A cheerful festival for the dead: Gaijatra in Nepal


Every year in August, when the "Cow Festival”, as Gaijatra is also called, moves through the streets of Nepalese towns and villages, it is loud, funny, and colorful. The name of the festival is derived from Hinduism, according to which a cow guides the deceased as they depart from the world of the living. Families who have lost a loved one over the past year walk the streets dressed-up in bizarre masks and costumes with elaborate accessories. Most of them belong to the ethnic group of the Newar. 

It is far from a sad procession; in fact, quite the opposite is the case: people are singing, dancing and performing comedy acts. Rather than having individual processions for every family that has had a loss, usually several families join in together. To honour the deceased the families integrate photographs of them into the decorations for the festival. Nepalis believe that people should cultivate an immanent awareness of death as a part of life, in order to encourage compassion and altruistic behaviour. These old traditions, which also honour Yamaraj, the god of death, are not only celebrated by older generations, also many enthusiastic, young people are part of the festival. Finally, in Kathmandu all Gaijatra participants gather at Durbar Square, the city's central market place. The same happens in Patan and Bhakatapur. Along the way, residents provide special food or small donations to show the importance of sharing, compassion, and charity. Everything looks a bit like a carnival parade, yet with a very different background.

Our project schools in Chitwan also celebrate Gaijatra. This year, the children performed role plays and dramas wearing masks and make-up. Teachers and our staff accompanied the activities and told the children about the importance of the festival and the tradition behind it. Later, all of them moved cheerfully through the villages.

Pictures © 2018 Prakash Chandra Timilsena / Back to Life



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