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Gai Jatra: A Celebration of life, animals, and everything sacred

What do you think about a festival with traditions and rituals combined with a hint of modernity? Too good to be true? Yet, it is indeed true. Gai Jatra (Gai means cow and Jatra implies festival)  is a festival celebrated in Nepal by the Newari community. While it is a festival to honor the dead, the celebrations are full of vigor and vibrance. 

Gai Jatra has its historical roots in the 17th century during the reign of King Pratap Malla. The legend is that after her Son’s death, the queen was unable to cope up due to which the helpless King declared a reward for anyone who makes the queen smile. A cow procession was brought before her due to an inherent reverence for the cow, as the holiest animal that helps the dead in the afterlife. To make further attempts, people hoped to spread the cheer by ridiculing and satirizing influential community members. The King, pleased by the spirit and liveliness, declared it as an annual affair.

Another belief is that the king urged the populace who had lost family members to gather together and dress up in costumes to honor their loved ones. Over time, the festival evolved to its present form through various additions. 

In the present times, there are several rituals attached to Gai Jatra. Celebrated in the Bhadra month (August-September), it is a rice-replanting season for the Newari farmers. Some Newars also wear a sacred thread on their wrists on this day. Cows hold great significance among the Newari people due to a belief that cows guide the soul of the dead to heaven. 

On the day of Gai Jatra, the community commemorates any family member’s death during the past year by taking out cow processions after decorating them with garlands; if not a cow, a family can dress up a boy in costume and participate in the march. The costumes are usually red and gold, and the boys’ faces are painted or covered with a cow mask. Musicians playing various instruments also participate in the march and create an energetic environment. 

The festival has taken the form of a carnival as well. People gather in large crowds to witness the processions and enjoy the exuberance. Instituted by King Malla, comedy and satire are still part of the occasion, and shows take place around the city on the day. Street vendors are present for people to grab a bite, be it traditional food or just snacks. 

Gai Jatra is a festival coated with layers of traditions and customs that constantly evolve to suit the changing times. The festival has incorporated the LGBTQ+ community that organizes Pride Marches and adds more colors to the colorful celebration.

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