How Thukten Phillip Sherpa got his name

Born on the trail en route to meet the Queen and Prince Philip, Thukten Phillip Sherpa was named by the Duke, who appointed himself godfather of the 5-day-old boy.

The Sherpa leader and guardian of the yeti scalp, Konjo Chumbi, and his young wife were hurrying down from Khumjung on the Sagarmatha trail for an audience with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip during their visit to Nepal in 1961.

As close associates of Sir Edmund Hillary and collaborators in his yeti expedition activities, a private gathering had been arranged in Kathmandu with the royal guests. Sir Ed and Tenzing Norgay’s historic first ascent of Mount Everest on the eve of Elizabeth’s coronation on 29 May 1953 had forged a special bond that would last their lifetime.

Just after lunch near Jiri, Konjo Chumbi’s wife gave birth to a son. The story goes: ‘She went down to the stream for a wash and came back 30 minutes later holding a baby. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, strapped him onto her back and kept walking. They reached Kathmandu just in time to catch the royal couple before they flew off from Kathmandu’s Gauchar airport.’

At their meeting with the royal couple, Prince Philip himself opened the car door and took the baby in his arms. He asked the boy's name. “It's up to our lamas,” Konjo Chumbi replied. The Duke said, “I've got a name for him. Call him Philip - after me.”

Konjo and his wife agreed, and Prince Philip went on to appoint himself as the godfather. Thus, Thukten Phillip Sherpa derived his unique name and royal connection, somehow along the way acquiring double ‘l’ in the spelling.

As a young man, Thukten spent 15 minutes with his namesake and godfather during their second state visit to Nepal in 1986, talking about his career and asking help to become a pilot. Besides his navy career, the Duke was qualified to fly 59 different aircraft.

That came to nothing, but with Sir Ed’s guidance Thukten studied forestry in Switzerland, returning to run the family’s Asian Trekking in Thamel. A distinguished son of his father, Thukten Phillip was one of five Sherpas to attend Sir Edmund Hillary’s funeral in Auckland cathedral, laying white silk khata on the casket in front of the world’s television cameras.

Thukten told me this week: “Being a world renowned figure, Prince Philip was a very gentle, soft speaking and positive person. Since 1986 I have not had any opportunity to meet him again. I still have great desire to visit Buckingham Palace and meet some royal family members in my lifetime.”

Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh visited Nepal twice, from 26 February to 1 March 1961 and almost exactly 25 years later, from 17 to 21 February 1986, both state visits accompanying Queen Elizabeth.

When he died on 9 April 2021 in London aged 99, tributes poured in from all corners of the globe to mark his long and much travelled life. “His generation equated service to country as service to values he believed in,” said a royal staffer. “His life reinforced a conviction that the monarchy’s survival is built on and bounded by a commitment to duty.” He completed more than 22,000 royal engagements on his own and accompanied the Queen on all of her overseas tours.

His dedication to his role as consort has clearly touched many lives. Ordinary people shared their stories of “My Day with Prince Philip” and “How I Met the Duke”, with repeated refrains remembering his devastating charm, self-assured and friendly demeanour that balanced the beady glare, sharp wit and subversive impatience with protocol.

Perhaps his empathy stemmed from a rootless childhood and lonely school years – he used to sign the visitor’s book at country houses with 'of no fixed abode'. Amidst the elaborate trappings of court and in constant support of the Queen, he could be counted on to be down to earth and provide a real royal twinkle.

Nepali social media also buzzed with personal memories. Photos of Prince Philip included images of him stepping through the red carpeted Hanuman Dhoka, saluted by 376 elephants on a royal hunt, chatting in the British Embassy, formal portraits, and Nepali youth striving for his Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award scheme. And him binoculared and safari-suited with Prince Gyanendra and Jim Edwards during a visit to Chitwan National Park which I had snapped during lunch at Tiger Tops in 1986.

A committed conservationist with a deep interest in nature, Philip and Gyanendra were early eco-warriors and colleagues from World Wildlife Fund (WWF), of which the Duke was founder and the first UK president. During that 1986 visit, he broke away from the main royal program to visit South Asia’s first natural world heritage site at Chitwan National Park, and spent a peaceful day amongst the tall grasslands, riverine forests and sal-covered hills of the Tarai jungles.

The press corps arrived ahead of him, lining up politely outside the circular stone and thatched golghar as the two Princes strode into camp after a morning safari exploring the undisturbed wildlife of Chitwan. A retinue of rangers, park staff and security detail followed at a discreet distance.

A chorus of “Good morning, Sir” greeted the Duke as he passed the assembled journalists, their cameras clicking. “It was, until you lot arrived!” I heard him growl out of the side of his mouth, living up to his reputation for irascible one-liners. He was shorter than I expected, but with fine craggy features.

Lists of his best gaffes circulate the internet. My favourite are: "I declare this thing open, whatever it is" (on a visit to Canada in 1969). And "Yak, yak, yak; come on get a move on" (shouted from the deck of Britannia in Belize in 1994 to the Queen who was chatting to her hosts on the quayside).

At Tiger Tops he was gracious to us underlings, but there was some garbled and not very politically correct discussion about catching “some ghastly disease” from monkeys; AIDS was the epidemic of the era. At the British Embassy reception in Kathmandu the next day he was enjoying the locals so much that he failed to join the Ambassador’s group photo, to the Queen’s resigned irritation.

A tribe in the remote Pacific island of Vanuatu reveres Prince Philip as the reincarnation of an ancient warrior god, greeting his death with ritual wailing and ceremonial dancing. But perhaps his most unusual story is that of Thukten Phillip Sherpa, the godson he acquired in Nepal during his first visit in 1961.

That encounter followed the infamous royal hunt as the guest of King Mahendra in the lavish Meghauli camp in which the Duke diplomatically bandaged his trigger finger so as not to have to shoot any rhinos or tigers – hunters were evolving into conservationists. Photos show the shooting party perched in elaborate basketwork elephant howdahs engraved with regal crests, which can still be found gathering dust in the Bhimphedi hatisar.

Last weekend, Prince Philip’s flag-shrouded coffin topped with white lilies made its melancholy way through the bright spring sunshine of Windsor Castle, through socially distanced massed bands with drums muffled in respect, escorted by bowed heads, brilliant uniforms, clinking medals and black armbands, past his faithful fell ponies with his tweed cap and whip lying poignantly on the carriage’s empty seat.

Sombre black coated family members followed on foot behind the Land Rover hearse, some of their lives in various states of disarray and disgrace. He was piped by naval cadets up the stone steps into the magnificence of St George’s Chapel where the Queen, his companion of 73 years, waited alone and mourning masked in the empty polished pews. During the funeral gun salutes echoed and bells tolled throughout the land, and Britain marked the Duke’s passing with a one-minute national silence at exactly 3pm.

Thukten Philip is weathering the Covid-19 pandemic with his son in Sonoma, the heart of California’s wine country. “In 1961, my parents got a picture of Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philip duly signed hanging in our private chapel in Khumjung, but now I can't find it for a long time back. I am proud of being his godchild, and he had given me his name Phillip when I was only five days old.”


Read Also: The Elephant Dilemma, Lisa Choegyal

Lisa Choegyal