Stepping out with the elephants

THE best moments of life are unexpected -- surprising little happenings that stay shining in the memory. They are more apt to occur when one is on unfamiliar ground, which explains why foreign countries are so endlessly exciting. One never knows what to expect. In old Katmandu there stands a large wooden temple said to have been made from a single ancient tree. Several streets meet in front of this temple. One comes from the Rajpath, the famous road that climbs and twists its way over the Mahabharat Range from India. Another enters from the road my apartment was on, and I always passed through the open place of the crossroads on my mile-long walk to the office.

One morning as I stepped out from my street an elephant also stepped into the crossroads. I looked up in amazement. Elephants don't live in Katmandu. Behind it ambled seven other elephants, all huge and evenly matched in size.

They had come over the mountains on the Rajpath. It was a long walk up from the lowlands in southern Nepal where they lived. They were tired. So were the mahouts and elephant boys jolting on their backs among pots and pans and roped-on blankets.

They were used to being stared at and admired, which, of course, is what I was doing. So were all the other people in the streets. Little boys in rags, men in dhoti-suruwals or business suits, women in bright saris, we all gazed at the elephants in surprise and delight.

We immediately guessed they had come for the wedding of Crown Prince Birendra, due in a couple of weeks. At sight of them every face lit up, but neither elephants, nor mahouts, nor even the elephant boys flicked an eyelash. Though I could see now that they were all alert, they gazed over our heads in bored hauteur.

They proceeded along the street that cuts diagonally across old Katmandu, past multi-tiered temples of gods and goddesses, past the Narayan Temple, near that of the Living Goddess, in front of the carved balcony where statues of Shiva and Parbati lean out as if to watch the mortal scene below. The gray behemoths passed the entrance to the old Royal Palace, which is guarded by an array of temples and frightful gods.

That day no one had eyes for any of these holy sights. All were bent on the great beasts. Their path, it seemed, was mine. Together we walked all through the bazaar with its open-fronted brass shops, cloth shops, shops selling jewelry and glass bangles. Down we went to Asan Tole, the square where a temple to the goddess of plenty stands on one side, its porch sheltering a great bowl of rice, and a temple to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, stands across from it. Rickshaws clogged the streets.

Rickshaws and people scurried out of the way before the elephants, and a cow threw up its tail and ran. The huge feet trod deliberately forward.

I saw the toenails as big as my hand, the ridiculous tails, huge leathery flanks, tiny red-rimmed eyes, and waving ears. The mahouts had bamboo canes which they rested between the two bulbs of the huge foreheads when they weren't using them to signal their charges. Each elephant had a bell around its neck and a rope that went under its tail. Once a man held his baby up to touch the gray tough skin sparsely sprinkled with inch-long hairs. The mahout shouted sharply at him.

I was excited still and pleased with the faces of the Nepalis as each one caught sight of the eight mighty creatures passing in lordly disdain, their mahouts gazing stonily into the distance.

At the Prince's wedding I would later see the eight elephants gorgeous in cloth of gold and crimson, their tails encased in gold. They were painted. Their nails gleamed. They wore plumes on their heads. But nothing could equal this first unexpected encounter when all of us were our everyday selves.

On we went together past another shrine and out into the King's Way, a broad street that leads to the New Royal Palace. I walked beside the great reservoir known as the Queen's Pool with a causeway leading out to its own small temple in the middle of the water. The elephants walked there, too.

At the corner I turned right and then right again. So did the elephant train, one after the other in line. When at the next corner I turned left down the street to my office and they did, too, I laughed aloud, but I still could not see that the lumbering beasts or their riders knew that I was there. Never mind, I was enjoying every minute of it as I kept pace with the ponderous leader. I regretted that I was nearing the office and would have to leave them.

At the gate into my compound I turned to watch them pass. As I stood looking up at them, each elephant raised its trunk and curled it to its head in salute. Each mahout lifted his hand to his forehead. Was there a twinkle in the little red eyes of the elephants?

After a moment's pleased surprise I bowed graciously in the manner, I hoped, of a maharani. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I felt like one.

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