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King who became a reclusive Buddhist monk

Tobgyal Wangchuk Tenzing Namgyal, the Chogyal of Sikkm

It was a cold and windy afternoon. The date was February 19, 1982. Atop a hill overlooking Sikkim’s capital, Gangtok, a 341-year-old dynasty was coming to an end. 

At the Lukshyama royal crematorium high above the city, the mortal remains of Palden Thondup Namgyal, the dethroned 12th Chogyal of Sikkim, were being reduced to ashes. 

But about 7 km away from the cremation ground, another ritualistic, yet low-key, “investiture” ceremony was being held at the Chogyal’s Tsuk-la-khang Palace a 19th century Victorian cottage. His son, Tenzing Topgyal Wangchuk Sisum Namgyal, 29, was being “unofficially” acknowledged as the new Denzong (Sikkim) Chogyal.

In the palace's drawing room, people including commoners, nobility, relatives from the Bhutanese royal family and 10 legislators, including–six from the then Chief Minister Nar Bahadur Bhandari's cabinet, were ushered in one by one inside where they presented Wangchuk sitting on a throne with the traditional “khadas” or scarves, acclaiming him as the 13th consecrated Chogyal of Sikkim.

The air was surcharged with Sikkimese nationalistic fervor with prominent Buddhist lamas from 64 monasteries across the State chanting benedictions and prayers for the success of the new "monarch". Groups of school students shouted “Long live the Denzong Chogyal” waving the banned Sikkim’s national flag, remembers Bhim Bahadur Gooroong, a former Chief Minister of Sikkim, who was present at the investiture ceremony.

Gooroong, an ethnic Nepalese politician was one of the prominent ones among the 32Sikkimesepolitical leaders who were the prime architects of the dissolution of the institution of the Chogyal and the destruction of the Kingdom, before enthusiastically defending the Chogyal’s demand for independence.

“The coronation of Wangchuk as the thirteenth Denzong Chogyal was a historic occasion and I had to make amends for having opposed the previous Chogyal earlier,” ninety-one year-old Gooroong, told the South Asian Monitor. 

But the Harrow-educated bespectacled Wangchuk is a “reluctant” Chogyal, who maintains a low profile, and leads a life of a recluse, meeting only close family members. His whereabouts are known only to a close few. When in Gangtok, Wangchuk spends his days within the confines of the palace.

Wangchuk occasionally makes public appearances along with close family members on Buddhist religious events, when he greets and meets Sikkimese people on the sprawling lawns of the Tsuk-la-khang Palace. 

Now 67, Wangchuk was educated at St Paul’s School in Darjeeling, and Harrow in England, where he got an honors degree from the Ealing School of Business in London. He has spent the last 37 years meditating sometimes in caves in Bhutan and Nepal, family members say.

Family members of the Chogyal are wary about publicly discussing the Chogyal’s regime or about the institution of the Chogyal or his family; they zealously guard the privacy of the king-turned monk. Non in the family will give the whereabouts of the Chogyal.

“People should understand that the Namgyal family has lost the kingdom and they should respect their privacy. The Chogyal himself contacts people when he needs some work done. Otherwise there is no way to get in touch with him even on his mobile phone,” a close family member told SAM. 

The soft-spoken and reserved Wangchuk, who was almost overnight thrust into a public role, had dismissed the “coronation” as an “unnecessary state ceremony”. “The succession is automatic,” the newly crowned Chogyal had said, knowing full well that every word he spoke was clearly audible in faraway New Delhi.

“The Chogyal visits Sikkim quietly and leaves the same way,” the family member says. In Sikkim's fragmented politics, Wangchuk wields as much power as a village headman. For Sikkimese politicians, “the Chogyal is forgotten past”, they would love to sweep under the carpet. 

"He is nothing but a sort of vague symbol of unity among the handful of royalists within the former ruling class and hard core Lepcha and Bhutia minorities in the state, nothing more," says a senior politician with the ruling Sikkim Krantikari Morcha government. 

“Under the Indian Constitution, however, the coronation of the 13th Chogyal has no legal status," he adds.

The Namgyal dynasty ruled the tiny kingdom tucked away in the eastern Himalayas for 341-years before merging with the Indian Republic to become its 22th State in 1975.

Wangchuk, has been pretty much of a stranger to his own state and with limited personal contact with the people, few in Sikkim know who the Chogyal is, the politician pointed out. 

The monarchists, though few in number, lose no opportunity in private in raking up the issue of India's "illegal annexation" of Sikkim in 1975. Sikkim, which became a sovereign nation when the British left the subcontinent in 1947, nevertheless chose to place itself under India’s protection in 1950.

Many royalists freely offer opinions about the merits and mistakes that the last Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal committed, which resulted in Sikkim’s integration into the Indian Union. 

Some of them say that it would have better if the Namgyals had been more realistic about the Kingdom’s future in 1947 and had brokered an honorable entry into Indian republic.

Those who know the 67-year-old recluse, remember him as a soft-spoken and reserved person. “Wangchuk was never prepared to become the Chogyal. It was the his elder brother, the crown prince Tenzing, who was heir to the throne, but he was killed in a tragic car accident in 1978, when his Mercedes, swerving to avoid a truck speeding uphill, hurtled into a ravine below the palace in Gangtok,” a former Sikkimese bureaucrat close to the royal family said.  

To them, Wangchuk's investiture was a heaven-sent opportunity to resurrect their grievances, place the Government of India in an embarrassing position and also reach out to China. .

Until a decade and half back, China did not recognize India’s annexation of Sikkim, saying it was “illegal”. Chinese maps, too, persisted in showing the line between Indian and Sikkim as the international boundary. However, in 2005, the Chinese government recognized Sikkim as part of India.

Wangchuk, who has a Master of Business Administration degree, manages the family's diverse business interests, which include cardamom plantations, real estate, hotels and business partnerships abroad, after basking in the adulation of being a monarch for a while, slowly withdrew from public life and took to religion.

“Wangchuk had also resisted getting actively involved in Sikkim’s politics,” the king’s cousin told SAM. “The Chogyal is a difficult, moody person…very unpredictable”, he adds.

Wangchuk is also indifferent about the Rs 110 crore compensation claim that his father made from the Government of India.

“The question of demanding compensation does not arise as Paden Namgyal had refused to sign the instrument of accession,” the cousin said.

The 12th Chogyal, Palden Thondup Namgyal who had refused to accept the kingdom’s merger with India, spent his last lonely eight years in humiliation. His American wife Hope Cooke had deserted him.