Nepalis have always had a deep spiritual connect with the animal kingdom They even have special festivals dedicated to dogs, the cow and the snake, whom the accord deep reverence.
Hindus, who make up a large part of society in Nepal hold the domestic cow as deeply sacred in their world. A special day is kept aside in the rainy season to celebrate the value it has for the community for its spiritual and material contributions to their world. The Gai Jatra festival, also known as the Cow Festival, is steeped in religious significance and local legend. Celebrated in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, and Lalitpur by the Newar community it occurs in the Hindu month of Bhadra (August/ September).
Not many people are aware that the cow is also the national animal. A stay at local farm holding will reveal to you how cows are an integral part of the farming community’s daily activities in the home and in the fields. Cows are worshipped and deeply respected in everyday life even in Nepal’s urban spaces. The slaughter of cows is strictly prohibited in the country.
Cows are also an intrinsic part of some Hindu religious rituals. The symbolic relationship of the cow also changes from community to community. For example, in Tihar the cow is worshipped as Lakshmi, goddess of wealth. The Newar community worships the cow as the carrier of souls to heaven during the Gia Jatra. As directed by the Garuda Purana, an ancient Hindu scripture, on the 11th day of death rites of a loved one, one must perform “Brishotsarga”- which entails the releasing of an ox or bull, as it can bring peace to the deceased soul. Grabbing the tail of a cow also helps the soul cross the legendary Baitrani River between heaven and earth.
Scholars are divided about the beginnings of the Gai Jatra, but there is no doubt that over time it witnessed several changes. It appears that when the funeral rites of the dead were completed with people leading a cow through the city, later playing of musical instruments were added to the occasion.
According to local lore it was during the reign of Pratap Malla in Kathmandu, Jagat Prakash Malla in Bhaktapur and Siddhi Narsingh Malla in Lalitpur that the annual Gai Jatra transformed into festival with musical instruments, songs and hymns glorifying the deeds of the deceased.
The life-affirming Gai Yatra witnesses a joyful celebration of cows across the country on this auspicious day. It’s also a beautifully curated reminder of loved ones who have passed on from life. Though the festival is connected to Yamaraj, the God of death, there’s a positive twist to the festivities. It’s all about a joyful acceptance of death, celebrating life and paying homage to those loved ones who’ve passed away.
Shades of Mexico’s Day of the Dead or Día de los Muerto festival surface when you think of Nepal’s Gai Yatra and its significance. The Mexican festival, which is a fusion of the ancient Aztec tradition of celebrating one’s ancestors and All Souls' Day, is like a family reunion—the difference being the guests of honour are one’s dead ancestors.
In Nepal there’s a story that once there was a king, Pratap Malla by name, who ruled from 1641 to 1671. The king had a teenage son, Chakravartendra Malla, who died getting trampled by an elephant. Deeply moved by the plight of his inconsolable queen over the loss of their son, he requested families who had also loved ones over the past year to take part a procession to the palace so that the queen could see she was not alone in her grief in having lost someone she loved. He directed that the parade should be lively, joyful mood and the participants dressed comically to make the queen laugh. He even allowed them a period of grace for week to jolly up queen laugh with their satirical speeches and humour-filled antics. That’s one of the reasons why you see people walking around in funky attire in a jolly mood; even and kids dressed in cow masks and funny clothes take part and try and bring a smile on the face of grieving families with their antics.
Gai Jatra day is a vibrant feast of colour and hectic activity as people take to the streets. Some are costumed as cows while many others adorn funky attire. While leading a beautifully decorated cow in the procession, these bereaved participants will also be seen bringing pictures of the loved ones who died that year dangling from their necks or held aloft on a staff.
Grieving families make offerings to the dead of bread, fruits, curd, rice and money as they follow the parade through various touchpoints in the city. A variety of humorous acts, parody, comedy and satirical speeches about current day affairs, politicians and celebrities also serve as entertainment in the jatra today.