Queen Elizabeth, the Gurkhas and Everest

The highlight of the two trips Queen Elizabeth II made to  Nepal in March 1961 and exactly 25 years later in 1986 were meetings with British Gurkha veterans who served in the world wars.

Gurkhas have fought and died for Britain since even before the end of Nepal’s war with the East India Company in 1816. More than 200,000 soldiers from Nepal fought in the British Army in the two world wars, at a time when Nepal’s total population was barely 4 million.

About 40,000 of them were killed in Gallipoli and Flanders Field in the First World War, and in Italy, Burma and Malaya in the Second.

The Queen, who died on Thursday at Balmoral Castle in Scotland at age 96, had a soft spot for Nepal, since news of the first ever ascent of Mt Everest got to London on the morning of her coronation on 2 June 1953 that year.

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norway had reached the top of the world’s highest mountain on 29 May, but the news took several days to reach London via the British Embassy in Kathmandu which got a coded radio message from Namche that had to be first carried in a piece of paper by runner from Base Camp.

James Morris of The Times accompanied the British Expedition, and had the scoop about the successful ascent in the Fleet Street press. The Daily Express tabloid's banner headline on coronation day was: “ALL THIS — AND EVEREST TOO!”

Queen Elizabeth’s 1961 visit to Nepal was touch and go since it happened barely a year after King Mahendra’s coup in which he dissolved Nepal’s first democratically elected parliament, imprisoned Prime Minister B P Koirala and his cabinet, and ruled as an absolute monarch.

Read also: How Thukten Phillip Sherpa got his name, Lisa Choegyal 

The royal visit was seen by some as an endorsement of the coup, but this was during the height of the Cold War and tensions were also rising between India and China. The West regarded an assertive monarchy in Nepal as a stabilising factor in a volatile region, and for King Mahendra himself it was proof of international endorsement of his move.

Lisa Choegyal recalls in one of her columns for Nepali Times about how Konjo Chumbi, the guardian of a yeti scalp at Khumjung Monastery, was on his way from Namche to Kathmandu for an audience with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1961 when his wife gave birth along the way near Jiri.

They made it to Kathmandu airport just in time to meet the royal couple before they flew out, and when Prince Philip found out the baby did not have a name, he suggested they call him ‘Philip’. Thukten Phillip Sherpa was 25 when he met Prince Philip again during the Queen’s 1986 trip. He now lives in California.

Carrying on the tradition of Nepal’s Rana rulers, the British royalty in 1961 was taken on a tiger hunt in Chitwan with the Queen filming the trip on her 16mm movie camera from the back of an elephant.

The government went to extreme lengths to beautify Kathmandu and give it a modern look. What is today Kantipath in front of The Royal Hotel and the Tripureswar roads were widened by cutting down a row of jacaranda to impress the British visitors. Pretend street lights that did not work were erected along the way.

The Royal Hotel’s Russian owner Boris Lissanevitch catered for the state banquet for the Queen hosted by King Mahendra at Singha Darbar. The hot meals had to be carried by relays of servants across the city.

Desmond Doig writes in his book My Kind of Kathmandu about the royal banquet: ‘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.’

Read also: The royal visit of  1961, Desmond Doig

The next day, Edmund Hillary was knighted at a function at the British Embassy in Lazimpat. Queen Elizabeth had to cut a brown, green and white cake supposed to represent Mt Everest with two tiny marzipan figures representing Hillary and Tenzing on the summit.

Doig recalls in his book that the Queen advanced towards the cake 'with a scimitar-like knife', looked at Hillary, and quipped: ‘I'm afraid I shall have to cut you in half, Sir Edmund.’

In contrast to Queen Elizabeth’s expressions of gratitude during her 70-year reign for the service of British Gurkhas and her two visits to Nepal, surprisingly not a single British prime minister has visited Kathmandu.

Queen Elizabeth attended the parade in 2015 in London marking the 200th anniversary Gurkha service in the British Army. Her grandson, Prince Harry served with the First Battalion of the Royal Gurkha Rifles in Afghanistan in 2007-8.

A Royal Gurkha Regiment contingent was invited to take part in Harry’s wedding with Meghan Markle in 2018. And Harry himself visited Nepal in 2016, inspecting some of the Gurkha Welfare Trust projects.

Read also: Symbol of Nepali nationhood, CK Lal

Video clip of the British royal visit to Nepal in 1986.

Prince Charles, now King Charles III, has served as Colonel in Chief of the Royal Gurkha Rifles since 1977.

Two Queen’s Gurkha Orderly Officers from Nepal guard her at most functions, a practice that dates back to Queen Victoria’s reign in 1876 and which Queen Elizabeth revived.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip stopped over in Kathmandu again in 1986 for a four-day visit on their way to Australia and New Zealand. King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya were at the airport to greet them as they stepped off a British Airways L-1011 Tristar.

The highlight of the trip was the Queen’s meeting with 200 British Gurkha veterans, among them seven surviving soldiers who had been awarded the Victoria Cross in previous wars.

Queen Elizabeth walked across Kathmandu Darbar Square to the 16th century Kasthamandap accompanied by Kathmandu’s mayor Kamal Chitrakar.

This time there was no royal hunt, Chitwan had been turned into the Royal Chitwan National Park. While the Queen visited Gurkha camps,  Prince Gyanendra flew down to Meghauli with Prince Philip for a morning safari and lunch at Tiger Tops in South Asia’s first natural world heritage site. Both princes were now avid conservationists.

Queen Elizabeth’s last interaction with Nepal was in May when Nepal’s new ambassador to UK, Gyan Chandra Acharya, presented his credentials to her virtually at Buckingham Palace. Prince Philip died in 2021, the Queen was frail and already starting to restrict her public engagements.

In her statement during that ceremony, Queen Elizabeth extolled the ‘friendly and mutually rewarding relations’ between Nepal and Britain, and recalled her two historic state visits to Nepal in 1961 and 1986.

Read more: Champions of Nepal’s conservation movement, Lisa Choegyal

Kunda Dixit

writer

Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).

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