Gai Jatra

(redirected from Cow Festival)

Gai Jatra (Cow Festival)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Hindu)
Date of Observation: August-September; Hindu month of Bhadra
Where Celebrated: Nepal
Symbols and Customs: Cow, Street Comedy


Gai Jatra is a Hindu religious festival celebrated in Nepal. The word Hindu is derived from the Sanskrit term Sindhu (or Indus), which meant river. It referred to people living in the Indus valley in the Indian subcontinent. Many scholars regard Hinduism as the oldest living religion.

Hinduism has no founder, one universal reality (or god) known as Brahman, many gods and goddesses (sometimes referred to as devtas), and several scriptures. Hinduism also has no priesthood or hierarchical structure similar to that seen in some other religions, such as Christianity. Hindus acknowledge the authority of a wide variety of writings, but there is no single, uniform canon. The oldest of the Hindu writings are the Vedas. The word "veda" comes from the Sanskrit word for knowledge. The Vedas, which were compiled from ancient oral traditions, contain hymns, instructions, explanations, chants for sacrifices, magical formulas, and philosophy. Another set of sacred books includes the Great Epics, which illustrate Hindu faith in practice. The Epics include the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita. The Hindu pantheon includes approximately thirty-three million gods. Some of these are held in higher esteem than others. Over all the gods, Hindus believe in one absolute high god or universal concept. This is Brahman. Although he is above all the gods, he is not worshipped in popular ceremonies because he is detached from the day-to-day affairs of the people. Brahman is impersonal. Lesser gods and goddesses (devtas) serve him. Because these are more intimately involved in the affairs of people, they are venerated as gods. The most honored god in Hinduism varies among the different Hindu sects. Although Hindu adherents practice their faith differently and venerate different deities, they share a similar view of reality and look back on a common history.

The festival of Gai Jatra, a favorite among the Nepalese people, has its roots in ancient times, when Yama Raj was worshipped as the ruler of the kingdom of death, to which all mortal souls must journey after departing the physical world. All of the families who had experienced a death in the past calendar year would join together and form a procession that made its way through the capital city of Katmandu. Each family would have a COW on a leash, because the cow was revered by all Hindus as a sacred animal and thus the ideal companion for the deceased on his or her journey to the underworld. The day of the procession was the only day of the year on which the gates to this kingdom were opened.

One of the festival's most popular features, however, was instituted much later, during the seventeenth-century reign of King Pratap Malla. In a desperate attempt to cheer up his wife after the death of their son, the king offered a reward to anyone who could make his queen laugh. Street comedians, mimics, and satirists showed up in ridiculous costumes, poking fun at the social injustices and political institutions of the day until the queen could not help but laugh out loud.

Today, Gai Jatra combines humor and mockery with a solemn acknowledgment of loss. There are morning prayers for the dead, followed by family processions leading cows decorated with flower necklaces and paper fans -or, as a substitute, a young boy in a cow-face mask. Another young boy often accompanies the "cow"; this is the yogi or holy man, who wears a moustache and a yellow loincloth. Larger processions often feature huge artificial cows made from bamboo, paper, and cloth. In Bhaktapur, large bamboo cows with straw horns are carried through the streets, as are smaller clay statues of cows. In Katmandu, all the processions pass through Durbar Square, where crowds gather to watch. People here and in other Nepalese cities often stand at intersections to offer refreshments to the participants as they pass by.

After the processions are over, the mood changes quickly. The rest of the day is turned over to songs, jokes, satires, and every imaginable form of humor. Some young men dress up in women's clothing or animal costumes, while others roam around acting as if they've lost their minds-doing anything, in other words, to get a laugh. Magazines and newspapers put out special editions poking fun at local politicians, and people often play practical jokes on each other. The singing, dancing, and merrymaking continue for most of the night, spurred on by large quantities of beer.

Aside from giving the Nepalese people an opportunity to make fun of each other and their government officials, Gai Jatra serves a more significant purpose: Families who have lost someone can pay tribute to the deceased and, at the same time, engage in activities that are joyful and life-affirming.



Among Hindus, the gai or cow is the holiest and most venerated of all domestic animals. She plays the important role of safely guiding the souls of the deceased on their journey to Lord Yama's kingdom, and she uses her horns to open the gates. So powerful is the cow as a symbol in Hindu societies that even a mask, image, or a person dressed up like one is considered an object of reverence.

Street Comedy

The practical jokes, political satires, and other forms of poking fun that are so prevalent during Gai Jatra are part of a long tradition in Nepal known as khyalaa or street comedy. It originated in the seventeenth century, and, as recently as the mid1980s, dozens of khyalaa troupes were performing during the Gai Jatra celebration. The actors played the roles of doctors, lawyers, and other important citizens, and they put on satirical dramas that made fun of local and government officials.

Today, the role of street comedy during the Gai Jatra festival is no longer as prevalent or well-organized, perhaps because it is no longer the only channel open to Nepalese who want to ridicule their government. But the spirit of khyalaa remains strong in the mocking and satirical flavor of the humor that has become such a recognizable part of the celebration.


MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.


Nepal Home Page Gai Jatra
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Gai Jatra

One week beginning the day after the full moon in August
Gai Jatra is an eight-day carnival-type festival in Nepal, also known as the Cow Festival . The largest observances take place in Kathmandu, though people observe Gai Jatra throughout the country. It is sponsored by families who had deaths during the year and is intended to help the dead complete a smooth journey to heaven. Cows are believed to ease the journey and open the gates of heaven with their horns; therefore, during the festival, cows decorated with flowers and teenagers dressed as cows process through the streets. Dancing, singing, and performances satirizing the government and society are also part of the celebrations. These diversions stem from a legend that, after the death of a queen's child, the king sent clowns to console the queen.
Nepal Tourism Board, Tourist Service Center
Bhrikuti Mandap
P.O. Box 11018
Kathmandu, Nepal
977-1-4256909; fax: 977-1-4256910
BkHolWrld-1986, Oct 8
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 463
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
The poor animal soon fell to her death but is now immortalised in an annual Cow Festival. Yes, really.
This traditional festival has been observed by Kathmandu Valley residents for centuries and is popularly known as "Gai Jatra" or "The Cow Festival".
I would like to cite what I have written earlier about the nature of the march on the occasion of the gaijatra festival (Subedi:2001): Gaijatra festival or literally, cow festival is a journey to the world of the dead.