What Happens at the Gai Jatra Festival in Nepal?

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Across the globe, people have different ways of celebrating their dead. In Nepal, the dead are honored through cows. Though this might sound confusing, Gai Jatra is a complex tradition of celebrating cows, the harvest season, and the souls of deceased loved ones. This unique way to remember a family member is deeply tied to Hindu culture, and this Nepalese festival brings comfort to many. 

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There’s a lot to learn from the Gai Jatra festival. Beyond paying homage to cows and crops, this is a time for coming together as a family, reflecting on ancestors, and celebrating all of the best things in life. Let’s travel across the world to the Himalayan Mountains to explore what happens at the Gai Jatra festival in Nepal. 

What is the Gai Jatra Festival?

Gai Jatra is one of the most joyous occasions in Nepal. The name itself comes from the world “street festival,” and this very much is a public celebration. Learning about the history of this occasion reveals a lot of its charm. 

History

This tradition got its start in the 17th century during the Malla dynasty. After the death of her son, the king’s wife was inconsolable. The king offered to reward anyone who was able to make the queen laugh and bring a smile to her face. Many Nepalese people appeared to aid the king, and one began to mock the nobility with such wit that the queen burst into laughter. 

From this moment on, this yearly festival became an opportunity for laughter and joy. The weeklong festival includes a procession through the city of Kathmandu for families who lost a relative during the past year. 

They bring with them a cow as a symbol for the lost relative, though sometimes kids also dress up as cows. The entire celebration is both happy and solemn. While it’s a time to reflect on lost loved ones, it’s also a time for fun and merriment. 

Location

The Gai Jatra festival is celebrated all over Nepal. It’s mainly focused in the Kathmandu valley, near the Newar community. As the popularity of this festival spread, it’s common to find smaller Gai Jatra festivals in Nepalese communities across the globe. 

Travelers from all over the globe come to join the Kathmandu valley in celebrating this famous event. Those who have lost a loved one and feel connected to the energy and spirit of Nepal also are drawn to this festival which is open and inviting. 

In cities like Patan, Kirtipur, and Bhaktapur, the celebration resembles Kathmandu. Each city incorporates local traditions, customs, and quirks to make it uniquely their own. 

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When is the Gai Jatra Festival?

The Gai Jatra festival takes place prior to the harvest season. It’s a way to welcome the changing weather and temperatures. It’s tied to the month of Bhadra on the Nepali Calendar. As such, it takes place every year in July or August. Here are the dates for the upcoming celebrations. 

  • 2020: August 11 
  • 2021: August 23
  • 2022: August 13
  • 2023: September 1
  • 2024: August 20

Gai Jatra Traditions and Rituals

From an outsider's perspective, it’s strange to see so many cows, colors, and extravagant outfits in a festival honoring the dead.

If you take a closer look at Hindu and Nepalese culture, it becomes clear why these traditions and rituals are such a big part of this celebration. 

Parades

The highlight of the Gai Jatra festival is the parade. While the festival itself lasts 7-8 days, the parade kicks off events on day 1. A procession of people walks through the streets of Kathmandu, each dressed in extravagant outfits and costumes. These costumes are an important part of the day. They’re influenced by mythology, art, and culture. 

The parade is watched by locals and visitors alike. Those included in the procession are families who lost a loved one in the past year. This is their opportunity for the community to celebrate them and honor the family in memory of the deceased. 

Each family that had someone pass away leads a calf during the procession. Why a calf? In Hindu tradition, the cow is regarded as the goddess of wealth. Cows also guide the deceased’s soul into their next life. Cows are in the parade as a symbol of this religious meaning. However, since many families cannot afford a calf, children typically dress up as cows to join the procession. 

Traditional food

Like most festivals throughout the world, food is always a must. The topic of death in different cultures brings people together, and food creates these bonds between people of the same culture. Traditional Nepalese foods are a staple of Gai Jatra, and each family prepares a feast for the celebration. 

Some of the popular foods for this festival include:

  • Momo
  • Pilaf
  • Sel roti
  • Thukpa
  • Dal bhat

Each family puts its own twist on traditional favorites. This is a time to cherish recipes of years past and to bond together over a delicious meal. 

Newness and rebirth

Since this festival marks the end of the monsoon season and the start of the harvest season, it’s also a symbol for newness and rebirth. This is seen in the activities themselves. As mentioned previously, costumes and extravagant decorations are common. These are created each year just for the festival, and they’re never reused. 

All of the Gai Jatra creations are temporary. You won’t find any of these decorations or things in a museum or exhibit. They’re temporary to resemble the fleeting nature of life, and this allows Nepalese people to create something new every year, symbolizing the cycle of life. 

Freedom of speech

Remember the story of the queen’s laughter? She was finally uplifted after the passing of her son by someone’s witty jokes about the nobility. Because of her willingness to laugh at her status and the elite, Gai Jata is a time for freedom of speech. 

Comic and humorous performances take place throughout the week of Gai Jatra, and many of these topics include social commentary. Political satire finds its home here, and it’s important for the people of Nepal to feel comfortable expressing themselves and their humor.

Mass television and radio coverage of this freedom of speech is common to spread the event across the country. 

Death as a part of life

Finally, this guide wouldn’t be complete without touching on the role of death as a part of life. While it’s easy to think of this celebration as morbid from an outsider’s perspective, it’s truly a spectacular way to honor life. This event is a reminder that though death happens to everyone, it doesn’t need to be feared. 

Death is a natural phenomenon. It’s the great equalizer. Instead of shying away from death, freedom, and speaking one’s mind, the Nepalese people embrace these things with open arms. They believe sorrow and happiness aren’t mutually exclusive, and this is a beautiful message the entire world could learn from. 

How Is Gai Jatra Celebrated Today?

With the rise of modern technology and new ideas, how has Gai Jatra changed? This celebration dates back to the 1600s, so it’s no wonder it’s come a long way. New activities are added every year, and it gains more and more media coverage from across the globe. Technology makes it easier to connect people across Nepal with the traditions of the past. 

By far the biggest change in how Gai Jatra is celebrated today is in regard to outsiders. Travelers come from all over the world to witness and participate in Gai Jatra. In the past, this festival was not well-known outside of Nepal. As the world becomes a smaller place, the Nepalese people welcome travelers to take part in this unique celebration of life and death. 

Celebrating Death Through Life

Gai Jatra literally translates to the journey of the cow. This celebration highlights how fleeting our lives can be without falling into overwhelming sorrow or grief. It’s an opportunity for Nepal to honor those who recently died while also enjoying the best parts of life. By letting go of the stigma and fear around death, we can all truly fall in love with life. 

What does celebrating death mean to you? Taking a few moments to start end-of-life planning is a great way to consider your own feelings about death as well as make concrete plans. If there’s one thing to learn from Gai Jatra, it’s that the future is never guaranteed. All we can do is live life fully in every moment. 


Sources

  1. Fowler, Amy. “Gai Jatra: Cow Festival or Day of the Dead? It’s Both, Actually.” American Himalayan Foundation. 9 August 2017. Himalyan-Foundation.org
  2. “Gai Jatra: A Celebration of Life, Death, and Renewal.” Rubin Museum. 23 August 2016. RubinMuseum.org

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