Nepal’s Gai Jatra Festival

The festival of Gai Jatra is a long-standing tradition in Nepal, offering those who have lost a relative in death over the past year the opportunity to help their deceased love one on his or her journey to heaven by leading a cow in a procession through the streets of Kathmandu. If the family does not have a cow, a young boy can dress up to resemble a cow, with a painted face or mask, and participate in the procession. Either way, followers believe that the ritual will secure a place in heaven for the departed. Celebrated in the Nepalese month of Bhadra (corresponding with August-September in the Gregorian calendar), Gai Jatra is one of the most popular of Nepal’s many festivals and is well supported by participants and spectators.

Gai Jatra has its roots in ancient times when the Hindu god of death, Yamaraj, was feared and revered. It was said that the dead had to cross the mythical Vaitarna River to reach heaven, and were aided in doing so by holding onto the tail of a cow. The colorful festival rituals developed in Nepal during the reign of the Malla Kings (12th to 18th century) in the medieval period of the country’s history, and came about when King Pratap Malla wanted to help his wife, the queen, out of her grief-stricken state following the death of their son. He made an announcement that whoever made the queen laugh would be rewarded. When the festival of Gai Jatra took place, the procession of the cows was brought in front of the queen, with the participants making fun of well-known members of society, and highlighting social injustices and other issues in a satiric manner. The queen saw the humor in the performance and when it made her laugh, the king instructed that jokes, satire, humor and parody should become part of the annual Gai Jatra festival.

Today, Gai Jatra is still about ensuring the dead are aided in their journey to heaven, but it is also about accepting the reality of death while appreciating life. After the procession of the cows is over, participants and spectators dress up and wear masks, with music, dancing, jokes and food being enjoyed by all – truly a festive occasion in the Himalayan country of Nepal.