Bhutan comes to Calcutta

Calcutta visit of His Majesty the Second King and Her Majesty Ashi Phuntsho Choden Wangchuck

In 1934, our Second King and Queen visited Calcutta (now Kolkata) with their seven-year-old prince. The royal entourage consisted of 200 retainers who were mostly state monks of Punakha selected for their knowledge and court discipline. The royal entourage arrived in Calcutta on December 11, 1934 and left on January 27, 1935.

The royal party’s journey began from Hashimara, the nearest railway station to Bhutan, where they boarded the train. The British Political Officer Mr. Fredrick Willamson (1933-1935) and his wife Mrs. Margaret D. Willamson travelled from Gangtok to receive the royal entourage in Jalpaiguri. This is the railway station where the narrow gauge track joins the main railway line.

In her memoir, “Memoirs of a Political Officer’s Wife in Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan,” Mrs. Willamson recorded her first impression as, “and what a splendid sight they were when they arrived! Their Highness [Their Majesties] wore colorful Bhutanese costumes, as did the more than two hundred retainers who accompanied them, each of whom was armed with bow and arrows and had a shield slung over his shoulder.”

After the official reception, the Willamsons joined the entourage. They boarded the train to continue the 560km journey that took about ten hours, to reach Calcutta.

In keeping with British protocol, for the first four days, the royal entourage stayed in the Government House. Their host was Sir John Anderson, the Governor of Bengal (1932-37).

His Majesty Jigme Wangchuck’s (1905-1952) first official function was to visit Lord Willingdon, the Viceroy of India (1931-36) at his residence. The Viceroy returned the visit by calling on His Majesty at the Government House.

After completing the formal part of the programme, the royal entourage moved to a rented house at 42 Chowringhee.  The retainers were put in a whole village. The wooden huts were specially built at the bottom garden of the property for the occasion.

According to official records the “Annual Report on the Relationship between the British Government and the Bhutan State for the Year 1934-35” the Bhutanese delegation visited many places of interest in Calcutta.

“The party visited the Zoological Gardens, the Titagarh Paper mills, the Gun and Shell Factory at Cossipore, the Mint, H.M.S. Emerald, the B.I.S.S. Talamba, Tollygunge, the Victoria Museum and many other places. His Majesty also saw the printing of an edition of the Statesman newspaper.”

Mrs. Willamson’s memoir has more insights and under the heading, “Bhutan comes to Calcutta,” mentions that not a moment of Their Majesties’ time was wasted. In addition to visiting popular sights and sounds, the royal family picnicked at the Governor’s lawn and the Botanical Gardens. They dined with diplomats, businessmen and civil servants.

The royal couple also attended the New Year Proclamation Parade, frequented the cinemas and watched the “Yeomen of Guard,” performed by the Calcutta amateur theatrical group.

The King’s Emperor’s Cup

While in the City of Joy, His Majesty and Her Majesty Ashi Phuntsho Choden Wangchuck (1911-2003) attended impromptu archery matches between the retainers, saw polo matches and went to the horse races. When the royal couple attended the “The King Emperor’s Cup,” they made headlines.

For example, the January 5, 1935 issue of “The Sphere” newspaper had the photo of Their Majesties on their front page with the caption, “The Maharaja and Maharanee of Bhutan whose elaborate attire struck a colorful note.”

From the newspaper photograph of the occasion, we can see that His Majesty is wearing an aikapur shinglochenm gho with his ceremonial sword and a cream boater hat. Her Majesty is dressed in a plain hothra kira with silk brocade tego. Her Majesty looks calm and is wearing a richly embroidered traditional Bhutanese toezha or pillbox-style hat.

During the Calcutta visit, many firsts were made. Her Majesty had never been outside the country and saw trains, motorcars, and bicycles for the first time.  His Majesty had once briefly been to Guwahati in Assam. In Calcutta, His Majesty flew in an aeroplane at Dum Dum airport and became the first Bhutanese to do so. Later, at the request of the Bengal Flying Club, His Majesty consented to be its patron. During the trip, the Crown Prince Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1929-1972) and Her Majesty Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck also met for the first time.

It was during this trip that the first formal photograph of Their Majesties was taken in a studio. Later, Their Majesties signed copies of the portrait and presented it as gifts.

Wherever the royal entourage went, they were received with great kindness and hospitality. To reciprocate the warm hospitality, Their Majesties hosted a cocktail party for more than 80 guests in the garden of 42 Chowringhee. The guests were treated to a campfire and spectacular Bhutanese dances performed by the state monks of Punakha.

The British complimented Their Majesties intense interest in everything. They said that it was a full return for the trouble which was taken to entertain the royal couple.  One report states that Their Majesties were “found to be both remarkably intelligent and well-mannered, even on the most unexpected occasions, with quiet natural dignity.”

The impression, which they made on everyone, was extraordinarily favourable.

 

Farewell

According to the Annual Report, “The party left Calcutta on 2 January and went on pilgrimage to the Buddhist shrines at Bodh Gaya and Banaras.” His Majesty returned to Calcutta on the 10 January and stayed in the city for another 17 days, till January 27. It is during this duration that he visited the Medical College hospital and the jute mill.

According to white papers, after the Calcutta trip, His Majesty went to Sikkim and concluded his 1935 trip to India in Gangtok. While in Sikkim, Chogyal Tashi Namgyal received His Majesty and entertained him. After spending five days in Gangtok, the royal entourage returned to Bumthang after crossing the Nathu la pass and the Chumbi valley.

The Annual report states: “He left Gangtok for Bhutan and returned by the Nathu La on the 18th February 1935. Near Yatung, he was received by the British Trade Agent who showed him all courtesy and whose Escort provided a guard of honour.”

After arriving in Bhutan, His Majesty sent a letter through Mr. Willamson who was popularly known as Derrick. In the letter, he expressed his appreciation and gratitude to the Government of India and other authorities concerned for the great kindness and courtesy that he had received from them.

While His Majesty returned home, Her Majesty went on a private pilgrimage to Nepal. From a separate report, we learn that Her Majesty’s father, Dasho Jamyang, who was on the Calcutta trip, died in Nepal. Dasho had gone on pilgrimage to Nepal on February 5, 1935.

After Nepal, Her Majesty visited Kalimpong and stayed at Bhutan House, eventually returning home via Dewangiri – the shortest route back then.

 

Background

When the Willamsons first visited Bhutan in 1933, they spent six weeks in the country and met His Majesty in Bumthang.  The details of the audience have been recorded in Mrs. Williamson’s memoir. It talks about His Majesty’s wish to visit Calcutta following the example of his father who had visited the city in 1906.

According to the memoir, Derrick agreed to make the necessary arrangements for the royal visit but suggested that the winter would be cooler. Arrangements were made for the visit to take place at the very end of 1934, extending a little into the New Year.

The memoir records details of how Gongzim Sonam Tobgye Dorji (1896-1953) and his wife Mayum Rani Chuni Wangmo Dorji (1897-1994) travelled ahead of time from Kalimpong to Calcutta to make the necessary arrangements. As Gongzim had earlier arranged His Majesty’s trip to Gauhati, he knew exactly what to do.

According to the records, Gongzim rented a large property, number 42 Chowringhee, for two months and organised the construction of a whole village of wooden huts at the bottom garden for the two hundred or so retainers. As the house was rented empty, Mayum Chuni organised the furniture and fittings.

The Willamsons thought the great metropolis of Calcutta with all its grand architecture, wide streets filled with hooting, speeding traffic and milling crowds would overwhelm the royal couple. But they were wrong.

Mrs. Willamson, who was with the entourage throughout, said that the royal couple took everything in their stride, showing great interest and asking many intelligent questions.

After the great 1935 Calcutta trip, records show that His Majesty Jigme Wangchuck began a systematic review of social conditions, administration practices and judicial proceedings in the country which was followed by many important reforms.

Contributed by 

Tshering Tashi

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