As you go past the Rani Pokhari (Queen’s Pond) at the heart of Kathmandu, you will notice a family of three on elephant back at the southern end. The stone sculpture is coated in white lime. King Pratap Malla ruled the country between 1641 and 1674 AD and contributed numerous buildings and monuments to Kathmandu including the Hanuman Dhoka Palace – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 1670 Pratap Malla decided to put his son Chakrawatendra Malla on the throne and teach him the art and skills of monarchy. The young king however passed away after just four days causing great grief to the then royal household.
In order to console the grief stricken queen mother, two initiatives were taken, one was to build the Rani Pokhari and fill it up with water from all the sacred water sources and place the family statue to make sure people did not forget the young king for as long as possible; and the second was the launch of the Gai Jatra festival. During this colorful festival, which falls on August 25 this year, a huge parade is taken around town by members of every family in which someone has passed away. Earlier, the parade of family members filed past the old palaces of the Kathmandu valley and was said to fulfill two purposes. One was to allow the rulers to make a census on how many deaths there were in the country; and the second and more personal one, to let the sad queen know that she was not the only one who has lost a loved one.
The idea of the parade was then taken one step further and people were encouraged to dress up in ridiculous clothes and make–up and allowed to say and do anything about anyone including the rulers themselves to make the sad families smile and laugh. It is very difficult to pin point just when in the history of the world freedom of speech was enacted anywhere, but in Nepal 1670 was definitely a turning point, except that the freedom was good for only seven days every year. Today we observe and participate in the same festival, the parade, where anything goes, as far as satire is concerned. The TV, radio and print media will be full of jokes and humour for a whole week. Nothing can be censored. Everything and anything goes during this festival. No one is spared.
Last month, the leaders of the G20 met in Toronto and pledged more resources to end untimely child and maternal deaths around the world. The world wants to see an end to the preventable demise of children and mothers globally that can be easily addressed through cost effective interventions. In Nepal, in the last few decades, the numbers are improving. From over 110 deaths per 1000 births then, to about 60 now. The trend is positive but the effort must be relentless. Next time you drive around the Rani Pokhari make a pledge to do what you can to prevent infant mortality.