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Death around the world: Gaijatra festival, Nepal

A crowd of people in colourful traditional costume walking through the streets of Kathmandu for Gaijatra

A colourful procession moves through the town for the festival of Gaijatra in Kathmandu. Photo by S Pakhrin via Flickr.

Many festivals around the world offer joyous celebrations of life, but none laugh in the face of death quite like the Gaijatra festival of Nepal, a time when comedy and commemoration go hand-in-hand.

This yearly gathering is celebrated mainly in the Kathmandu valley, in central Nepal. It takes place in August or September, falling on the first day of the ‘dark’ fortnight called Gunla, according to the Nepali lunar calendar. This time of year is traditionally a holy time for Newar Buddhists, who devote themselves to reciting scripture, fasting and making pilgrimages to important places of worship.

Five children dressed in red and gold robes with face paint Children dressed in traditional costume for Gaijatra. Photo by S Pakhrin via Flickr

The origins of Gaijatra

The festival is based on the ancient worship of the god Yamaraj, Lord of Death, also known as Yama in Hindu tradition. Gaijatra is a time to honour all loved ones who have died in the previous year. However, it is also a time for laughter and fun.

Gaijatra started when King Pratap Malla, who reigned over the region in the 17th Century, tragically lost his son. The story goes that the queen fell into a deep depression and could not stop crying, not even for a moment. Desperate to see his beloved wife happy again, King Pratap proclaimed that if anyone could make her smile, they would be handsomely rewarded.

In an attempt to cheer the grieving queen, a procession of cows was brought before her, being the most holy of domestic animals and believed to help the dead on their way through the afterlife.

A young cow wearing a garland of flowers is led through the street Cows are considered holy animals and are an important part of Gaijatra. Photo by S Pakhrin via Flickr

Then hopeful participants began telling jokes and ridiculing important figures in the community, pointing out their flaws and mocking them. Despite her efforts, the queen couldn’t help but smile. Overjoyed, the king declared that Gaijatra festival would henceforth be a time for comedy and satire.

Gaijatra today

The tradition of leading cows through the city of Kathmandu continues today, in honour of the procession brought before the queen. The very word ‘Gaijatra’ comes from two Nepali words: ‘gai’ meaning cow and ‘jatra’ meaning festival.

Men playing drums and trumpets are followed by a street vendor selling decorations and merchandise for Gaijatra Musicians and street vendors gather for Gaijatra. Photo by Frances Ellen via Flickr

Every family that has experienced the death of a loved one in the past year will join the procession, leading a cow. If they can’t find a cow, a boy will dress as a cow, usually the eldest or youngest son of the family.

Families will dress up in brightly coloured costumes, most often red and gold, and paint their faces or wear masks. Musicians playing trumpets, flutes and drums will also join the parade, creating a noisy, joyous atmosphere.

Hundreds of people sitting on the steps of a temple in Kathmandu to watch the Gaijatra procession Crowds gather on the streets of Kathmandu to watch the procession. Photo by Frances Ellen via Flickr

Those who are not walking in honour of a loved one will gather in big crowds to watch the procession. Street vendors set up to sell sweet and savoury snacks to the waiting crowds – everything from traditional rice and lentil dishes to candy floss.

People also haven’t forgotten King Pratap’s promise to make comedy a permanent feature of Gaijatra. Mockery, humour and funny songs are an integral part of the celebrations, with comedy shows happening all over the city during the festival.

That isn’t to say that the people of Kathmandu don’t acknowledge their grief. They are still given time to mourn and remember, just like in most cultures, but when Gaijatra comes around, it’s time to turn tears into laughter and remember all the happiness that loved ones brought to the lives of those around them.