Bhutan princess seeks to preserve kingdom’s cultural heritage

Princess Ashi Kesang is a picture of concentration as she practices the delicate art of restoring a thangka. Photo: HKEJ

Princess Ashi Kesang is a picture of concentration as she practices the delicate art of restoring a thangka. Photo: HKEJ
Ella Cheung
Jun 3, 2016 5:34pm

Bhutan’s Princess Ashi Kesang Choden T. Wangchuck, who is the namesake of her royal grandmother, studied and lived abroad, but she keeps her heart at home.

Out of a sense of family duty, the princess has made it her personal mission to promote and preserve the kingdom’s rich cultural heritage.

Growing up in a royal family, Ashi Kesang said she received the same early education as any ordinary Bhutanese child would have, which puts strong emphasis on traditional customs and etiquette.

The only difference was that she didn’t have to go to school. Her mother became her first teacher.

Buddhist monks were her spiritual teachers, giving her valuable teachings and guidance. And her grandmother enthusiastically told her Buddhist stories from time to time.

Ashi Kesang recalled precious moments with the great spiritual teacher, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, who she said has had a profound influence on her life.

“I used to be so impatient and I realized the importance of patience and empathy from him,” the princess said.

“He always understood everything but he was never judgmental about people. He genuinely accepted the way you truly are.

“I then started to accept my true self, admitting my wrongdoings and reminding myself to be a better person than ever,” she said.

At the age of 12, Ashi Kesang left the palace and her country for the first time in order to study in an international school in Thailand.

She credited the school for making her a more independent person, a major achievement considering that she grew up in an overprotected environment.

Then she went to Australia and enrolled at the University of Canberra. It took her some time to get used to the weather and adjust to the different value systems of her new classmates and friends.

“The westerners are more independent and individualistic. I felt lonely because my family was not there. Yet I overcame this feeling and became more confident.”

Her stay in New York was quite a culture shock.

There she observed that everyone just walked past one another without even having a look at who was around.

“It felt like you don’t exist, or you are an inanimate object in the streets. Everyone was so absorbed in their own world. To me the situation was a bit unbearable.”

That is quite different from life in Bhutan, where everyone is connected and lives in a small neighborhood.

“In Australia, the people are also nice and kind,” she added.

Right now the princess works as an ancient Buddhist scriptural text and iconographic scholar.

She is the executive director of Bhutan’s Thangka Conservation Center, which is dedicated to preserving and restoring thangkas.

(A thangka is a type of Tibetan Buddhist painting on cotton or silk appliqué which usually depicts a Buddhist deity, scene or mandala.)

Asked if her career choice was her own, Ashi Kesang smiled and said it is not quite what the royal family would have thought of.

“I once dreamt of being an astronaut as I was so into the Star Trek series when I was young.

“Never would I have thought of what my grandmother was doing. However, when you have accompanied her day and night and witnessed the wonderful things she has achieved for others, you naturally would like to follow her and do what she does.”

Her Majesty the Royal Grandmother Kesang Choeden Wangchuck personally takes care of 500 monks, their food, accommodation and education.

In recent years Bhutan has been pursuing the path of modernization.

The princess said the royal family, like other ordinary Bhutanese families, will not force their beliefs on the citizens.

Instead, the family wants to serve as a role model for the country, practicing kindness, selflessness and humility, as well as listening to and understanding the needs of the people.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 31.

Translation by Darlie Yiu


One response to “Bhutan princess seeks to preserve kingdom’s cultural heritage

  1. Heather Stoddard

    Wonderful work! I visited the institute in 2013
    and was most impressed.

    Sent from my iPhone


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