Reminiscences of the Coronation of the Third Druk Gyalpo
In 1952, His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck ascended the Golden Throne as the Third Druk Gyalpo. Apart from some oral stories, hardly any written or photographic record of the coronation exists. From what little information is available, it is evident that the national event was a low-key occasion with few international guests.
Among the few privileged guests was a small group of Indian traders from Kalimpong. The four royal guests from the Indian hill station were businessmen from the Kodamal Jetmul Bothra Company.
An acquaintance of His Majesty the Third Druk Gyalpo, Gumanmull Bothra (1910-1967) who had set up the successful wool trade business was invited to Paro with three others from the company. The other guests were Gumanmull’s cousin Narayan Chand Bothra, and member of his staff, Nanak Ram Bothra and the company’s Laison Officer Keeshri Chand Banthia (1921-1996). For almost 30 years, K.C. worked for Bhutan House. Although he was not officially on the pay roll of Gongzim Sonam Topgye Dorji and Rani Choying Wangmo Dorji, to whom he reported, they rewarded him generously for his services.
The distinguished guests for the occasion were the Chogyal of Sikkim, H. Dayal who was Prime Minister Pandit Nehru’s representative, and His Majesty’s friend Mr Dinesh Singh.
Popularly known as the Kodamals, the traders were devout Jains. The Bothra’s father, Jetmull had come from Rajasthan to Kalimpong, to seek his fortune in the profitable Tibetan wool trading business. Jetmull was familiar with Bhutan as he was an acquaintance of His Majesty the Second Druk Gyalpo.
Because Kalimpong was the trade centre between India and Tibet, it had one of the liveliest markets in the Himalayas and had long been known as the Harbour of Tibet. It attracted all kinds of people including traders like the Bothra’s.
The Scottish medical missionary then resident in Kalimpong found the wool trade business fascinating. Dr Bill Robertson, a surgeon at the Charteris Memorial Hospital wrote about the wool trade in the book he co-authored, Mission to India (published in 1959)
In the book, Dr Robertson said that it is a fact of history that the fine wool of goats, sheep and yaks, which protects these mountain animals from the bitter cold of the 10,000 feet plateau kingdom of Tibet, had been found to make the very best ‘pull-throughs’ for rifles in the world.
The ‘pull throughs’ are essential for rifles. They are the most important accessories to maintain the efficiency of the rifle, as the trick is to regularly clean the inside of the barrel. This was done with a plug of wool that is passed through the barrel. Familiar with the Himalayan region, the British Army knew the military benefits of using the Tibetan and Bhutanese wool. They became the principal buyers of the wool.
Until the 1960s, when China closed down the Tibet borders due to political unrest, Kalimpong flourished as a trading post. Kalimpong is situated in the eastern part of the Darjeeling District. Strategically located, it was the main town on the key ancient trade route from Tibet that wound its way over the 19,000 feet Nathu La pass into Sikkim and then down into India.
The Kodamals were big players in the wool trading business. With the increasing demand for wool, their business flourished. Typical of traders, the family bought wool from the Tibetan and Bhutanese dealers, then cleaned, sorted, dried and bundled the wool before selling it on to the various representatives stationed in Kalimpong.
In addition to the British, the Chinese and Australians also learnt quickly of the benefits of this fine wool from the high altitudes. These countries set up trade agencies in Kalimpong, which were equivalent in importance to embassies in most other countries. The wool traders sold their wares mostly to these trade agencies.
The Kodamals’ change in fortune altered the life of another young colleague. The Banthias had also moved from Rajasthan to the hill station. K.C had just graduated from North Point, the premier school in Darjeeling. Polished by the Jesuits, the young multilingual perfectly fitted the Kodamals’ requirements. They wanted someone like Banthia to help them communicate and liaise with the various trade agency representatives.
This story of the invitation to the 1952 coronation had its beginning the year before. As recounted by K.C.’s son Mahender Banthia (born in 1955) who runs a business in Bhutan these days, when His Majesty came to Kalimpong for his wedding reception in 1951 he met the four Indians.
Clearly His Majesty was pleased with their services as he asked them what they would like as presents. The three of them politely refused any gifts, instead requesting His Majesty to invite them to Bhutan.
As the story is told, His Majesty had taken a liking for Nanak Ram’s halwa. Indians have the custom of generously serving this sweet dish to important guests and during feasts. It is made of vegetables mainly carrot and beetroot and cooked with sugar, milk and generous helpings of butter. His Majesty liked the sweet dish, and during his stay in Kalimpong had Nanak make for him. Before His Majesty left, he gave Nanak a Bhutanese name, Namgay. His Majesty invited Namgay to cook halwa for the coronation.
In the diary of K.C. it is mentioned that the four of them started the trek on 18 October and reached Paro after eight days on the 26th.
The four royal guests trekked wearing dhoti, the thin cotton loincloths commonly worn on the Indian subcontinent, ill-suited for the cold, high altitude of Paro valley.
Travelling in the Himalayas was not easy. Mahendra recollects his father saying how His Majesty made up for the inadequacy of their apparel with the traditional warm hospitality. His Majesty arranged guides and mules to ferry their luggage and stationed people along the route at regular intervals to receive the party with hot tea and warm snacks.
Keeping with the tradition, His Majesty received the five coloured scarves from the shrine of Zhabdrung in Punakha. The subsequent celebrations were held in Paro. Dasho Shingkar Lam said that His Majesty made the return trip in four days.
The high point of the journey of the royal guests was the coronation. According to K.C’s diary, the coronation took place three days after they reached Paro on the 29th at 8 am.
K.C’s album now inherited by his son has eight black and white rare photographs of the coronation. The Chogyal’s private secretary Yab Tse Ten Tashi (1912-1972) doubled up as the Chogyal’s official photographer. Yab accompanied the Chogyal and he took these photos.
Yab set up Sikkim’s first photographic studio Tse Ten Tashi & Co at Rhenock House in Gangtok. Later he opened a branch in Kalimpong near Jetmull’s establishment. He was fully aware that he was recording history through photographs. He said that one day, his photographs would be invaluable testimonials of history.
On account of his insane sense of humour, he was popularly known as the “Bob Hope of Sikkim.” Yab typed the captions for the eight photos on his letterhead. These are probably the only photos that have survived the passage of time.
In one of the photos, His Majesty poses with his four guests. They are all smartly attired in long jackets and dhotis. In another photo, His Majesty is helping K.C. put on his gho, just before the ceremony. In another group photo with His Majesty, the royal guests are wearing gho and, except for Namgay, all are wearing the patang or sword of honour.
Yab used a Leica Camera F.2 with Kodak XX Film but he was not the only with a camera. Gumanmull had one but from one of Yab Tsen Tashi’s captions, the Indian trader had problems with his picture-taking. “Shri Gumanmull taking the snap of Shri K.C. Banthia with the royal party. Unfortunately his camera did not work and Tse Ten Tashi was not sorry for that.”
Yab’s sense of humour is reflected again on the caption for another photo which reads, “Namgay la—that Halwa making was much more easier than pulling an arrow on a thin bow.” Even after the coronation, Tse Ten Tashi’s recounts in the caption the delicious sweets Namgay gave him and how Namgay la seeing an archer thought it was easier to make sweets than pull the arrow on the thin bow.
Besides the royal guests clad in dhoti, the coronation is remembered for the Indian musical brass band that were brought in India especially for the occasion. Today, K.C’s personal diary and Yab Tse Ten Tashi’s eight photographs remain invaluable testimonials of the historical coronation of His Majesty the Third Druk Gyalpo.