Gai Jatra: In the Memory of Deceased Ones

  • Sun-Sep-2019

Although Gai Jatra is celebrated as a remembrance of deceased members of the family, it is a vibrant festival with singing and dancing, mirth and laughter. The festival is observed within Kathmandu Valley, especially in Kathamndu by Newars.

There is a fascinating story behind the celebration of Gai Jatra, wherein Gai means “Cow” and Jatra means “festival.” It is a lively celebration with the participation of thousands of audiences, both Newars, and non-Newars. So, let us dive into this unique celebration of Nepali culture and tradition.

What is the story behind Gai Jatra celebration?

gai jatra in nepal

Do not be deluded by the name of Gai Jatra, as it bluntly translates as “Festival of Cows”; might give you the idea that its initiation relates to the Cow. But, its story is something more grave and heart-touching.

The tale of Gai Jatra goes all the way back to Malla Era when King Pratap Malla ( 1641-1674) used to reign over Kathmandu (then Kantipur). King Pratap Malla is one of the important historical figure in Nepal, who is responsible for consecrating many magnificent architectural feats during his rule.

The tall column in Hanuman Dhoka with his and whole family statues (known as Pratap Dhwaja), Kal Bhairab Statue, Krishna Temple (Chyasin Dega), Rani Pokhari, Swayambhunath, Stone Inscriptions and several buildings around Durbar are the legacies he left behind. No wonder, his reign is seen as the cultural and economic heyday of Malla dynasty.

Gai Jatra relates to the Rani Pokhari (Queen’s Pond) near Kathmandu Durbar Square. Pratap Mall had two wives and five sons; Bhupendra, Chakrabartendra, Nripendra, Mahipatendra, and Parthibendra. He was a very ambitious king who wanted nothing but good for his kingdom. So, the king had a very queer idea of putting all the four sons in throne turn-by-turn within a gap of a year to see who comes to be the best.

However, things didn’t go as smooth as Pratap Malla had planned. When his second son sat on the throne, he died being trampled by an elephant on the very second day of sitting on the throne.

Swallowed in pain and grief by the death of her most beloved son, the queen was devasted, and soon the sadness took over as a depression. With the death of a son and his queen in that state, Pratap Malla was in great sorrow too. Seeing her queen in such pain, he called for all sorts of entertainment and entertainers in the court to make her laugh and forget the grief even for some while. But, the attempts all failed.

Then, making a desperate attempt, he asked his subjects to organise a parade in which at least one member of every family, who has lost one of the family members that year will make participation. He also ordered to dress in a very crazy, colorful and flashy costumes and also to drag a colourfully decorated cow behind them. And if not a cow, someone while has to come dressing up as a cow.

Pratap Malla also allowed all his subject to make jokes to make his queen laugh, even about the social norms and people in powerful positions. This exuberant parade was to pass along the main gates of the royal palace so that the king and queen observe the festivity and have a good time.

More to the king's expectation, the crowd of participation was more than what he had hoped for. Then, the king told the queen, that it was not only her who lost a loved one, but the whole crowd also are the ones and is participating in honoring their memory. After this, the queen realized that it was not only her who is suffering and grieving. All the people in the crowd had someone died, but still, they are endeavoring to live happily, dressed in funny clothes, cracking jokes, making fun, and having a laugh. Thus, the tradition of Gai Jatra commenced, which is till welcomed and celebrated with much zeal and ardent in the valley.

As for the construction of Rani Pokhari, Pratap Malla had it build in 1667 in the memory of his second son, Chakrabartendra. After his son died, the queen wished to get sanctified bathing holy water. So, the king commanded the construction of Rani Pokhari, with the water from fifty-one sacred rivers throughout Nepal and India.

How is Gai Jatra celebrated in different places?

-Kathmandu

Kathmandu is the pivotal point for the celebration of Gai Jatra as it where Pratap Malla originally started the festival. When the parade presented by King to queen won the heart of queen and actually touched the feeling of locals, it became an annual program to present the queen with Gai Jatra.

However, even after the rule of Pratap Malla and many kings after him, the festival lived on, being passed on from generation to generation. So, of all the places where Gai Jatra is celebrated, it is mainly in Kathmandu where takes places various programs.

Gai Jatra takes place around the city in parts of the suburb and inner urban areas to present the devotion to their deceased. While hundreds of people walk in the procession with several offerings like fruits, flowers, sweets, oats, and other foot items, thousands come as an audience to witness the festival in Kathmandu.

-Bhaktapur

bhaktapur gai jatra

Although the jest of the festival is the same, Gai Jatra is quite different in Bhaktapur. Taha-Macha, a chariot made of bamboo is wrapped in the cloth of a dead person hung at the centre. It symbolizes the dead people, so it is decorated with their possessions and photographs. The chariot goes through the streets of Bhaktapur with a long parade of family members and locals.

The tradition to the chariot is quite astute where the even the wrap of Taha-Macha has to be a cotton cloth, hakupatasi (a black traditional sari-type cloth) for women and a simple sari-type for men.

Then Taha-Macha is brought out from the various toles of Bhaktapur. However, the Taha-Macha of Lakolachhen is guided by Bhailya Dya (Bhairab), a large one that has the bamboo framework but is covered in straws instead, which is succeeded by Ajima (Bhadrakali) made at Khala (Ajima Dyo: Chhen).

Gai Jatra in Bhaktapur is loud and vibrant as a local musician and cultural dance called Ghintang Ghisi follow in the wake of the chariot. As the celebration is meant to be funny, people come dressing up in a different way with face painting and masks. Men can be seen wearing women’s dresses, and even children participate in the parade dressing as Gods.

Ghintang Ghisigoes even longer than the actual celebration of Gai Jatra, almost for a week, starting right from the day of Gai Jatra to the Krishna Janmashtami. The dance is interesting and amusing as well, which is done in a long queue with long persons in a row hitting each other’s stick. Not only this particular dance, several cultural show, and events take place on the occasion of Gai Jatra.

-Patan

Gai Jatra in Patan is similar to Kathmandu, but witnesses less audience, because people are more focused on Kathmandu’s celebration. Gai Jatra is mainly observed amongst Newars; however, in Patan, there is another festival as well called Matayaa, which is celebrated by Hindus.

Kirtipur

Gai jatra in kritipur

Gai Jatra is celebrated in ancient historical towns of Kirtipur; Kipu dey, Panga, Naga, Bhajanga, and Yarwocha. Unlike other places, in Kirtipur holds an astounding belief that on the day of Gai Jatra the gates of heaven are opened for the deas and the procession helps their beloved ones to reach the gates of heaven.

Along with the deads, peace and harmony amongst the living are also celebrated. And, rather than dressing typically as cows, people show up dressing as gods and goddesses.

When is Gai Jatra 2020?

The celebration of Gai Jatra usually takes place in Bhadra, which is either August or September. And in 2020, the festival takes place in August 11. So, do visit the nearest place of celebration to witness the unique culture and tradition of Nepal.