How Philip the Sherpa was royally baptised

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The Independent Online
It was about the time when Australians were taking sledgehammers to that sculpture, Liz and Phil by the Lake, depicting the royal couple in cement with no clothes, that I heard the story about the only Sherpa in the Himalayas named Philip.

There is a connection; Thukden Philip Sherpa, 28, who was raised in a stone village near Mt Everest, happened to be named Philip by the Prince himself. Phil is not a normal name for Sherpas. And if it weren't for a mouldy piece of fur thought to be a yeti scalp, this young man would have ended up with a typical sherpa name, such as Lightening Bolt of the Dharma.

Around the Himalayas, this Sherpa's village of Khumjung is famous for its Buddhist shrine containing a sacred relic: the auburn-furred scalp of a yeti. Nobody knows who was supposed to have scalped the yeti, a dangerous proposition, I'm told; it was brought more than 50 years ago as a holy souvenir from Tibet. So when Sir Edmund Hillary undertook his hunt for the Abominable Snowman in 1960, he made a beeline for Khumjung. Sir Edmund wanted to send off the much-worshipped yeti scalp to have lab experts in the US pick over it. Not surprisingly, the village lama didn't want it to go.

Bhanu Banerjee, now a tea garden manager near Darjeeling, took part in the scalp discussions between the Sherpas and Sir Edmund. "They were worried that the yeti scalp might get lost or stolen. Their lama warned them that if anything bad happened to it, the Sherpas' barleyfields would be destroyed by hailstorms."

When all seemed lost, the village headman stepped forward with an idea. He volunteered to accompany the relic on its voyage to India, Europe and the US. Off the expedition went, with its newest member, Kunjo Chumbi, Guardian of the Yeti's Toupee.

It is Himalayan protocol that when one headman goes to another village, he must pay his respects to the chief. So, when Kunjo Chumbi reached London, he thought he'd better check in with the headman.

"We told him London didn't have a headman, but a headwoman - the Queen," Mr Banerjee explained. The Sherpa nodded wisely, and said, "No wonder everything is so crazy here." Undaunted, he went calling at Buckingham Palace. Neither Her Majesty nor the Duke of Edinburgh was there, but Kunjo rather amazingly got to see the children. The Himalayan chieftain gave them bear hugs and a few yak tails.

In America, zoologists deduced the yeti relic was not a yeti at all but a goat-antelope called a serow. Kunjo returned to his village with many wondrous tales, but kept this last bit of knowledge to himself. As far as the villagers are concerned, it's still a holy yeti scalp.

Several years later, Mr Banerjee arrived in Khumjung, breathless after the 21-day trek from Kathmandu. The Queen and Prince Philip were due on a state visit to Nepal and wanted to meet the odd little fellow who had so amused Anne, Charles, Andrew and Edward.

"The invitation was for Kunjo and his Missus," Mr Banerjee said. "But she was nine months pregnant. On the 14th day of the trek, she went down to the stream for a wash and came back 30 minutes later holding a baby. She strapped him on to her back, and we hit the trail. We arrived in Kathmandu in record time, 18 days, but the poor woman was shattered. Had to be taken to hospital."

The embassy Bentley picked up the Sherpas and their new baby. When the Bentley rolled up, Prince Philip himself opened the car door and took the baby in his arms. Prince Philip asked the boy's name. "It's up to our lamas," Kunjo replied. Mr Banerjee recalled the Duke saying, "I've a name for him. Call him Philip - after me." Kunjo and his wife agreed, and Prince Philip did a very rash thing: Mr Banerjee and others claim he appointed himself godfather and promised to pay the baby's school fees in Britain.

"And, thanks to Prince Philip, the boy went on to become a doctor. The only Sherpa to do so," Mr Banerjee said.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't end there. I got through to Thukden Philip Sherpa in Kathmandu. He wasn't a doctor. Like many Sherpas nowadays, he works in trekking with tourists. Did Prince Philip ever send him to Britain for school? "My father didn't speak English that much ... so he never got in touch," Philip explained without resentment.

He was in Kathmandu when the royal couple revisited Nepal, and requested an audience. He got 15 minutes. "I gave Prince Philip a letter requesting help so that I could train as a pilot in England. But I never heard from him again. It would've been fun, flying around the Himalayas."

Tim McGirk