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Coronation square


DESMOND DOIG


At the auspicious hour of 8:37 am on February 24, 1975, in a courtyard of the old Hanuman Dhoka Palace, the young King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev and his Queen Aishwarya Rajya Laxmi Devi Shah were crowned. No other crown could be so fantastically devised, so priceless. It is a glitter of closely set diamonds and pearls, hung with drop rubies and emeralds the size of plums and atop it, clasped by more diamonds, is a cascade of bird-of-paradise plumes. For a moment it was held aloft by the Raj Guru for all to see and then placed reverently on the King\'s head. A huddle of Brahmin priests chanted ancient verses from the Vedas. Guns boomed and volleys of musket fire crackled through the palace and the streets and the enveloping mountains where all Nepal waited for the sign.

All the world came to watch, represented by princes and princesses, governors-general, premiers, vice-presidents, ambassadors and envoys extraordinary.
The city, no ordinary jewel, had been polished and re-faceted so that its gilded and golden roofs shone as they must have when they were first fashioned. Decorations and garlands added colour to every street, and at night coloured bulbs and floodlighting made the city incandescent. Every morning the still sleeping streets were filled with the tramp of feet and the clatter of hooves as soldiers and cavalry rehearsed. The whispers began. The 30 elephants brought over the mountains from the tarai to take part in the royal procession had started feeling the altitude, had caught cold and developed sore toes on the unaccustomed tarmac roads. One had been bitten by a dog and might even have died.

Once again, the ladies of the British community were searching feverishly for hats which were de rigueur for a meeting with Prince Charles. The search had extended to Calcutta and Delhi with lamentable lack of success. For the American ladies, the situation appeared equally fraught. True, they had no royal prince to meet, but, in the words of an unidentified American matron, "The situation is, it\'s six o\'clock in the morning, you\'re riding an elephant and wearing a tiara. For heaven\'s sake, what else does one wear?" In the end, the question of what to wear on elephant back did not arise as the dictates of security prevented the participation of foreign guests in the elephant procession.

Days before the actual coronation, prayers were initiated throughout Nepal for the well-being of the King. As I strolled through the narrow lanes of the old city, I kept coming across oases of ritualistic prayer: tantric Buddhists sat on the stairs of a soaring temple wearing gilded helmets and performing a ballet with their hands; Hindu priests outside a wayside shrine lit votive fires and chanted mantras; magenta-robed lamas filled a lofty chapel with the rumble of their prayers, the clash of cymbals and a wail of trumpets. Common to all these pujas were the garlanded portraits of the King and Queen to which were made offerings of fruits and sweets and incense and coins.

As the days grew closer to coronation, the King and Queen themselves became the focal point of centuries-old ritual and religious ceremonies. To assembled priests, the King formally declared his acceptance of the Crown and nominated the priests and astrologers who would conduct the ceremony. He and the Queen joined in a reading of the holy scriptures. The nine planets that govern even a king\'s fate were propitiated. The King ceremoniously offered a cow to the Brahmin priest and worshipped Agni, the fire god, Indra, the god of prosperity, and the Goddess Devi. He was ritually sprinkled with water from ceremonial water jugs, he fed the sacrificial fire, and made an offering of food in memory of his ancestors.

These precoronation rituals were performed in the Mool Chowk, a courtyard of the old Hanuman Dhoka Palace where the Malla kings were crowned, and in an adjoining courtyard known as Nasal Chowk, where the Shah kings have held their coronations. Hanuman Dhoka Palace, built by the Malla kings, embellished by Prithvi Narayan Shah, and added to by successive kings, has justly remained the place of coronation, though for the last 50 years the kings have lived elsewhere.

The day that all Nepal had waited for dawned clear. Long before daybreak, people converged on the procession route like an army of wraiths muffled against the cold. The procession came with first light heralded by the sound of drums and pipes and a wave of growing excitement. Leading it was a solitary figure in white, a khukri in his waistband. And then, as fast as almost the eye could register in the misty half light, there followed colour-bearers and troops in the earliest uniforms of Nepal. Men in white carrying incense candles and gilded urns of oil, pipers in leopard-skin, drummers in red, the Mounted Royal Bodyguard in scarlet manned helmets, scarlet uniforms with silver accoutrements and bright pennants on their lances. Gurkha troops in deep green. Two pure white horses, one for the Living Vishnu and the other for the Goddess Taleju. Black-coated ministers. And then, drawn by perfectly matched chestnut horses, decked out in flame-coloured plumes and led by grooms in red and gold, carrying white yak-tail fly whisks, came the magnificent royal carriage. The coach which had been built in England had seen at least two previous coronations. Contrasting sharply with such splendour, the King and Queen wore the simplest Nepali clothes.

Inside Nasal Chowk (see drawing above), the invited dignitaries awaited the King\'s arrival wearing an extravagance of costumes and uniform: Madame Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines, in the palest lilac gown and the blue, white and red sash of some order; Prince Charles in braided naval uniform; the King of Mustang, a Nepali principality, in orange brocade and plumed hat; the Crown Prince Akihito of Japan in tails and topper and his exquisite wife Michiko in a yellow kimono; Princess Menjeh Pahlavi of Iran, the Shah\'s sister-in-law, was resplendent in a red velvet cape; and a princess, I think from Morocco, wore a tall golden coronet. The Chinese Vice-Premier and his wife were, predictably, in blue Mao suits. The Burmese Prime Minister and Madame Sein Win wore a rustle of gold silk. The Cheogyal of Sikkim in a rich paper-stiffbrocade and at least three ambassadors wore cockaded hats. There were Indian princes in embroidered satin achkans and silk turbans, their wives in regal saris. Lord Mountbatten of Burma was distinguished in the magenta robe of the newly-conferred Order of the Star of Nepal. It was difficult to assess whether he or the Russian Vice-Premier was more be-medaled and decorated. Stunning was young Princess Dechan Wangchuck of Bhutan, her hair falling loose about a magnificently woven Bhutanese robe and a brocaded coat.

The King wore white with a necklet of emeralds. The Queen was in a traditional sari. As they entered through the golden Hanuman gate, everyone present stood, a guard of honour presented arms and while the national anthem was played, the Royal Standard was unfurled. Then the King and Queen were conducted into an inner room of the palace for yet another ritual of purification, through a door that led into another age. There, they were smeared with clay collected from the summit of a mountain and the bottom of a lake, from the confluence of two rivers, an anthill, the tusks of an elephant, from the stables of cow and elephants, from the site of Indra\'s flagpole, and from the wheels of a chariot. Where, one wonders, did they find a chariot with mud still caking its warring wheels?

They were anointed by four people from each of the four castes of Hinduism; by a Brahmin with clarified butter from a golden urn, by a Kshatriya with milk from a silver vessel, by a Vaishya with curd from a copper chalice, and by a Shudra with honey from an earthen pot. They were bathed with water from eight rivers and seven seas, perfumed with oil and exotic powders and dressed in homespun. All the while the assembled priests chanted from the Vedas, "We invest you with the strength and valour of Indra, the King of Heaven, to ensure victory, with the splendour of the Sun to scorch your foes, with the cooling power of the Moon to give peace and plenty to your people. May your people ever love you."

Two colourful marquees had been raised in Nasal Chowk, one was roofed with thatch and decorated with auspicious signs, spires of bamboo, banana trees in full flower and fruit, and the national emblems of Nepal. It was in this that the King was crowned on a golden throne upon which were laid the skins of various animals, among them an ox, a wildcat, a tiger and a lion. In the adjoining marquee reposed yet another throne fashioned from a writhing of golden serpents whose open hoods formed a canopy. There, the King and Queen received the homage of their subjects after they were crowned.

It is customary for the kings of Nepal to ride, immediately after their coronation, to a small gilded temple dedicated to Ganesha on the Durbar Square outside Hanuman Dhoka. King Birendra and his Queen chose to walk in a short but splendid procession. For those who thronged the streets of Kathmandu for a glimpse of their monarch, the best was yet to be. It came when the King and Queen, he wearing his dazzling crown, she in her shimmering coronet, rode in procession on the giant tusker, Prem Prasad.

The afternoon sunshine set diamonds and rubies and emeralds in the royal crown ablaze and deeply etched every incredible detail of the heavy gold embroidery with which the royal tusker was caparisoned. Twenty-three elephants swathed in scarlet and gold preceded Prem Prasad and alongside walked liveried attendants.

And, once again, before them went the unbelievable cavalcade of bands and banners. Ministers of State, army pensioners, many with the highest decorations for valour in the field, scouts and girl guides, marching troops, the colour and incense bearers, the two white horses, Buddhist monks and Hindu priests and members of the Nepali Muslim community. What a fantastic sight it was. One looked, and was dazed and looking again was dumbfounded. I had seen the King\'s father ride in state at his coronation 19 years before, and in the years since had grown blase with parades and pomp and pageantry, or so I thought, until I saw King Birendra and his Queen go riding by. It was a shining moment. I shall never forget it.
The Little Prince
Throughout the ceremony of coronation the three-year-old Crown Prince Dipendra had watched and played in a room overlooking Nasal Chowk. Now, as the King and Queen took their places on the State Throne, the little Prince, flanked by generals, stepped boldly out in a blue uniform, complete with peaked hat and miniature silver sword. For a moment he hesitated, then bowing low before first his father, then his mother, smartly saluted them. The Very Very Important People present who had observed a dignified silence until now burst into applause.


LATEST ISSUE
638
(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)


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