Barely out of the seven-day facility quarantine following an extensive royal tour of the southern frontier, His Majesty the King left for the far-flung eastern borderlands in the wake of significant virus-infections reported among our remotest communities to check for Himself the extent of the spread and its impact on the life and livelihood of the affected citizens. The arduous 67-KM stretch from the misty heights of Merak-Sakteng to the humid lowlands of Jomotsangkha seems forbidding at the best of times and treacherous during the monsoon cycle of sweltering June. But for the People’s King who walks the talk, all else is secondary to the well-being of His country and His people.
Touching images of the Druk Gyalpo crossing eerie mountain passes, with a bag on His back, mud-soiled walking-boots on, camera slung from royal shoulders, umbrella in hand, trudging the wet, nondescript, rarely-walked summer footpaths and rarer-used mule tracks, stinging nettles aplenty, with blood-thirsty leeches elongating from trees and stretching from everywhere beneath, are the stuff of epics that should not be about kings but materials for out-of-this-world adventures in fiction. But, here is the extraordinary King of Bhutan, the Protector of Druk Yul, compassionate Saviour of a people blessed to be Bhutanese, out in perilous fields, braving the elements and lifting the spirit of those threatened by the dreaded virus and those on the high call of duty far from home and loved ones.
For all the breath-taking beauty and majesty of the heights, travelling at these altitudes is fraught with myriad risks: mountain-air being thinner than it is elsewhere, breathlessness is a real risk for some and altitude sickness can be a challenge for others. The passes remain wind-swept, icy drizzle mizzles on, visibility is often limited, and blood pressure could change. Tricky encounters with poisonous plants by accident or ignorance could spell disaster. And, blisters on toes and soles can be most unpleasant.
Camping in the open, on wet earth below and gloomy summer-sky above, or in caves or under trees is far from comfortable or reassuring, to say nothing of possible harm from animals and natural calamities. [I remember keeping awake through a good part of the night by the bank of Phochhu, below the incredible emerald-green Tarina Tsho, on my way to Lunana in September 2011]
Making a fire can be a daunting task especially if one is camping above the tree-line as firewood is difficult to come by and driftwood is soaked to the pith. Fleas can be more than an irritant if there is no fire or smoke around.
As one descends towards lower climes, stubborn leeches are an ugly menace! They come in all sizes and stripes and stealth. Leeches are supposed to have a very strong sense of smell. They can sense from a distance where their prey is and rapidly measure the distance towards it. Leeches often jump from trees without us ever knowing that they have found the most secure corners in our body to sneak in and start sucking our life-blood to their fill till they give a sudden prick of satisfaction and fall off as the job is done. If we stop to pick and throw away one sticky creature from our body, many others of their cousins will rock the surrounding leaves and quickly multiply their count and frighten us even more. Pausing anywhere to ease oneself can be far from easy. Anti-leech preparation is helpful but leeches have smart ways of finding their way through the body of the victim. Their sharp teeth leave wounds that take long to heal, and bleeding can be draining in more ways than one.
The mind recoils from the painful sight of multiple leeches taking wanton liberties with the precious blood of His Majesty’s royal feet as the heart bleeds for our Bodhisattava King who stakes His all beyond the normal call of kingly duties.
Monsoon-rivers have a mind of their own – they change course at will, wash away bridges and property indiscriminately, and make life difficult. Wading across them can be difficult because water may be murky and defy any estimate of their depth. And, the silver waters of mountain streams can chill the bones. Killer-slides, like the one that claimed 10 precious lives and injured many in Tsari Jathang in Laya on June 16, 2021, flash-floods and loose rocks as indeed slippery slopes and boot-jamming dirt-footpaths can be real sources of trouble, not to forget the harassment from mosquitoes in the summer heat of low-lying lands.
Through these all, and more, treks our selfless King, in sun and in rain, across the alpine cold of the jaded north and the tropical heat of the humid south, time after time, post beyond frontier post, often infested by ravenous bears and venomous snakes, unmindful of potential risks to the royal person of the King, inspired solely by unconditional wish to serve and to safeguard.
This is a rarity that belongs, at once, to the realm of the sublime and the high office of the supreme.
Accompanied by His Royal Highness Gyaltshab Dasho Jigme Dorji Wangchuck and the Prime Minister Dasho Dr. Lotay Tshering, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck reviewed the level and adequacy of preparedness of the system in place to provide prompt and effective support to the communities and gained firsthand understanding of the ground situation in the affected areas. His Majesty granted audiences to the local authorities and members of the communities along the way, talked to the de-suups and security personnel in their frontier outposts and thanked them for their dedicated service and inspired them to continue their exemplary contribution at this critical time in the life of the nation. His Majesty commanded immediate establishment of necessary facilities to address Covid-19 cases and their variants at critical points that have hitherto been underserved by existing arrangements.
In the midst of these vital concerns claiming priority of royal attention, His Majesty was most gracious to grant a virtual audience to the 25 school principals who completed their leadership development programme in Tsirang, even as the soul of compassion, Her Majesty the Gyaltsuen commanded launch of a dedicated 24/7 distress call helpline 1010 to assist real and potential victims of domestic violence during lockdowns, with His Holiness Chyabje Rinpoche continuing sacred prayers for the well-being of the country and the world beyond, while Covid-warriors keep undimmed vigil on the virus and its variants.
The King of Destiny didn’t believe in giving orders from the throne when the country was faced with a grave danger posed by the Indian militants but personally led the army to flush out the heavily-armed militant outfits who had dug themselves deep inside the dense forests of southern Bhutan. Like illustrious Yab, like illustrious Sey, the People’s King has taken it upon Himself to lead the fight against the invisible enemy and to secure the well-being of this “our most precious treasure in the world” and its people.
As I put these reflections together, I learn with deep pain and anguish that His Majesty has taken the unimaginable step and commanded sale of shares held in the banks under the auspices of Sungchop Fund and Kidu Fund to replenish the depleting royal purse to continue granting relief-support to the needy. How far could a king go?
“I will give you everything… and keep nothing…”were His Majesty’s caring words as Druk Gyal Ngapa addressed the nation during His coronation on October 6, 2008.
Years… later, historians will tell succeeding generations that there reigned and served a king in the Jewel of the Himalayas who stood out amongst the leaders of the world who walked the talk and was indeed peerless in the true sense of the word. Only, they will have to find a new language to justly describe the life and deeds of a king that transcend the scope and sufficiency of received vocabulary.
May the guardian deities of our God-chosen land bless and watch over our beloved King, our most pious Gyaltsuen, our precious Gyalseys and indeed our sacred Tsawa-Sum forever…
With my deepest gratitude and sacred prayers forever…
Thakur S Powdyel, former Minister of Education.