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A Western sportswoman is invited on a royal shoot in the kingdom of Nepal. There, amid the high Himalayas, the Valley of Kathmandu and a forbidding jungle, she finds a wonderland whose enchantment all but transcends the thrill of the hunt itself. She arrives as balloons fly and guards stand in formal dress for a state holiday (right), has an unnerving audience with the king and then joins him for a confrontation (next page) in a circle ruled by a tiger.
The peaks of the Himalayas were silver in the morning sun. In the bright blue sky helicopters hovered like elusive humming birds, scattering thousands of rose petals upon the earth below. Great garlanded balloons rose noiselessly on puffs of smoke, trailing colored streamers through the thin, crisp air. In the distance I heard the sudden sound of trumpets. Through the gilded gates of the Tundikhel and down a pathway strewn with flowers the royal mounted guard came into sight. They rode eight abreast, a seemingly endless spectacle of scarlet tunics, sparkling scimitars and plumed helmets.
Behind them, moving slowly between twin rows of waving flags, a long black Lincoln flying the royal standard drew up to the reviewing stand. To the roll of drums and the salutes of generals, His Majesty Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Deva, the King of Nepal, absolute monarch of the largest and only independent Himalayan kingdom, supreme ruler of one of the world's most ancient thrones, ninth sovereign of the Shah dynasty, sacred defender of the Buddhist and Hindu faiths, Man-God of the Hindus, earthly incarnation of the Supreme Being and God of Preservation, Vishnu, stepped from the car. Serious and straight-backed, he climbed red-carpeted stairs to a golden couch set high on a dais. The celebration could now begin.
It was National Day, the joyous festival of Rastriya Prajatantra Diwas, in this roof-of-the-world country. Throughout the 54,000-square-mile kingdom, from snow-swept Sherpa villages to mountain meadowlands to steaming jungles, it was a day of rejoicing and gaiety. Nowhere was the celebration more spectacular than in the city of Kathmandu. It was here, only 14 years before, that the late King Tribhuvana, supported by his 30-year-old son, Crown Prince Mahendra, triumphantly restored the Shah kings to the throne of Nepal, ending 104 years of imprisonment in their own palaces by a despotic hereditary regime of prime ministers.
So complete was Nepal's isolation from the outside world prior to 1951 that it was known for centuries as the forbidden country, a mysterious mountain kingdom sealed to all but the occasional visiting diplomat and rare mountain-climbing team. A British historian, writing before the overthrow of the Rana prime ministers, noted that in all Nepal's long history only 120 Englishmen and TO other Westerners had ever been permitted into the Valley of Kathmandu.
Now I found myself standing in the center of this valley watching a fantastic panorama. There were bearded Sikhs, Newars and Tharus, grotesquely masked monkey gods and prancing, paint-smeared animals, bespangled warriors girdled with the manes of lions and the skins of leopards, gaudy, beaded chariots and armored tanks, stiff Gurkha soldiers and gilded goddesses resplendent upon the naked shoulders of their tribesmen. The revelers came from all parts of the country and from all periods of time, passing before me in whirling confusion, a human kaleidoscope.
Yet over the din of ancient, improbable instruments and the exotic sights my attention kept returning to the unsmiling man who, in little more than a decade, had brought this secret land from the medieval past into the complex present. I knew that since assuming the throne in 1955 he had ordered major economic and agricultural reforms, built roads where there had been none, linked East with West and the Valley of Kathmandu with the world outside, constructed bridges, dams, rudimentary communications systems, hospitals, factories and power plants. I knew that he was determined to raise Nepal's pitiful 7% literacy level so that his people might better utilize the technology and equipment of the 20th century, that he had increased the number of schools from 430 to 5,000, including 28 colleges, and that his was an unceasing struggle against poverty, disease, ignorance and superstition.
And I knew, too, that of all the many problems created by Nepal's emergence from seclusion, none was so overwhelming as the politico-geographic challenge created by Communist China on one border and India on the other. In this precarious situation Nepal has chosen that difficult and delicate course, neutrality. Thus I had become fascinated with the King of Nepal and fascinated, too, to learn that he was a sportsman, and a hunter of considerable skill. Now I was standing and watching him, this remarkable ruler of a tiny mountain kingdom. I had entered his wonderland.
It had not been easy. There were many carefully worded letters before one came last winter bearing the raised, crimson royal seal. "By Command of His Majesty the King," it began, and that was the start of a considerable amount of royal instruction, including:
"His Majesty's programme for Big Game Hunting is scheduled sometime in the 3rd week of February. We have pleasure in inviting you to be here on the 17th February for about a fortnight so that you may also participate in our National Day celebration on the 18th before going to the big-game hunting camps."