THIMPHU, Bhutan – Bhutan on Thursday crowned a Western-educated bachelor with the good looks of a young Elvis Presley and an easy charm with his people — the first king to lead the country since its transformation to democracy.
In a solemn ceremony laced with sacred Buddhist rituals, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, 52, Bhutan's much-loved monarch formalized his abdication and placed the Raven Crown on the head of his 28-year-old son, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck.
The coronation ceremony, which took place at the precise hour appointed by astrologers, was the last step in a process that saw the elder Wangchuck reform the isolated Himalayan nation from a closed-off absolute monarchy to a democracy with his heir at the helm.
However, with the monarchy idolized by much of the population, his influence will be paramount.
"If we have democracy it is because the kings gave it to us," said Jigme Thinely, Bhutan's first democratically elected prime minister. "The king will be the force that ensures the long term stability and resilience of democracy," he told reporters Wednesday ahead of the coronation.
On Thursday the new king appeared to set the tone for his reign as he met with some 20,000 citizens who gathered near the Tashichho Dzong, a massive 17th century white-walled fortress where the coronation was held.
Tradition holds that the subjects pay homage to the new king, lining up with a gift of a white scarf. Instead, the new monarch went down to the people.
Moving through row after row, the king bent low to take the scarves and in return gave them a special coronation coin. Most accepted the royal gift in silence with heads bowed, even as the king stroked some on the face.
One small girl gave him a note which he read and then tucked into his red and gold robes before giving her a kiss.
It was more than most expected.
"I feel happy, so excited, I can't believe I have had this opportunity," said Karma Tsubu, 15, a schoolgirl who wept when the king gave her the coin.
The public display followed the coronation, an elaborate display of pageantry, mingled with ancient Buddhist rites.
Musicians standing on the roof of the fortress heralded the arrival of the new king, banging drums to drive away the evil spirits.
After being greeted by troupes of brightly clad dancers, who whirled through the frigid morning air to the sounds of drums, cymbals and trumpets, the royal family, leading politicians and the chief abbot went up to the throne room.
There, the new king received his red satin and silk crown topped with a blue embroidered raven's head, from his father before taking his seat on the intricately carved golden throne, which was decorated with a large bowl of fruit.
The new king then proceeded through an honor guard, past three massive four-story high banners depicting the lives of Buddha and the gurus who brought the faith to Bhutan, to the temple on the other side of the fortress.
Led by the Je Khenbo, the head of the Bhutanese Buddhists, dignitaries placed offerings before the king and eight objects — including the umbrella of supremacy and the fish of wisdom — symbolizing the virtues a good king should have.
The king is already popular with the people, effectively serving as acting king since December 2006 when his father announced his retirement. The coronation was delayed as court astrologers waited for an auspicious date.
The king, who studied in the United States before earning his degree from Oxford University in England, has also achieved heartthrob status in nearby Thailand, which fell in love with him when he attended their king's 60th anniversary on the throne in 2006.
Pictures of him with his slicked back hair and long sideburns gazing intently toward the future circulated widely on the internet, and Thai newspapers dubbed him "Prince Charming."
In perhaps another sign of his intent, the coronation was attended by only one other head of state, Indian President Pratibha Patil.
"We are a small country and it would have been our joy to welcome many heads of government and state. But the king felt it would not be a wise use of our limited resources," said Thinely.
The king inherits a country much changed since it began slowly opening up to the rest of the world in the 1960's. Foreigners and the international media were first allowed entry in 1974, while the internet and Television came in 1999.
Bhutanese say the gently paced reforms have allowed the small nation of some 700,000 people to survive with their culture and sovereignty intact and pursue Gross National Happiness, an overarching political philosophy which seeks to balance material progress with spiritual well-being.
Nevertheless, Bhutan remains a tightly controlled society where the wearing of traditional robes is mandatory and different colored sashes indicate ones rank in society. It also only allows 20,000 foreigners in each year on heavily supervised, expensive trips.
And while the king now serves at the will of the people who can impeach him under the new constitution, the monarchy is driving the nation toward more freedoms.
"We have great hopes that this young king will help us fulfill our dreams," said Chandra Prasad Phuyel, 30, who was representing his village in southern Bhutan at the coronation.