Chitlang, Chitwan and ChildrenFinding the Rana-era elephant stables in Bhimphedi in between changing nappies
Our second son Rinchen was only six weeks old when we bundled him into the red Range Rover in a cosy basket cot wedged in the back, surrounded by all the clobber required at that age, and headed for the Tarai.
The roads were slow, with the vomit-marked buses and garishly painted trucks belching fumes as they strained up into the Kathmandu Valley, and made slower by two-year-old Sangjay fretting in his constrained car seat. I couldn’t wait to leave town, back to nature (back to work more like), and get away after all the baby focus of the past weeks.
As an older mother in my late 30s, by the time Rinchen arrived the whole baby routine was a triumph of juggling unscheduled nappy changes, feeding, tiredness and joy. Sangjay delighted in his new little brother, but the simplest tasks of daily life – staying clean, dressed, fed and rested – seemed to take up all my energy and planning.
We returned to Kathmandu with our new bundle of ‘limitless preciousness’, Rinchen’s name in Tibetan. Life in Alpine Cottage settled into a baby routine that I soon came to resent. Our tiny A-frame glass and wood home in Bansbari was nestled amidst a fig, mango and lychee orchard, full of sylvan charm but now bursting at the seams. Hodgson, the highly-strung street dog with a perpetually diseased, liver-coloured coat, named after the erudite 19th-century British resident by an optimistic anthropologist who rescued him from the gutter, accepted the new arrival with distracted disdain.
In 1985 it had been only Hodgson and I sharing the house, rented for Rs4,000 a month from my laconic landlord Prem Singh, who lived with his family in the adjacent garden, lovingly tending flower beds whilst nurturing his trees and two young sons. It was a relief to have my own place after the hectic ‘staff house’ in Sanepa.
Owning nothing but a few Tibetan carpets, several paintings and a couple of mattresses, living at floor level on a heap of cushions suited the wood floors and huge window of the minute sitting room. Its cramped sleeping gallery had a pitched plywood ceiling and was accessed by a nifty spiral staircase, treacherous during night time bathroom visits. Hodgson and I were joined by my husband Tenzin in 1986, and not long after by Sangjay, born in January 1987. We had built a bedroom and new bathroom onto the back of the cottage, but the space still felt small and confined.
The dog Hodgson famously slept through the 1988 earthquake that had us sloshing around in our newly acquired waterbed, a trendy addition to the house swapped for an antique Tibetan rug with an American friend from USAID.
“How frightening it must have been in the middle of the night!” worried my mother on a faint telephone line from London. “I’m sure you rushed Sangjay outside to safety!” Five months pregnant with Rinchen I had struggled to extricate myself from the waves of the waterbed, Tenzin lurching helplessly beside me. Trusty Sunita had Sangjay safe, and the waterbed craze did not last long in an earthquake zone.
Itching to get back to some distraction from the stifling baby scene, I occupied myself between feeds verifying National Geographic articles and editing travel brochures on the polished table in our miniature dining room. Sangjay had been an engrossing novelty, but the second baby turned out to be a more manageable routine. After a few weeks of domesticity, a work visit to check on Tiger Tops and the proposed Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge site presented itself as the perfect escape plan. Packing the car with the baby gear, we all set off for Chitwan.
Bumping through Valley potholes unrepaired since the previous monsoon, we passed the temple at Thankot that marks the start of the historic walking trail through the Chitlang valley to Bhimphedi, the lifeline linking Kathmandu to India that threads through villages past shrines, stupas, chaityas and patis.
Prior to the Raj Path opening in 1956, this was the only route south to the outside world along which porters carried everything, including chandeliers and cars. For those rich enough to ride, Bhimphedi was where the ruling Ranas and other privileged travellers swapped their horses for elephants to navigate the Tarai. Winter was the only safe time to cross Nepal’s lowlands, rife with malaria and other notorious maladies that protected the kingdom from uninvited visitors.
A few years ago, after some trouble locating the key, I found the old elephant stables in Bhimphedi, a strangely shaped Rana period building with lofty doors and tall brick walls on the edge of town near the river. The dusty old howdahs and faded decorations were recognisable from sepia hunting photographs of visiting viceroys and maharajahs. Stacked on racks above the elephant stalls were the rolls of white cloth that had been used by beaters to drive the tigers towards the waiting guns, the tweed-clad sportsmen safely perched on elephants.
“No one ever comes here,” smiled the wrinkled old chowkidar sadly, motes of dust and straw caught by the sunbeam slanting through the high windows.
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Decaying but intact, encrusted with dirt and spotted with blood, these relics lay where they had been stacked at the end of a long day hunting in the jungle many decades ago. Closing my eyes I could almost hear the clatter of chains, the thump of saddles, murmurs of long-dead elephants, and ghosts of their keepers calling softly to each other.