Sikkim: A Queen Revisited

Friday, Jan. 03, 1969 Reference:- Time in partnership with CNN www.

Trim and lithe, her rich brown hair flowing over her shoulders, America's only working queen strides the hilly lanes of her capital, Gangtok. As she passes by, the Sikkimese smile, nod and stop to chat, all formality forgotten. Hope Cooke, the shy Sarah Lawrence student married five years to the King of Sikkim, finds herself very much at home in the tiny Himalayan country. "The mountains," she says, "give me such a secure feeling. I don't feel vulnerable here."
Five years ago, during the elaborate ceremonies marking her marriage to Palden Thondup Namgyal, court musicians sang that "a flower of the West blossoms among us." Today it is clear that at 28 the whispery-voiced Gyalmo (Queen) has not only blossomed but put down sturdy roots as well. Her two children, Prince Palden, 4, and Princess Hope Leezum, 18 months, are thriving, and the Gyalmo almost singlehanded has succeeded in reviving Sikkim's long-dormant cottage industry. Sikkim now exports to the world, and two chic Manhattan stores carry deep-pile rugs and gold and silver jewelry painstakingly made by native craftsmen.
Royal Household. Hope's days are full. She rises at about 8 a.m., breakfasts on tea and fruit, and browses through the foreign newspapers and magazines to which the palace subscribes. At 10 a.m., her secretary enters, and the four hours until lunch are spent writing letters, devising menus and supervising the palace's 15 servants, who work in two shifts. She also keeps an eye on the family budget: the King's annual income is $42,000, and fixed expenses of $27,000 leave the royal household only a $15,000 margin. After lunch, palace chores and social work keep her busy until about 4 p.m., when she breaks away for her daily stroll through Gangtok or perhaps a set of tennis. Evenings are usually filled with official functions, or private parties, and the royal family has a wide circle of Sikkimese friends. She likes a Scotch and soda before dinner—or "even after dinner," she confides—but managed to give up smoking two years ago. Her husband, the Chogyal (King), does not smoke either—he prefers to chew betel nut. Droll, fluent in English and forward-looking, he appears years younger than his age (45).
In the five years since he took control of the country, the King has concentrated on electrification and education, carrying forward many of his father's ideas. Under their leadership, the literacy rate has risen from 25% to 40%, and the number of Sikkimese children in school has quadrupled in the past decade. Government revenues have doubled, road mileage has tripled, and average per-capita income has risen by a third, to $100 a year. This fall, however, monsoon rains set off heavy floods and landslides, causing $28 million in damage—14 times the kingdom's annual budget.
Palden and Hope spent a month surveying the damage, trekking across the mountainous landscape by Jeep and horseback. "It was an arduous month," she remembers, "but we had to see how bad it was and what we could do." Palden's policy is to visit each village in the kingdom at least once every three years, and Hope goes with him whenever possible, even visiting areas close to hostile Communist China.