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Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Portrait of a Princess

On December 2, 2008, four tremors were felt in Sikkim. This, according to local beliefs, is a signal of the departure of a great soul from the living world. That day Princess Coocoola, the sister of the last Chogyal (King) of Sikkim had died. Ever since her brother, the last Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal had died in 1982, she had been regarded as the last surviving symbol of the Sikkimese royalty. And her legacy is something that is an enduring testimony to the aura that the Chogyal royalty had among the Sikkimese people.

Although the news of her death was something that I had read in The Telegraph, I was quite stuck with this royalty I had never heard before. And yet there were my Sikkimese friends who swore that she was like a guardian angel to the people of Sikkim. A little research on her on Google did yield fruitful results and finally left me more mesmerized than before. Although I have been anti-monarchist all my life, there have been times when I have been swayed by the personalities of royal background. Princess Coocoola was one such royal figure that managed to sway my interest. The other being Princess Diana of England.

Born as Princess Pema Tsedeun Yapshi Pheunkhang Lacham Kucho, she was the daughter of Sir Tashi Namgyal, the 11th Chogyal of Sikkim, and the granddaughter of a Tibetan general. But she was popularly known to everyone as Coocoola. She was born in Darjeeling on September 6, 1924, when the Himalayan Kingdom of Sikkim was a protectorate of the British Empire.

Princess Coocoola of Sikkim was always known as the beautiful wife of a Tibetan governor and a champion of the distinct culture of the state of Sikkim. Such was her aura and beauty that she has often been compared to the likes of other royal beauties like Maharani Gayatri Devi, Princess Diana and Queen Rania. Embodying a combination of oriental charm and western sophistication, she relayed messages to the outside world when the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950, and then devoted ten years to running a rehabilitation centre for Tibetan refugees in Sikkim. Twenty-five years later, when Sikkim was annexed by India, she played an active role in trying to retain its separate political status, giving a press conference in Hong Kong to protest at its loss of independence.

Princess Coocoola was educated at the St Joseph's Convent in Kalimpong, a hill station near Darjeeling. The Tibetan Pheunkhang family then wrote to the palace, saying that they wanted a Sikkimese Princess to marry their 23 year old eldest son. Her father did not force her to accept, and she asked a secretary to reply that she wanted to go to university first. On being pressed, she accepted Sey Kusho Gompo Tsering Yapshi Pheunkhang, the governor of the Tibetan city of Gyantse and a son of one of the four ministers of Tibet. But she broke precedent by declining to marry both the bridegroom and his brother, as was the custom. In 1941 the Princess duly set off on the three-week journey to Lhasa with two maids, one bearer and two horses. When she arrived she found the two sons sitting next to her at the wedding ceremony, but again insisted that she would marry only him. After marriage, she and her husband settled down to enjoy the leisured life of the Tibetan gentry complete with parties, picnics and festivals.

Princess Coocoola’s beauty attracted the attention of many admirers. And they have recorded her aura in their own special ways. Among her admirers was Heinrich Harrier, author of the book Seven Years in Tibet. He hailed her as the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and far more interesting than her husband. In his book Seven Years in Tibet, he records: “She possessed the indescribable charm of Asian women and the stamp of age-old oriental culture. At the same time she was clever, well-educated, and thoroughly modern. In conversation she was the equal of the most intelligent woman you would be likely to meet in a European salon. She was interested in politics, culture and all that was happening in the world. She often talked about equal rights for women… but Tibet has a long way to go before reaching that point.” Another visitor compared her to an exotic butterfly, saying her qualities showed in the quizzical way she looked up through her long lashes, and in the slow manner in which she exhaled her cigarette smoke or murmured a few words in her low, clear, musical voice. She entertained far more regally than her homely brother, the Chogyal, offering sparkling conversation as the best French wines were poured from heavy decanters. Her place at table was set with golden coasters and cutlery to remind even the most honoured guests of their inferior rank.

But she was also a woman of substance and strength. It is said that while travelling the dangerous trade route between Tibet and Gangtok with her small children bundled up in windowed boxes on horses or mules, she insisted on riding a horse with a rifle slung across her shoulder and a revolver in her pocket to repel bandits. Such guts are rarely seen among women of royalty.

Acting as the hostess for her brother, the Chogyal of Sikkim, at State functions until he married his American wife, Hope Cooke, she travelled widely to lobby with politicians in New Delhi. Internationally, she also mixed with the likes of John Kenneth Galbraith, Senator Edward Kennedy and other presidential aides in Washington and presented an 18 inch high Buddha figurine to a Tibetan children's village at Sedlescome, Sussex. When Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru offered her a pension, the Princess turned it down, and asked instead for trading rights. Working from a single room in Calcutta, she and her younger sister Princess Kula started a business importing turquoise from Iran. Later she joined the board of a company which produced jewels for watches and of the State Bank of Sikkim.

Princess Coocoola and her husband were founding members of the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, to which they donated manuscripts and a large silver-plated stupa to hold the relics of two Ashokan monks, which were a gift from the Indian government. She even allowed the institute to scan her photographic collection. After she was widowed in 1973, she spent most of her times championing the cause of the Sikkimese culture among the mainstream Indian public. In her last years she lived in a modest cottage on the outskirts of Gangtok, keeping up with events in Sikkim and world politics and continuing to enjoy discussions with scholars who came knocking at her door. When one such scholar completed a book on Sikkimese village religion she insisted they celebrate it with a bottle of champagne.

By the time she died in 2008 at the ripe age of 84, she had become a legend among scholars and intellects who came about seeking Sikkim’s oriental opulence. She was the last positive symbol of the Sikkimese royal family that had been segregated in the wake of Sikkim’s merger to India. Although she is no more among us today, her legacy continues to endure and constantly reminds us of this beautiful princess who loved her people and her culture above everything else.

*This piece is just a reflection after having read a similar article on Radical Royalist's blog. This is just an appreciation of his work.

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