“For Nepalese death is not the opposite of life, but rather it’s a part of life”
Gai is cow and Jatra is Procession (Festival). Gai Jatra, the festival of cows is celebrated in Nepal, mostly in Kathmandu valley by the Newar and Tharu community. Generally, this festival is celebrated in the month of Bhadra (August-September). The festival falls on the day after the festival of threads Janai Purnima, which is normally on August as per the Gregorian calendar. It is also one of the most popular festivals of Nepal as it has been celebrated since the ancient times.
Its History and Beginning
According to legend people waded through the mythical Baitarni River holding the tail of a cow to reach heaven. So this festival celebrates death in the most beautiful way in Nepal as it has a long history. In the ancient days, the festival worshipped the lord of Death “Yama”. During the medieval era, the celebration of this festival experienced huge transformation.
In 17th century Nepal’s ruler, King Pratap Malla, is said to have invited people to march in costumes and perform stunts and plays in front of his palace to make his grief-stricken wife smile after the death of their son. Attempts to please the queen of King Pratap Malla, who was devastated by the death of her young son, the festival emerged to become one of the most entertaining festivals in Kathmandu that blends the biggest tragedy of life, which is death with the unlimited humor and fun. As the procession began somehow people who performed in front of the queen were able to show the queen that the pain of losing someone is not just felt by her but rather its felt by others too. That is why this festival started being celebrated from that moment as the queen realized that she is not the only one in agony with her son’s death, there are many others who feel the pain just like she does. Hence from that moment on King Pratap malla started the tradition of Gai Jatra. Presently people from this era celebrate it to satire and laugh upon the topics of death, loss and other socio-political matters.
In Hinduism the cow is considered holy/sacred. Many Nepalese use the animal’s urine and dung for religious purposes and the slaughter of cows is banned in country. Boys in the procession also wear elaborate paper headdresses to impersonate cows, as well as white loin cloths and loose saffron vests. If families have lost a female member, the boys are dressed as girls in brocaded crimson blouses and saris. Relatives and friends offer milk, beaten rice, fruits and sweets in leafy trays to the participants. During anarchy in Nepal, Gai Jatra offered freedom to satire against the government and bureaucrats. The Gai jatra is not just celebrated in one city but rather in four different cities so it varies a bit in each city. Therefore, it is also considered to be one of the most celebrated festivals in Nepal.
Four cities celebrating Gai Jatra
From the view of historical importance Gai Jatra is mainly celebrated in Kathmandu. The procession of cow that goes around Kathmandu valley demonstrating their deceased family member from the past year. King Pratap Malla asked to bring the cow procession before the sad queen. Then people tried their best with different costumes and humorous acts. The dance and procession finally gave queen smile on her face. The smile at the moment was temporary but the procession gave queen a big relief. She knew that there are several deaths in the city during the period and she is not alone. Death is the natural phenomenon and no one has control on it. According to the traditions since times immemorial, every family who has lost someone during the past year must participate in a procession through the streets of Kathmandu leading a cow. But as Nepal is entering the developing era and most of Kathmandu Valley’s population have modified the form of domestic animal, cows have been replaced by dogs and cats, now young boys dress up as cows, and parade through the streets, thereby helping the deceased to find their niche in the afterlife.
Gai Jatra is also performed in Bhaktapur. To the amusement of the people, Bhaktapur has a flavor of its own, vastly different from Kathmandu and Patan. Apart from family members roaming around as a cow to help their departed ones, the main attraction there in Bhaktapur is the traditional dance of this festival called Ghentang ghisi’. In two long lines, girls and boys face one another; striking each other’s stick in alternating slow and fast tempo of drummers, making an electrifying thud. It has been a while that girls too are allowed to participate in Ghentang ghisi’. These days one can see girls tapping feet to the rhythm and few of them beating traditional drums and clashing cymbals. The line is followed by bamboo structures covered with colorful cloth and painted pictures/clay-molds of cows symbolizing the dead. One can easily figure out whether it is for male or female. If the deceased one is male then the tall-erected bamboo is wrapped by plain white cloth, and Haku patasi (Newari traditional wear for woman) is used to cover bamboo, for woman. The line circumambulates whole Bhaktapur Durbar Square, which ends with elaborated bhoj (party)
In Kritipur, Gai Jatra is celebrated in a unique way. Families who have lost their be-loved ones participate in a procession for whole day. People wear masks and colorful clothes on the procession. Similarly, some people specially children disguise themselves as a cow and ‘Jogis’. In the same occasion the special dance that is named “Tir-Ku-Lar-Ku” in “Panga” and “Dhe-Dhe-Pa-Pa” is performed in kritipur.
Patan is also one of the cities where Gai jatra is performed and celebrated. It seems that this festival is the place to vent out all the humorous fillings inside of one’s head. Crowds gather on the temple steps and in the balconies and at the windows of the houses, passed by the procession in their well calculated route, to watch outrageously garbed citizens blatantly burlesquing Nepalese institutions, social and religious customs, the government, and sometimes the gods themselves. Somehow its more colorful and extravagant than Kathmandu. The crowd is at its highest during the celebration of this festival. The moment they parade with bands, happy very often under the influence of home-brewed libations, to clown before the waiting crowds is one of the special moments during this whole procession as it’s a way of celebrating the Gai Jatra by the people from Patan.
Hence, the present form of Gai Jatra is a happy blending of antiquity and medievalism as it enables the people to accept the reality of death and to prepare oneself for the life after death. There’s even a saying in Hinduism “whatever a man does in his life is to prepare himself for the life which lies a wait for him after death”.