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Gai Jatra, a festival of comedies and tributes to demised relatives

The Nepal Weekly
August 29, 2023

GaiJatra is a festival of dancing, singing, mirth and laughter. The festival of cow is celebrated in the Kathmandu Valley to commemorate the death of loved ones. As part of the festival family members of the deceased of the past year send people mostly children. dressed as cows to parade on the streets.

GaiJatra festival in Nepal is one of the most celebrated festivals among Hindus. The GaiJatra Festival is an annual event celebrated.The festival usually falls in July or August. It is on 31st August this year.

GaiJatra is a time to remember lost ones (those who passed away in a year) and also to ease the pain of losing them.

The festival is celebrated particularly in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, Lalitpur, Sankhu and other places by the Newar community living there. 

During this festival, small kids wear funny makeup and clothes to appear funny. They are then guided by their guardian to take a tour of certain areas.

The styles and manners are different to some extent in the GaiJatra celebrations in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Lalitpur. There are also some differences in the GaiJatra in other towns as well.

Though the festival is dedicated to the departed souls, GaiJatra turns out to be a joyful event due to the tradition attached to it. The festival is perceived as a comedic and fun festival that brings smiles to people’s faces, who are grieving, though for a day. 

An interesting story is attached to the commencement of this unique festival. Let’s find out what it is. 

It is believed that the GaiJatra festival started during the Malla rule in Nepal. One of the renowned Kings of the Medieval period of Nepal is Pratap Malla. 

Back in 1698 BS, King Pratap Malla became the King of Nepal. He had five sons Bhupendra, Chakrabartendra, Nirpatendra, Mahipendra, and Partipendra. 

Though the elder son should be the next King who succeeds his father to the throne, Pratap Malla wanted each of his sons to rule as King in their lifetime. 

Gai jatra: the festival of death, dance and satire
Gai Jatra in Bhaktapur

As a result, King Pratap Malla decided to let all the five princes become the King for a year while he was alive. When it was prince Chakyabartendra’s turn to be the King, a festival was organized in celebration. Unfortunately, the young one died due to some cause.

The tragic incident made the mother of Chakrabartendra, wife of King PratapMalla, depressed. Though King Pratap Malla could get over the remorse, the queen was not able to handle the misery. 

Seeing the queen much sorrowful, King Pratap Malla decided to bring a smile to her face. For that, he asked people who have lost their loved ones to dress funnily and bring cows in a procession to make the queen pleased. As a result, the queen smiled and what she also realized was that she was not alone in this world who has lost someone dear to them. From then on, the tradition was preserved and the festival of Gai Jatra is celebrated every year. 

The cow is worshipped in Nepalese culture, and killing and eating cow meat is strictly prohibited in Nepal. Nepalese believe that they cannot eat the flesh of something they worship as a god. 

Mataya Festival in Nepal | Hotel Shanker, Lazimpat, Kathmandu, Nepal
Mata yaa in Lalitpur on the next day of Gai Jatra

Similarly, there are several festivals and occasions in Nepal, in which, Nepalese worship the cow. During the festival of Tihar cow is worshiped as an important event.

In Tihar, the cow is worshipped as goddess Laxmi who brings wealth. Similarly, in GaiJatra, the cow is worshipped as it helps the departed soul to reach into the heaven. So, for the peaceful and easy journey of the soul to heaven, Gai Jatra is celebrated by people. 

Children in cow masks are taken in the procession around some temples and sacred places in the town. During the parade, people offer food, fruits, sweets and even some money to the children participating the procession.

Similarly, the way how Gai Jatra is celebrated has significantly improved with time. In the past, when there was political tightens, no one was allowed to say anything about or put forward political views or opinions in the public. But in the changed context, people have started to make fun of various things – social or political – publicly. 

In recent times, some comedians and actors have started organize Gai Jatra shows in the auditoriums with satiric performances. The artists sarcastically put their views about politics and celebrities in their Gai Jatra Performances. 

Moreover, the LGBTQIA+ community also celebrates Gai Jatra with utmost joy. They held a ‘pride parade’ across the cities and spread awareness about the LGBTQIA+ community.