August 11th; The day after Janai Purnima is celebrated as Gaijatra (festival of cows). The modern version of the festival was initiated by King Pratap Malla (medieval Nepal) to entertain his queen over whom a pall of gloom had been cast after the death of their son. The festival is so named from the belief that the cows help the souls of the deceased members of families, who have died within that year, to travel to heaven without hassle. Source; Himalayan Times
The Gaijatra festival is celebrated mainly by the Newari people in the Kathmandu valley. The festival focuses on the main Durbar squares of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. There are lengthy processions with each family of anyone who deceased in the last year, preparing a float along with dancers and musicians and people in costumes parading throughout the cities. I decided this was my opportunity to visit Bhaktapur, another original kingdom in the Kathmandu valley.
#1 First of all I had the joy of my first public transport experience. Upon arriving at the correct bus park you simply say the name of your destination loudly and clearly and someone will point you in the direction of what you hope is the correct bus. I have read that often any idea of a timetable is simply that the bus will leave once full hence there can be some reasons to wait at times. However, in this case the driver and conductor obviously know they would fill up on route to the festival so we were barely able to board as the bus was already in motion – and we’re off!
#2 I sat up front by the driver and watched the chaotic nature of a Nepali city junction up close; pedestrians, bikes, buses cars and trucks heading in all four directions at the same time – or hence not heading anywhere fast. If you would like to read some more about the Nepali traffic I can recommend the following blog post from fellow VSO volunteer Simon Hill ‘Pedal power one of the positives’;
#3 A few steps into the town of Bhaktapur we were already greeted with one of the many processions. Here is an example of one of the ornate, colourful, honorific floats dedicated to someone from the region who unfortunately passed away in the last 12 months;
#4 The number of floats was considerable indicating the sad reality of how many local people had died in the last year. However each float and supporting group of family and friends was also a celebration of life and the whole procession had an uplifting feel;
#5 In between the many floats in the procession were countless groups of dancers of all ages. Many in brightly coloured, traditional costumes and all taking the honour of being a part of the Gaijatra celebrations to heart. As I understand it, the entertainment is all part of the original concept of the festival – to help people through their grief. The processions continue throughout the day, hours and hours of dedicated performance in the crowds and heat of the day – a privilege to witness;
#6 Musicians of all types and ages were also involved throughout, creating a constant symphony of beats, voices and notes providing rhythm to the hundreds of people involved;
#7 To be perfectly honest, I was almost as fascinated with the crowds as with the procession itself. Here you can see part of the procession of dancers participating in the traditional ghintang ghisee dance involving the hitting of sticks to s specific rhythm and at every level from street, to stairs to temples every ledge teams with crowds of Nepali people enjoying the festivities;
#8 The most sensible ladies had secured a seat in the shade to watch the procession – I certainly tried to join them. Here is another shot of the stunning kurta suruwal outfits;
If you’re interested in reading a little more (with some more professional photos thrown in) I found the following interesting blogs about the same festival by journalist Shristi Rajbhandari ‘Observing one of the biggest festival, Gai Jatra in Bhaktapur, Nepal’ and on ‘About Kathmandu’ blog.