Gai Jatra, a Unique Festival to Commemorate the Deceased!

Gai Jatra, a unique festival of Nepal, does not normally make it to the list of unusual festivals round the world. But it has every reason to be one of them! In a simple way we can describe it as a festival to commemorate the dead family members- something not that unusual. But can you think of a funny parade in weird clothes and having all sorts of merry making to memorize the deceased ones? Definitely not! That’s why Gai Jatra is said to be one of its kind!

an effigy of a deceased one

Life and deaths are the only absolute truths of life. People celebrate life, but same cannot be said about Death. The very idea of death fills everyone with fear and grief. In case of beloved ones, it’s beyond imagination. However, the people of Kathmandu Valley are not only master at accepting death, but also expert at celebrating it in the liveliest way. After all, death is as true as life itself!

Gai Jatra is one of such festivals which is celebrated to commemorate death. Gai Jatra which literally means “Cow Festival”, is celebrated by Newar community of Kathmandu Valley in the month of Bhadra according to Nepal Sambat calendar. This year it falls on 27th of August. Normally, it’s a parade festival in which the family whose member has died during that year takes out the procession in the street. They either decorate a cow or dress themselves as cow and make round in the neighboring vicinity. People also line up and distribute food and drink to the participants of the procession. However, the procession is just one of the main rituals of the whole event. The procession is both preceded and followed by other ritualistic activities.

Family members of the deceased taking part in the parade (pic credit:

Before the procession, the participant family observes solemn ritual which strictly needs to be scared. Every item used needs to be clean and participant needs to go through ablution and other sacred rituals prior to the day. The participants are normally pre-pubescent boys or girls who have not gone through Bratabandha and Bel Bibaha rituals. When the procession time gets close, they become ready. They put on red or yellow brocade/silk gown and have a head gear made of a picture of cow and a horn-like paper decoration. The colorful and attractive dressing is complimented by marigold garlands, Elaeocarpus beads or other types of accessories.  Some get dressed as different Gods.  When the procession time is ready which is an auspicious time fixed by the priest, every participating family gathers in a chowk, from where the procession starts. The procession also includes other people in funny dresses with comedy acts similar to cosplaying in carnivals. The participants are offered different kinds of foods during their walk. After they make round of the town, they conclude at a riverside where they dispose their decorations and return back to their respective homes. Then after, the participant families have a big feast.

Two Lakhes, the mythical demons, performing in the street of Kathmandu Durbar Square

This is a just a brief outline of the festival. Different communities have some additions of their own. Like Gai Jatra in Bhaktapur has a chariot parade as well. Youths are also involved in stick dancing hitting each other’s sticks. This street show lasts for a week till Krishna Astami. In Kirtipur, all interested people of the city engage in street dancing wearing weird costumes. Outside the Valley, Newari people celebrate it with their own local uniqueness. Though they have some differences in ways, the overarching theme is to commemorate the dead ones, pray for their peace and honor “Yama”, the God of Death. Another interesting side of Gai Jatra is, it is not just limited to religious celebrations only. It is also considered as the social observation for joke, laughter and public satire. On this particular day, people are free to make outrageous public satire to the authorities and artists, especially comedians have their big day with different kinds of entertaining programs that run for more than a week. The idea of fun and comedy is so deeply connected with the festival that the word “Gai jatra” is also used in local parlance while referring to any chaotic funny situation. The most recent addition to this festival is the pompous parade of LGBTI community with all the fanfare. They take this festival as an opportunity to freely express themselves.   

Young girls and boys performing stick dance in Kathmandu Durbar Square

How these two extremely conflicting ideas of commemorating death and making fun come together has an interesting story which also gave birth to this festival. Pratap Malla, a medieval King of Kathmandu had a misfortune once. His son had an untimely death because of which his queen became grief-stricken. Despite the King’s several attempts to comfort her, her grief was not lessened. So, to make her realize the absolute truth of life, he announced a carnival in which the families whose members had died that year should participate. He also declared reward for those who could make the Queen laugh. Naturally, a huge number of people participated as death is a normal thing in any family. This made the queen realize the fact that she was not the only one who had the misfortune. In addition, all the humorous acts and caricatures made her laugh. As the idea worked perfectly, the King established it as an annual festival which is continued as a tradition till date. By now, this festival has passed more than four hundred years. However, with the growing complexities and miseries in people’s life, it is increasingly being  more and more relevant year by year.

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