Ghosts of Christmas past

Nepali, British and Indian aristocrats used to rub shoulders with ambassadors, writers, scientists and conservationists at Tiger Tops

A wintery morning elephant safari viewing rhinos amidst the morning mists of Chitwan grasslands 25 December 2006

Although it is no longer the case, for years Nepal was one of the few countries in the world that did not recognise 25 December as a religious holiday. The winter festival with ancient pre-Christian Yule solstice origins that celebrates the birth of Christ was simply forgotten amidst Nepal’s panoply of colourful festivals and jatra.

The official calendar of the world’s only Hindu kingdom may have overlooked the most important Christian religious celebration, but at Tiger Tops in Chitwan and Bardiya we enthusiastically marked the event, if only as an excuse to have a good party. Family and friends from Kathmandu and all over the world were invited by our boss Jim Edwards to promote Nepal tourism, to consolidate relationships, to garner support, to repay favours or just to have fun in the jungle lodges and camps.

With bookings habitually weak during the cold winter months, Jim’s legendary Christmas and New Year parties of the 1970s and 1980s were an innovative way to fill the empty lodge rooms. Invited guests brought seasonal cheer and enjoyed chilly dawn safaris and leisurely afternoon boat rides. Morning mist wreathed the forest trees, hung over the dying brown grasslands and clung to the low-lying sandy riverbeds until burned away, often as late as midday, by the weak December sun.

Quilt jackets, down vests and cashmere shawls were stripped off for a few brief hours, basking in the afternoon warmth before the damp of evening sent everyone in the direction of the bar, festively clad in sequined sweaters, inappropriate ties and navy blazers. The carol singing may have been a bit ragged and tuneless, but the hot rum drinks helped. Tiger Tops Specials, formerly known as Root’s Ruin after wildlife filmmaker Alan Root, were expertly mixed with lemon, honey, cinnamon and nutmeg behind the stone-built bar, decorated with shelves of bottles glinting in the lamplight and a gallery of framed visiting celebrity images.

By necessity, the festivities had to be adapted to Nepali conditions. The turkeys found in the bazaar in those days more closely resembled vultures with suspiciously hooked beaks and dark flesh. They were soon replaced by a specially-reared pig, roasted for hours over a pit of coals, and accompanied by apples and sag instead of the customary cranberry and brussels sprouts.

Christmas trees were decked with handcrafted ornaments, crackers were dispensed with as a frivolous luxury, and mistletoe and ivy were substituted by jungle creepers and poinsettias from Kathmandu. Resources were raided to produce a semblance of Christmas pudding blue-flamed with local brandy, delicious mince pies and elaborately iced cake, not the elephant dung variety popular with the boys’ birthdays. Champagne, contributed by duty-free guests, brought a rare sparkle to the winter jungle.

Jim was a recklessly generous host, appreciating the benefits of barter and nurturing his networks, mingling convivial groups of diverse guests, often with unexpected results. Nepali, British and Indian aristocrats rubbed shoulders with ambassadors, writers, scientists and conservationists. Gurkha officers came tasselled in gold, and some years we danced on the front lawn to brass strains of the uniformed police band. Two veteran soldiers who had not seen each other since a World War II battlefield were reunited around the copper-roofed fireplace in Chitwan. Winston Churchill, the parliamentary grandson of Sir Winston, came with his children and adopted Nepali daughter, and hotelier Biki Oberoi brought his entire family, including wife and favourite mistress, to Jim’s palpable delight.

Anton Mosimann, the dapper Swiss chef whose most famous restaurant was in a Chelsea church, arrived from London. Disdaining the festivities, he asked me to show him around the staff kitchen behind the elephant camp so that he could sample real indigenous Nepali food at source.

Ayesha Jaipur was a regular favourite. More correctly known as Her Highness the Rajmata Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, she washed her own undies and served Indian whiskey instead of Scotch if she thought no one would notice. Famed in her heyday as the most beautiful and possibly one of the richest women in the world, she was also one of the funniest, and I loved her. One year she fixed me with her deep brown eyes, coyly adjusted her hair and rearranged her chiffon sari to reveal an elegant shoulder.

“I hear you have built the best house in Nepal and I’d like to bring my grandson to stay. Would Christmas in Kathmandu suit you?”

It was a royal command not to be denied, so plans were adjusted. Much to the consternation of her grand Rana relatives, who fussed that only they should have the honour of hosting her, Ayesha stuck to her plans. The morning flight was delayed and Christmas lunch on hold while the Edwards and Choegyal families dallied in the winter sunshine beneath the blazing orange khorsani phul until finally the Rajmata swept up our driveway.

It felt rather like entertaining the queen, but after all, that is what she was. On her bedside table in our spare room she carefully placed the silver framed photo of her late husband, the last ruler of Jaipur. Third and last wife of the flamboyant Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II, Ayesha and he were world celebrities until he died after a polo accident at Cirencester in 1970, and Mrs Gandhi put pressure on the former Indian princely families whose titles were supposed to have evaporated with Independence. Especially targeted were individuals such as Ayesha, who was born a Cooch Behar princess and had many powerful friends and an enthusiastic political following. She was much appreciated for her charitable works amongst the Rajasthan poor. Ayesha survived political persecution and prison, emerging more glamorous and admired than ever.

She was just one of the memorable cast of characters who crowded the Tiger Tops bar, thronged to the jungle lodges in response to the coveted invitation, clinked glasses in Christmas salute, and still jostle to be remembered as ghosts of Christmas past.

Lisa Choegyal


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