Gai Jatra is one of the auspicious festivals of Nepal that commemorates the death of loved ones. Only the major cities of Nepal celebrate the festival. Gai means cow in Nepali, and Jatra translates to festival or carnival in English. So Gai Jatra is a grand procession of cows where families dress boys in funny make-up and customs and parade the streets of Kathmandu. Mainly celebrated by the Newar community of Nepal, the festival holds a special meaning to all citizens of Nepal. Every Nepali is aware of the festival, although they do not celebrate it. However, the festival is highly regarded in Nepal. Observed annually in Bhadra month as per Nepali calendar, for 2021, Nepalese are looking forward to celebrating Gai Jatra festival on 23 August.
Significance relation to Gai Jatra
Also known as the festival of the cow and the festival of the dead, Gai Jatra has a complex relation to ancient stories relevant to medieval Nepal. Since ancient times, Nepalese worshiped “the god of death”- Yamraj. People feared Yamraj and heartedly worshiped the god. Just like that, Gai Jatra is highly associated with Yamraj. Nevertheless, the festival is mainly about celebrating the life of the dead and wishing upon their smooth life after death. It is believed that if the people worship Yamraj, the deity of death, on this day, the souls of the departed ones would be preserved.
The humorous sessions associated with the Gai Jatra festival became a custom in Nepal during the reign of the Malla Kings during the medieval period. As a result, the current form of Gai Jatra is a harmonious synthesis of antiquity and medievalism. Moreover, the animal cow is primarily used in this sacred festivity because of its high regard in Hinduism. A cow is revered as the most sacred of all domestic animals in Hinduism. The cow is said to aid the departed relative’s passage to heaven.
The backstory of the Gai Jatra Celebration
Centuries ago, when King Pratap Malla suddenly lost his son, it was tough for his wife to overcome the loss. The queen was sad and mourned for a very long time. The king was heartbroken when he saw the state of his beloved queen. Despite his best attempts, the king was unable to alleviate his wife’s pain. By all means, he yearned to see a slight smile on his wife’s face. He then made a declaration about the cow procession. Also said that, whoever would be successful in making the queen laugh, they shall be appropriately rewarded. Likewise, he also encouraged people who had recently lost loved ones to participate in the procession.
A cow procession with dancers and costumed comedians was held, which got the queen to smile. During the festivity, participants mock society’s prominent figures. Finally, like social injustice and other ills were exposed and severely addressed, the queen couldn’t help but smile. Additionally, the queen came to understand that other people also have lost loved ones. And death is inevitable. We should embrace it and honor the life the departed ones had. From then on, an annual cow parade was established as a Gai Jatra. The monarch, Pratap Malla, set a custom of inserting jokes, satires, ridicule, and parodying throughout the Gai Jatra days.
How do people celebrate these days?
Dressing up, cow parade is still prevalent these days. The point of dressing up boys funnily as boys is because it is essential to have anything that signifies cows. And since Kathmandu is a city and not every household has cows, people dress the small children as cows. With that, people also organize great comedy shows that remarkably mock the government and politicians of Nepal.
Gai Jatra is an excellent festival of Nepal to be part of. It is a one-day celebration that celebrates the life of departed ones. Similarly, this wholesome festivity helps people face the fact of death and prepare for life beyond death.