Ghurkhas flock to greet Ab Fab actress Lumley


June 18, 2010 Updated Jul 28, 2009 at 11:12 AM EDT

Thousands of Gurkha veterans and their families gathered in eastern Nepal on Tuesday to salute Joanna Lumley, the actress who led a campaign for them to be allowed to settle in Britain.

At a packed rally in Dharan town hall, Lumley was greeted with traditional music, marigold garlands and banners reading "Long live Joanna" and "We love Joanna".

Since she arrived in Nepal at the weekend, she has been feted by the former British army fighters -- many of whom have trekked long distances to thank her for her successful efforts to force a change in government policy.

Scores of veterans, proudly displaying medals on their chests, waited to catch a glimpse of Lumley on her visit to Dharan, a town which has a large Gurkha community and has long been a recruiting centre for the British army.

She told the rally that her father had been a British major in the Gurkha Rifles, and that as a child she had visited sick soldiers in what is now Malaysia.

One seriously ill Gurkha gave her a small bottle of perfume that he feared he would not live long enough to be able to give to his daughter, she said.

"I never forgot his generosity," she told the adoring crowd. "I will never forget your generosity and today I bring to you, instead, my heart."

In one of many emotional moments, an 84-year-old widow whose Gurkha husband was killed in the Burma campaign of the Second World War presented Lumley with shawl.

Also among the gifts presented to the actress was an engraved silver kukri ceremonial knife.

"This has been such a remarkable day," she told crowds at an earlier stop in Mechinagar, where children were given the day off school to mark her visit. "The warmth of your welcome touches my heart."

Organisers said many veterans have travelled on foot to reach the towns that Lumley is visiting on her week-long trip to Nepal, where rural communities are often inaccessible by road.

Lumley will also tour the eastern district of Jhapa, home to two of the Nepalese ethnic groups that have traditionally contributed large numbers of men to the Gurkha ranks.

The 63-year-old star of television show "Absolutely Fabulous" -- who is far more famous here for her role in the Gurkha campaign -- has been dubbed "a daughter of Nepal" by locals.

The Gurkhas have been part of the British army for almost 200 years and more than 45,000 have died in British uniform. Around 3,500 currently serve in the army, including in Afghanistan.

After a climbdown in the face of the campaign Lumley fronted, the government announced in May that all Gurkha veterans who had served at least four years in the army could apply for residency.

Previously, only those who retired after 1997 had been eligible.

The Indian-born Lumley became a rallying voice for the men she called the "bravest of the brave" after joining the campaign in 2007.

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