Nepali Times
The royal visit of 1961


There was the time when Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip were welcomed there with all the colour and brilliance that only a night in Singha Durbar could mean. Crystal fountains played under cascading crystal chandeliers. Fine French mirrors reflected the silks and brocades and jewels of the guests. And the gold plate on the table. The Queen of England, who had disappointed expectant Nepalis earlier by wearing the simplest dresses and a strand or two of pearls, came shimmering in the famous emerald tiara, emerald necklace, emerald drop earrings and diamonds everywhere, even embroidered into her Hartnell gown.

But then this is Nepal and between the crystal reception and crystal banqueting hall is a hall of distorting mirrors so that the Queen and Prince Philip were now dwarfs, now possessed of giraffe necks, now spreading like atomic clouds, now disappearing altogether.

Boris who composed several state banquets in Singha Durbar tells how there were no kitchens and no pantries so that the preparation of the many-course meals had to be done elsewhere and brought by relays of servants to be warmed in movable hot cases in the courtyard verandah before being carried triumphantly into the crystal banquet room.

I was with Sir Edmund Hillary on expedition in Nepal when the queen and the duke paid their state visit. Ed and I had just returned from the world tour with the legendary Khumjung Yeti scalp, and its guardian Sherpa Khunjo Chumbi, an elder of Khumjung village. While in London we had called at Buckingham Palace to meet the queen with presents Khunjo had brought all the way from Sherpaland. The queen was away in Scotland so we did not meet her but left the presents behind. Now royal invitation had arrived via the British Embassy in Kathmandu commanding Khunjo and his family to meet the queen in Kathmandu.

As members of the British Commonwealth even temporarily in the Valley those of us with the expedition in Kathmandu expected an invitation to at least the British garden party. It so happened that several wives of expedition members, among them Louise Hillary, were in town.

All that appeared to stand between the ladies and meeting the queen was an absence of hats. Of course it is incredible what resourcefulness will do. Some of the more adventurous contrived hats on the spot. Others sent cables to London and Auckland and awaited in a fair lather the arrival of timely planes bearing hats. Then the unexpected happened. Our prior invitations were withdrawn, because apparently, the ambassador's wife couldn't raise enough tea cups for the Hillary-crowd and she was dammed if she was going to mix 'n' match. On again, off again, we eventually made it but were herded into a fairly distant corner of the grounds in case Sir Edmund and Lady Hillary's presence detract from the importance of the ambassador who was to be knighted at the party.

The queen arrived in an undistinguished pink shift dress, a pink hat, pink shoes and a string of pearls, and was confronted by a large brown, green and white cake which was meant to represent the Kathmandu Valley, the Himalayan Range and Everest. On the summit of the cake were two grubby marzipan figures representing Hillary and Tenzing.

The Queen's intelligence was obviously as good as General Kaiser's. "I'm afraid I shall have to cut you in half, Sir Edmund," she said advancing towards the cake with a scimitar-like knife and looking past the immediate invitees, straight at Ed.

Khunjo Chumbi had brought more gifts to the party and these he and Mrs Chumbi presented to the Queen at a specially arranged audience. Incredibly, with the Chumbis was their six-day-old child who had been born on the long trek from Khumjung to Kathmandu. "I just had the baby during a lunch break and walked on with the men," explained Mrs Chumbi to the Queen.

"What's his name?" asked Prince Philip and when he was told that the boy didn't have one said, "Why not call him Philip?"

Phillip he remains. He's now in college in Kathmandu, a strapping and handsome 20-year-old. A whole lifetime away from Phillip Chumbi, a memory away from me, was the excitement that gripped Kathmandu at the time of that memorable visit.

There were buntings and floral decorations everywhere. The roads from the airport to the city had been hastily widened and were carpeted with vermilion. Some society for the advancement of modern Kathmandu had devised lightless traffic lights with pagoda roofs and painted green, red and amber eyes; pagoda-roofed letter boxes not really designed for the reception of letters; and zebra crossings which were so alarming that no one dared use them.

To widen the road in front of The Royal Hotel, an avenue of ancient jacaranda trees had been cut down but not without protest led by Field Marshal Kaiser. In their place grew weird bamboo arches that tried greenly to look like the aluminium decorative arches that had spanned London streets for the Queen's coronation. Noticing that these contraptions looked not only bare but hideously un-Nepalese, some stout-hearted person with a sense of innocent humour had hung from the centre of each arch bunches of flowers and three balloons-two spherical and one elongated, a situation saved by escaping air.

King Mahendra and Queen Ratna rode an open carriage with the queen and the duke drawn by matched black horses. Typical of a Nepalese welcome was the throwing of vermilion and saffron as the carriage rolled by. Choruses of Nepalis danced in the streets.

Just as the well-known minstrels, the gainies of Nepal, sing of Jung Bahadur, the first Rana Prime Minister's visit to the court of Queen Victoria, and of how Tenzing pulled Sir Edmund Hillary up Mount Everest, so some still sing of the Queen's and Duke's visit to Kathmandu.

(Excerpted with permission from My Kind of Kathmandu, Harper Collins, 1994)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)