Kathmandu: Four years after the Hindu kingdom of Nepal became a secular republic where Christians no longer face state persecution, guess who is making an epic journey here this Christmas? It`s good old Santa Claus.
Santa has exchanged his reindeer-drawn sleigh for a boat, tractor, rickshaw and all the other indigenous contraptions that ply on Nepal`s roads and lakes, and his sack contains unusual gifts: an artificial leg, a wheelchair and a physiotherapist.
Santa comes to Nepal courtesy International Nepal Fellowship (INF), Nepal`s longest-serving international non-governmental organisation that works among people with HIV/AIDS, TB, leprosy and disabilities.
The Christian mission, which began working in Nepal from 1952 after a pro-democracy movement made the kingdom open its borders to the world, has created a three-minute video film, "Santa visits INF in Nepal".
The film celebrates the spirit of Christmas - that it is more blessed to give than receive - and promotes worldwide the unusual INF gift catalogue, that is available online.
For as little as $8, you can buy a "life-changing" gift and make an enormous difference to some one`s life: like a walking frame made of local material that will help a differently abled Nepali child to walk. For $65, you can gift two piglets to a leprosy or HIV survivor, who can battle social stigma by becoming economically independent through pig-farming.
Other gifts are artificial legs, self-care kits for leprosy patients, materials for a toilet, and even transport from remote mountainous areas to hospital for medical care.
The Santa film was conceived and made by Matt Watson, a 32-year-old New Zealander currently working in INF`s graphics division in Kathmandu. It shows Santa`s epic journey by boat, tractor, microlite, Land Rover, bicycle, car, `tuk-tuk` and rickshaw to reach Kathmandu, from where he proceeds to INF`s Green Pastures Hospital in Pokhara, the first hospital in western Nepal, and the nearby INF Primary Study Centre.
On the way, he faces great challenges, especially from a herd of buffaloes who see red at his attire. However, he overcomes all obstacles to deliver his gifts: nutritious food to patients at the hospital, an artificial leg and a wheelchair.
"The film is being seen on YouTube and the INF web site," says Marin Hickey, INF`s communications director. "It has also been shown in different places around the world, including churches in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK and in a school in Finland. It has been shared by many people on Facebook."
Shot in Kathmandu and in and around Pokhara, the Santa film has two Nepali men playing the gift-giver. During the shooting, Hickey says everyone had a lot of fun.
"People stopped the crew in the street to take photos of Santa Claus with themselves (and) the clients involved (also) thoroughly enjoyed themselves, as is clear in the video," he adds.
Before it was allowed to enter Nepal, INF worked among the Nepali diaspora in India. Hickey says it became a registered organisation in India in 1943, when it was involved in health work among Nepalis in Nautanwa in Uttar Pradesh.
Despite the tight rein on Christian organisations till the second pro-democracy movement in Nepal in 1990, he says INF enjoyed a very positive relationship with Nepal`s government.
"INF works in Nepal with the agreement of the government`s Social Welfare Council, and the agreement is re-negotiated every five years," he says. "INF`s relationship with Nepal`s government was positive before 2006 (when Nepal became secular) and has remained positive."