Gai Jatra procession, a festival commemorating the dead? How can one celebrate during such difficult times? It may sound absurd to a first time traveller making their way into the ancient city states of Kathmandu Valley. Bidding goodbye to your loved ones after their demise is a daunting and difficult task and call for celebration during such times is unimaginable.
The people of Newar community in Nepal, seem to have accepted death as an inevitable part of life and celebrate the beautiful festival of Gai Jatra to allow the souls of beloved to make a safe passage to heaven.
The Gai Jatra originated from Royals of then, ancient city state of Kathmandu. The Malla King, Pratap Malla famous for his poems, temples and various development to Newar circa inside the valley - is also famous for Gai Jatra in Nepal. It is believed the King of Kathmandu, Pratak Malla had five sons, whom he allowed to reign as king on a yearly basis - it was the year, for his second Son Chakrabartendra to rule his subjects and fulfill duties as a King of then Kathmandu.
Right on the second day of his ascension to the throne a mishap took his life away. An elephant trampled the king very next day, he was to conduct a reign. Dismayed by death of her son, Queen got depressed and weltered for her deceased son day and night. King tried every measures and forms of entertainment to cheer up his consort but it was to no avail. Thus, he asked his populous to dress up as cow, funnily, make satires, and take actual cows on Gai Jatra procession from families whose relative had deceased during the year.
The event allowed to queen to garner her true self and awareness back and accept death as a part of life. The tradition has been part of newar festivals since the 17th century and journey of the city still carries till date.
The Gai jatra or Sa: Paru: celebrated on fourth day subsequent to lunar calendar is tied to Shinigami (god of death), as the Japanese would likely call it. The newar devotees regardless of them following Buddhism or Hinduism, believe the gates of heaven are open to deceased souls for easy entry unlike regular days. The guards are believed to allow the souls of deceased holy cows easily. Starting a Gai Jatra procession in name of deceased allows them to cling on to cow’s tails and make their journey to heaven easy, as per the local. The dharmic significance of Gai Jatra in Nepal allows a traveler to see the seriousness of people towards their tradition and most importantly the religion, the people of this country follow.
The Gai Jatra Procession which is celebrated with great joy offers a glimpse into nature of life. The happy faces of little boys and girls decorated with mustaches of black powder collected from smoke and variety of colourful vermillion powder (tika) elaborating their faces, allows people to focus on the living and not the dead.
The people from the house of deceased giving alms, feeding milk and providing money to those dressed up as gream the reaper(oh yes! you’re going to find one every year), insanely comical people and the cow look alike kids, allows people to celebrate joy of giving. Furthermore, the Streets of Bhaktapur are laced with people eating a bhoye(feast) from family of deceased to help them organize Ghintang Ghisi parade. The Ghitntang Ghisi Parade, typically sees people dancing to beat of local musical instruments and striking the sticks they brought along with themselves. The procession hands down people the art of music and dance through a festive mood in the beautiful festival of Gai Jatra.
You don’t have to belong to join in and dance along with the local, you just need a pair of sticks and anyone will allow into their group for enjoying Ghintang Ghisi. Likewise, you can also see people in Bhaktapur construct Tahamacha from Bamboo sticks with the photo of deceased on it. The Tahamacha is wrapped with special kind of traditional Haku Patasi cloth tied to Newari culture. The festival teaches kids the importance of building something new and along with the skills to do it themselves.
Lastly, the dharmic significance of Gai Jatra makes people clean the tails of the cows brought on the street – cleansing of cows tails imparts people, the knowledge of maintaining hygiene of their live stocks. The livestock was a prized possession in the previous agrarian nature of the Kathmandu Valley and it must have come about as necessity in past times
The Gai Jatra articles, cartoons, and figurines make headlines in the national daily’s and broadcasts for only one day. However, the festival is actually meant to be celebrated for 8 days. The modernization has halted countless practices and it is not celebrated for 8 days in Kritipur, Kathmandu and Lalitpur. The true beauty of Gai Jatra in Nepal comes to full scale blossom in the streets of Bhaktapur, where the festival is celebrated for 8 days. People sing up satirical songs in the local Newari language, perform plays in the Dabalis(stages used for announcement, play and mask dances) spread across the ancient town ways of Bhaktapur. Get a local indigenous guide with NepaBooking to enjoy Gai Jatra procession to its fullest on your next trip to Nepal.