They're coming down the mountain to greet the messiah
Saturday 18 July 2009
Among the Gurkha villages scattered across the foothills of the Himalayas they call her the "daughter of Nepal".
Next week, thousands of these warrior people will leave their mountain homes to begin the long journey down to Kathmandu so they can pay tribute to the British actress they credit with single-handedly winning them a famous victory off the battlefield.
Joanna Lumley will travel to Nepal next Saturday, The Independent has learnt. Her arrival in the world's youngest republic is being treated as a state visit and she will address a football stadium of veteran soldiers. The Nepalese will officially honour her role in the campaign to secure justice for Gurkha soldiers who loyally fought for Britain but until this year were denied the right to live in the United Kingdom.
Lumley's determination to force Gordon Brown to give the Gurkhas what years of lobbying and litigation failed to deliver has earned her a special place in the hearts of the Nepalese people.
In her whistle-stop tour of the southern Asian state, the 63-year-old former Ab Fab actress will hold private meetings with both the Prime Minister and the President of Nepal and later take tea at the British embassy.
Organisers of the visit estimate that as many as 5,000 Gurkhas, many of whom will have served in the same Gurkha regiment as Joanna Lumley's father, plan to gather at four different locations across the country to see the former model, who one former soldier said "is now lauded as a goddess".
In Pokhara, Nepal's third largest city, located in the heart of the country, a football stadium has been hired to accommodate the multitudes of Gurkhas who will be making the descent.
Among them are Captain Lalit Bahadur Gurung, 82, awarded the Military Cross by Prince Philip in 1964 for his actions in the Malayan campaign, but who has been left paralysed by a stroke and cannot afford medical treatment in Nepal. Last year his son carried him to see British officials in Kathmandu, but he was told they could not waive the £585 visa fee to come to Britain unless he was officially declared destitute.
"If he is too ill to go to the stadium, then Joanna will go to see him at his home," said Kieran O'Rourke, who will be accompanying the actress during the visit. "He is typical of all the Gurkhas who so desperately want to see Joanna so they can give thanks for what she has done in this campaign. I know that others, some as old as Captain Gurung, will be walking from their homes in the hills on foot. It is impossible to really appreciate what this means to these people unless you are Gurkha."
Campaigners were jubilant when the Home Secretary at the time, Jacqui Smith, told Parliament earlier this year that all Gurkha veterans with four years' service would be allowed to move to the UK. Lumley led the cheers of "Ayo Gurkhali" – "the Gurkhas are coming". The Gurkhas waiting at Kathmandu will greet her with a specially commissioned chant honouring her trip to Nepal.
The Gurkhas have strong historical links with the British Army. Following the partition of India in 1947, an agreement between Nepal, India and Britain meant four Gurkha regiments from the Indian army were transferred to the British Army, eventually becoming the Gurkha Brigade. Since then, the Gurkhas have loyally fought for the British all over the world, receiving 13 Victoria Crosses between them. More than 200,000 fought in the two world wars, and in the past 60 years they have served in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Borneo, Cyprus, the Falklands, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Joanna Lumley's father, Major James (Jimmy) Lumley, fought with distinction alongside the Gurkhas in the jungles of Burma in 1944. Recently she said her father "would have been overwhelmed with shame at the British treatment of the Gurkhas".
In recognition of Lumley's support, a bronze plaque will be inscribed with her name and she will be given a catar, a yellow religious scarf. Said Mr O'Rourke: "I met a Gurkha who in his wallet kept pictures of his wife and children and tucked behind them was a photograph of Joanna Lumley."
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