National Geographic : 1957 Jul
Coronation in Katmandu The Pageantry of Marco Polo's Asia Comes Alive Once Again as a New King of Nepal Ascends the Cobra Throne BY E. THOMAS GILLIARD With Photographs by Marc Riboud, Magnum N EPAL'S exotic capital seethed with color as I wormed my way along its pulsing streets. Katmandu nor mally holds about 150,000 people; now it bulged with nearly half a million. The two simple hotels had long since been over whelmed. Hastily imported cots cluttered even their lawns and lobbies. Around me the Nepalese labored in a frenzy of preparation. Peasants painted their houses in gay pastel colors. Gods of temple and hearth were being newly gilded for the great day. And, already, elephants vividly splashed with fresh color lumbered through the crowd, grazing the projecting eaves of temples on either side. Phone Call Starts 9,000-mile Quest How strange it seemed to be here! Only three weeks before, in New York, Lowell Thomas, Sr., had telephoned to inquire if I could drop everything and rush halfway around the world to Nepal. He wanted, he said, to film the coronation of Nepal's new King for a forthcoming Cinerama pro duction, "Search for Paradise." (-Waning Sun Spotlights a Medieval Drama The King of Nepal greets one of 400 guests in the last act of an age-old coronation ritual. The world's only Hindu monarch, 36-year-old Mahendra wears his nation's supreme symbol of authority, a helmetlike crown. Some $2,000,000 worth of pearls, diamonds, rubies, and emeralds glitter on its surface; plumes of the greater bird of paradise billow from it in a cascade of pale gold. The 8,500,000 people of Mahendra's swiftly chang ing domain look on their progressive new leader crowned last year-as an incarnation of Vishnu the Preserver. The gilded throne's nine-headed serpent symbolizes his relationship to this Hindu deity. Queen Ratnarajyalakshmi sits between her hus band and the feather-hatted commander in chief of Nepal's 45,000-man army. A diamond-studded tiara contrasts with the simple Hindu marking on her forehead. Microphones and dark glasses shielding the King's eyes from photographers' lights added an incongruous note to the fortnight of pomp and splendor. © National Geographic Society Mr. Thomas knew full well how difficult it would be to reach King Mahendra in time. Nepal is one of the world's most remote and least-known kingdoms, a land which for centuries has held itself proudly aloof from the rest of the world.* And as if that were not enough, Mr. Thomas faced the further task of rounding up 23 technicians and 14,000 pounds of equip ment, then scattered from Death Valley to Rome, for a dash to Delhi and thence another 500 miles toward the roof of the world to Katmandu (map, page 142). Fantastic? It would demand a series of miracles. But I agreed to try. In New Delhi the Nepalese Embassy was shuttered for a two-day holiday. I banged until the Ambassador arose from his siesta. He listened politely to my problem and studied me thoughtfully. "I will telephone to Katmandu," he said. Telephone! Never had the Nepalese admitted publicly that such a facility existed, not even in the tense days when the Chinese were invading Tibet. "But let me caution you," he added, "that you must not let your hopes rise. It will probably be impossible to reach the King in time." Two Months for a Routine Message As we drove back to the United States Embassy, Counselor Graham Hall further dampened my spirits. "When we send a routine message to Katmandu," he warned, "we allow a couple of months for a reply." Half an hour later the Embassy phone rang. "I have just talked with the Foreign Minister in Katmandu," the Nepalese Ambassador bubbled happily. "He said, 'No, it is impossible.'" Halfway around the world for nothing, I told myself bitterly. It had been 43 *See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Peerless Nepal-A Naturalist's Paradise," by S. Dil lon Ripley, January, 1950, and "Nepal, the Seques tered Kingdom," by Penelope Chetwode, March, 1935.