Festival of the Cow – Gai Jatra, Kathmandu, Nepal
The Newar people of Nepal have a long ancestral link with the region around Kathmandu. Like the many other ethnic groups that make up the diverse cultural mix of Nepal, the Newar people have their own unique beliefs, customs and festivals. Today, August 31st, is a special day on the Newar 2015 calendar as it is the time of the Gai Jatra – the Cow Festival.
The history of the festival goes back very many centuries and has links with the Malla kings that once ruled the region and Hindu beliefs. At the heart of the festival is the commemoration of family members that have passed away in the previous 12 months. Hindus venerate the cow as a symbol of life and may not be killed. And so in the Gai Jatra the role of the cow is to assist the departed family member in their journey through the afterlife and to return once more in the endless cycle.
However, there is also a much less sombre aspect to the festival. Fun and irreverent frivolity are as much a part of the festival as commemoration of the departed. The reason for this is centuries ago the Malla king and queen of Kathmandu valley lost their beloved son. The queen suffered great despair over the loss and could no longer find any reason for joy in her life. In an effort to console his queen the king offered a reward anyone who could once again bring joy and laughter to his queen.
At the next celebration of Gai Jatra many people in the precession donned outlandish clothing and masks and acted the fool and even went out of their way to mock those that thought themselves better than their common peers. The lampooning fun, music, singing and gayety worked and the queen managed a smile and the king was eternally relieved. And so it is today that the Gai Jatra remembers lost family members but also brings great fun to the event.
So today if a family has lost a loved one they should lead a cow through the streets of Kathmandu or Bhaktapur during Gai Jatra. However, if they do not own a cow they may dress a young boy as a cow and he may walk in the precession. The fun just gets more wild and exuberant from there. By the end of the colourful and noisy festival everyone is dressed in their most attention-grabbing outfits and poking fun at anyone who could benefit from the humiliation.
So the Festival of the Cow helps people through their family loss while also making all around them more aware of their temporary place in this world.
And like every Nepali festival, the Gai Jatra is lots and lots of fun for local people and visitors alike.