Gai Jatra - The Festival of Turning Grief into Joy

Young boys with mascara smeared faces and painted as cows move barefoot on the streets of Nepal to celebrate the festival of life and death; the Gai Jatra. Also known as the Sa Paru, the Gai Jatra hosts find tons of Nepalese singing, dancing and laughing together on the streets. Celebrated by Newar community on the outskirts of the Kathmandu region, the Gai Jatra is said to be one of the unique festivals of the world. Gai means cow and jatra means festival in the local language.

Watch the Cow Parade 2019 - Dates

Gai Jatra
A decorated cow during the Cow Parade
According to the Hindu calendar, Gai Jatra occurs during the month of Bhadra, which generally falls during August and September. As per the Nepal Era Lunar Calendar, the Gai Jatra celebrations are carried out on Pratipada, the first day of the dark fortnight. The Gai Jatra is a public holiday, as all main roads remain dysfunctional on this day.
Dates this year: 19th August 2019

Gai Jatra Across Nepal

Gai Jatra
Temple processions and rituals during Gai Jatra
Various Nepali cities such as Patan, Kirtipur, and Bhaktapur celebrate the festival of the dead in varied forms like the Nepali folk arts at Kathmandu. The origin of Gai Jatra, Katmandu also commences the queen's annual presentation. Distribution of sweets, oats and fruits are common customs of the Gai Jatra.

1. Kirtipur

Widely celebrated in several historical towns of Kirtipur such as Itagol, Panga, Bhajanga, Kepu Dey and Naga; the Gai Jatra holds a different interpretation here. As Kirtipur devotees march through the city as they mimic the attires of various Gods and the Goddesses. Praying for their departed loved ones to reach the gates of heaven throughout the parade, the Kirtipur Gai Jatra vastly bases celebrations believing the gates of heaven to open on this day.

Farmer Celebrations
Following the grand procession, farmers organise a grand feast in their fields and call upon the Kirtipur families to join them in unity. With a variety of folk dance performances, Kirtipur diversely celebrates the Gai Jatra in Nepal.

2. Gai Jatra in Bhaktapur

Gai Jatra
Goats are also used during the Gai Jatra at Bhaktapur

Taha Macha Chariot
One of the main components celebrating the Gai Jatra is the Haku Patasi (a type of black sari cloth) adorned Taha Macha chariot of Bhaktapur; decorated with pictures of the dead denoting departed souls.

Funny Fashion Show
An entertaining fashion show comprising of men donned in the Hakupatashi; a female outfit forms part of the tradition.

Ghinta Ghisi

Gai Jatra
Cultural programs and parades during Gai Jatra

Celebrated from the day of Gai Jatra to Krishna Janmashtami, Ghinta Ghisi also hosts an array of cultural programs. Locally performed, the Ghinta Ghisi folk dance also hosts devotees and children masked in colours along with painted bodies. Dressed as different Gods, children have funfilled participation at the Ghinta Ghisi.

3. Patan

Gai Jatra
Evening processions during Gai Jatra

Celebrated with comparatively lesser enthusiasm, Patan conducts the Matayaa, a religious procession. 

How is Gai Jatra Celebrated? 

Gai Jatra
A procession dedicated to one of the departed loved ones

Traditionally celebrated by the Nepali Hindus, the Gai Jatra (Cow Festival) is conducted in memory of departed loved ones. The belief and intention behind the Gai Jatra are to share in the sorrows of losing their special ones with each other as they gain their blessings. A compulsory Nepalese festival, especially for grieving families, it is a time of familial participate in activities considered to bring happiness and safety to departed souls.

Cow Parade Traditions

Gai Jatra
A young boy dressed and paraded as a cow during the festival
The Newari people decorate a cow; in the absence of which, a cow-costumed young boy is further street-paraded; the latter being the latest custom. During the parade, distributions of home-made food items to the needy take place.
New traditional clothing manufactured before the event are exclusively adorned on the day of the Gai Jatra. A positive physiological effect among participants is believed to be the outcome of the parade.

Traditions and History of Gai Jatra

Gai Jatra
Night rituals during Gai Jatra
The Backstory of Gai Jatra - Story of King Malla and the Queen
Traditionally enriched, the Gai Jatra dates back to the era of the king of Nepal Mandala, Pratap Malla who is said to have lost his young son. Unbearing of the grief of the queen, king Malla made a rewarding announcement for the one who could make the queen happy again. Upon mass failure, king Malla ordered for a grand cow parade along with dancers and singers. Lessons from the Myth Upon witnessing the cow parade, the queen turned happy and grateful, thus understanding death to be an inevitable phenomenon of life. Realising that several loved ones depart each day, the queen turned grateful towards life. Therefore King Pratap Malla is regarded as the pioneer of Gai Jatra.

Why The Cow?
Remarkably worshipped as the Goddess of wealth and prosperity according to Hindu myth, cows hold great significance among the Newari tribes. Popular belief holds cow worship to be a way to escape the clutches of Yamaraja, the God of Death.

Gai Jatra After-Parade

Gai Jatra
Masks donned during the festival
Once the parade is complete, every participant adorns a king-like hand-made mask and clothes. An array of comic and humorous performances take place during the Gai Jatra.

Modern Day Traditions
The Gai Jatra today also includes a platform empowering freedom of speech. Political satire and social comedy are standard practices of this gala event. The Gai Jatra organises mass television and radio coverage by several media houses in promotion of the festival.

Traveller Tips

Gai Jatra
Gai Jatra Celebrations
  • Witness the grand Gai Jatra parade at either Kathmandu or Kirtipur.
  • Avoid public modes of transport until the end of Gai Jatra, as roads are deemed to be crowded, causing much traffic.
  • Purchase some food and distribute it among the Gai Jatra participants if you wish to be a part of the local social service.
  • To feel more indulged in the festive mood, wear traditional Nepali clothes, follow the parade.
  • Book your accommodations at the earliest.
  • Be aware of the exact Gai Jatra dates.  Ensure cross-checking from more than one reliable sources.
  • Make sure to check in to your hotels before the festival, as it may be tedious during Gai Jatra.
Gai Jatra
Orchestra groups performing during the parade

Visit Nepal during the Gai Jatra, for a unique and culturally indulging experience of this ancient tradition.

This post was published by Rachana Jain

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