Gai Jatra is a sacred procession made by bereaved families to honor the dead of the past year. This Jatra, festival or literally carnival/ street festival, falls on the following day of the Janai Purnima Festival. It is mainly celebrated in the Kathmandu Valley only.
The Gai Jatra, (Gai is cow, Jatra is Festival), the procession of cows, consists for each family of a decorated cow. If a family cannot afford a cow a young boy gorgeously costumed to represent one makes a substitute. With a cow-like boy is yet another small boy in the guise of Yogi, a holy man. These two together with a family priest, a troupe of musicians parade through the neighborhood on foot starting early in the morning from their home.
They walk pass various households, temples, and idols gathering food offerings and coins. All must pass by the ancient royal palaces—Hanuman Dhoka Palace in Kathmandu, Patan Durbar Square in Patan, and Bhaktapur Durbar Square in Bhaktapur. It is believed that on this day the holy cows help guide the soul of the deceased to heaven without having to go through the suffering of multiple rebirths.
When the cow procession returned to their households a religious ceremony is performed. The white cloth tails of the cow costumed boys dragged along the ground during the procession, are cut into strips and tied about the necks of family members to protect them from misfortune.
Yama Raj, the Hindu God of Death, residing in his kingdom called Yamalok, keep a ledger of each mortal. Their good and bad deeds. Their time of death. And also decides at what level the souls of the deceased shall be reincarnated on earth again.
Yama Raj sends his Yama dut (messenger), a crow, to see that if a released soul of dead sets out for the judgment gate that is opened only on the day of Gai Jatra. The route to Yama’s gate, according to Hindu scripture is exceedingly difficult and one has to cross rivers of fire called Baitadi Khola. The bereaved families pray to the sacred cow to guide and protect the spirit of their dead through this journey. Therefore, the spirits hold on tails of those cows to quickly reach Yama’s gate on this day. Upon reaching cows also push open the gate assisting souls to enter for the judgment day and further to heaven.
The Origin of Gai Jatra
Gai Jatra originated during the reign of King Pratap Malla (1641-1674) of Kathmandu. The king lost his second-born, Chakrabartendra, when he was trampled over by an elephant on the second day of his reign. His queen suffered inconsolable grief after this unfortunate incident. To quell her, the king ordered the populaces who had had a death in the family during the year, to send out a procession of sacred cows to parade in the memory of their beloved. He did this to tell his wife that there were many others who had suffered the same fate as hers. But the queen remained despondent. At last, the King announced a significant reward to those who could bring the slightest joy to his wife. He granted the people complete freedom to go to any lengths.
Hearing this, the populace garbed in outlandish costumes converged at the palace area and performed mockeries of all sorts. The queen couldn’t refrain from laughing at this. The King then ordained that such parades would be repeated every Gai Jatra Day.
Despite the solemn occasion, Gai Jatra is a grand celebration full of merrymaking and fun and a way to get over the grief. The three districts Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur of the valley has their own way of celebrating this festival. Each one is grander than the other but never any duller.
Families send out cow parades in the memory of departed ones. There are vast numbers of dazzling processions and clowning hordes lampooning social injustices and making political satire. Many famous artists organize “Gai Jatra Hasya Byanga Karikram”, the comedic routines. Local newspapers also publish funnies on this occasion.
People are still following these traditions of charitable and generous deeds, handed down by their forefathers. They believe that these rituals performed in the name of the recently dead will earn them great religious merit—all duly recorded in the Yama’s ledger.
- The Festival of Nepal: Mary Anderson
- Rubin Museum
- Inside the Himalayas
- First published on 18 August 2021