet they beat superior teams to win the championship."
Jigme Singye Wangchuck receives his guests in the throne room of the dzong (white stone fortress) that serves as the seat of Bhutan's government in Thimphu, the capital. His glittering gold throne stands to one side. "It's made of wood," he is careful to point out.
For some people in this verdant, mountainous land between China and India where shamanistic traditions of Tantric Buddhism run deep, the king is a god. Asked his reaction, Bhutan's ruler smiles as he replies, "I am not a deity."
He is, however, convinced that monarchy provides the style of governance best suited to his small, underdeveloped country, which remained isolated from the rest of the world until the early 1960s.
"If you look at Africa, Latin America and unfortunately our own region, South Asia, you see the Western political system and parliamentary democracy have not been all that successful there," he says.
In what one might call the kingly version of "management by walking around," Bhutan's sovereign frequently crisscrosses his realm in a dark blue Toyota Land Cruiser, stopping to hear the complaints and petitions of his subjects. On some days, 200 Bhutanese may line up outside the Thimphu dzong, hoping for royal intervention to redress some wrong or another.
The head that wears the crown of Bhutan, which is topped with a raven's head, has always done so self-consciously. On June 21, 1972, after the death of his father while on safari in Kenya, Jigme Singye Wangchuck acceded to the throne. He was 16. The teen-aged monarch entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the "world's youngest head of state." As his father's sole son, he had been educated by private tutors at home and in India and England in anticipation of the day when he would be king. But still he felt that he was not ready.
"The responsibility came very suddenly," he recalls. "It was a very difficult time for me."
A saffron yellow kabne, or scarf, which Jigme Singye Wangchuck drapes over his left shoulder, and a silver sword that hangs from his right hip are his badges of office. After 23 years of wearing them, the king admits to still feeling the burden of his duties. "I face issue after issue, crisis after crisis," he says. "Before you can resolve one, three others crop up. It's never-ending pressure."
Religion, all-too-brief time with his family and even books don't offer much solace, the king says. He eschews fiction as a tempting waste of time and says the last book that really influenced him was the autobiography of Lee Kuan Yew, the veteran politician who made Singapore into a enormously prosperous (if somewhat authoritarian) Asian economic power.
The king, who married four sisters in 1979, has 10 children--five boys and five girls. The ashis, or queens, live in their own private residence and are kept out of the limelight by their husband, who says he has no desire to create a dynasty.
When talk turns to his private life, the king suddenly seems shy, and fends off his visitor's questions. "I don't want to make any comment because I would get in trouble with my four wives," he says.
The king stopped playing basketball a year ago, but he still views NBA games on videotapes that make their way into the country. He also enjoys golf, but gave it up because it was too time-consuming--he took 3 1/2 hours to play 18 holes--and he wasn't getting enough of a workout.
"I need exercise where I sweat," he explains. He now plays tennis, and says he's getting in shape to take to the basketball court again, this time to play with his five sons.
The monarchy, undeniably popular among ordinary Bhutanese, dates from only 1907, when Jigme Singye Wangchuck's great-grandfather became the country's first king. As part of his selective modernization campaign, the present king has fostered the decentralization of responsibilities, more citizen participation and the wider use of elections to fill government posts.
In this country without a constitution, he is still an absolute ruler--in theory anyway. "The king is above the law," says Sonam Tobgye, chief justice of Bhutan's High Court. But that doesn't stop members of the National Assembly from criticizing their monarch for actions they dislike, such as pardons he has granted to ethnic Nepalis accused of "anti-national" acts in the country's south. "The criticism is done very subtly, but in a stinging way," the king says in good humor. "They take great relish in it."
Nevertheless, Jigme Singye Wangchuck believes that his ability to follow the dictates of his conscience without having to try to please voters is a plus for the monarchical form of government. "One of the advantages of being king," he says, "is that you don't have to worry about doing things that are popular."
At the end of the audience, the king pauses to show his visitor an ornate, gilded altar on the wall opposite the throne. The statue in its niche, he explains, belonged to his maternal grandmother. It is of Jambey Yang, the goddess of wisdom.
"I need all the wisdom I can get," Bhutan's king says. He smiles as if making a joke, but still seems dead serious.