Gai Jatra in Nepal – History, Dates and Celebration

Gai Jatra

If you are looking for a unique blend of fun with tradition and culture, Nepal is just the right destination. Among numerous traditional celebrations, Gai Jatra combines culture, art, fascinating rituals, and uniqueness. Here, Gai Jatra is more than just a tradition; it is an emotional therapy.

Over time, the festival has evolved; today, it holds cultural and emotional value and is also considered the festival of sarcasm. Gai Jatra is hugely celebrated in Kathmandu Valley among the Newar community. Furthermore, others also hop on to this celebration through the medium of comic characters that they make for the day.

Around Kathmandu, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur, Gai Jatra is celebrated by all age groups with their families. This particular day of celebration gives a whole new perspective on death and mourning. It specifically teaches us not to linger with sadness about death for too long but to rejoice in the memory of the loved ones.

History And Its Origin

Multiple legends and folktales are linked with the beginning of the Gai Jatra celebration. However, it is believed that this celebration originated 600 years ago during the period of Jayastithi Malla. The festival was called ‘saa yaa(t)’ or ‘gai yatra,’ which translates to “journey of the cow.”

In the same period, Bhaktapur used to be the capital of Nepal and had been so for 367 years. It worked that way till the rule of King Ananda Dev. However, it changed during the reign of Yaksha Malla. From then on, the Kathmandu Valley was divided into Kathmandu, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur, which is how it is today.

Moving on, the Gai Jatra celebration only flourished as a legitimate festival during the reign of Pratap Malla in Kathmandu. In the meantime, Jagat Prakash Malla was ruling Bhaktapur, and Siddhi Narsingh Malla was in Lalitpur.

About 600 years ago, during the reign of Jayastithi Malla, people heavily feared the God of death, Yamaraj, which started the Gai Jatra celebration. People worshipped Yamaraj and celebrated the day to please him.

Pratap Malla started Gai Jatra in Nepal.

However, the Gai Jatra celebration we see today started with Pratap Malla. During his rule over Kantipur, King Pratap wanted his five sons to learn and experience the country’s administration while he was still alive.
Not long after, King Pratap appointed his eldest son (Chakrabartendra Malla) the Kingdom’s King. Unfortunately, Chakrabartendra died on the second day of his reign. This unfortunate and untimely death of the prince caused the Queen to be lost in deep sorrow.

Days passed, but the Queen was stuck in this grief, which greatly bothered the King. Hence, the King started working on every possible means to make his Queen happy and improve her condition. However, nothing could bring back a smile on the Queen’s face.

After a while, the King announced a parade in the Kingdom and asked every family who had suffered a death loss to join them. After the announcement, the Kingdom was soon filled with families who shared their tales of loss.

During the procession, King Pratap also gave the freedom to crack jokes about the political scene. He asked the people to dress colorfully and in a fun way, giving them the “freedom of speech” to crack jokes comfortably.

Altogether, this day-long celebration eased the Queen’s pain and accepted death as a continuous natural phenomenon. Also, seeing so many bereaved families and understanding everyone’s grief over the loss of their loved ones, she realized that life continues and should be lived fully.

During the event, the masses dressed up colorfully and made silly jokes about reputed society and social injustice. This made the Queen laugh, which relieved her grief of loss.

Other Folktale

Even the Buddhist manuscript has a tale supporting the Gai Jatra celebration. According to the legend, a woman devastated by her son’s death was said to visit Lord Budhha during one of his teaching sessions.

As she met Lord Buddha, she howled and cried hysterically, demanding him to bring her son back to life. Upon hearing that, Lord Budhha asked the woman to get a handful of mustard seeds from the house where no one had died so that he could sprinkle them on her son and revive him.

Then, the lady agreed to the deal and went around the village to search for such homes. However, she could not find a single house with no deaths. Soon, she realized that death is inevitable and everyone has to go through it.


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    Evolution Over Time

    The Gai Jatra celebration started to console the Queen with humor during the Malla dynasty. However, it has gone through multiple changes over time. Another such change occurred during the Shah monarchy.

    Initially, Gai Jatra was only celebrated within the Valley; however, it started spreading out of the Valley, such as Banepa, Panauti, and Pokhara. It was when Rana Bahadur Shah ordered all the kids to get out of the three cities inside Kathmandu Mandala to avoid death due to Kala-Azar after the demise of Rani Kantivati. The families then later moved to different cities.

    Later, this incident gave rise to the song “Kachi macha vai yaa keg ya yakhu,” which translates to “What a cruel king to throw away even a newborn baby.”

    Addition Of Satire And Humour

    Ever since the introduction of satirical jokes and the use of humor in the celebration, the festival has come a long way. With the given “freedom of speech,” you will witness the art of comedy and political satire throughout the country.

    Everyone jumps to this trend of satire, from famous comedians to local artists. They make jokes to reflect societal problems and political imbalance. Altogether, today’s Gai Jatra celebration has become a festival for satires where people take jokes lightheartedly and use them to reflect and rejoice. So, this day emphasizes tolerance to criticism and democracy.

    Symbol of Inclusiveness and Diversity

    Alongside accepting death as an inevitable force and reminiscing on the good memories of the loved one, Gai Jatra has also been an occasion to accept people for who they are. People also take it as an opportunity to promote the culture and heritage of the community.

    Nowadays, the Gai Jatra festival also marks an important date for the LGBTO+ community in Nepal.

    When Is Gai Jatra Celebrated?

    Janai Purnima and these celebrations always precede Gai Jatra, who have a connection with one another. People have a ritual of wearing a colorful thread on their wrist on Janai Purnima, and they later tie that thread on a cow’s tail. It is often said that the cow will take them to the afterlife.

    Well, Gai Jatra falls in the month of Bhadra (August/ September). In the native Newari language (Nepal Bhasa), Gai Jatra is also called Sa Paru. Here, ‘Sa’ means cow while ‘Paru’ means Pratipada Tithi.

    As in the name, Pratipada Tithi refers to the first day of the fortnight in the Hindu calendar system. This name also comes from the time it is celebrated, Bhadra māsa śukla pakṣa pratipada tithi.

    This year, 2024, Gai Jatra falls on Tuesday, the 20th of August. This celebration is a public holiday, and every school and office is closed.

    Why is Gai Jatra Celebrated?

    The celebration of Gai Jatra is deeply entwined with the emotional value of the people. This is the only day of the year when the line between sadness and fun is blurred. It brings consolation to the grieving families and represents communal solidarity, empathy, and resilience.

    Another legend linked to the Gai Jatra celebration is mentioned in the Garuda Purana. According to it, the 11th day after someone’s death calls for the ritual of Brishotsarga (releasing an ox/bull).

    This ritual is made on the belief that the souls of the deceased members will get peace by creating a vast offering. However, it was a costly ritual, and not everyone could afford to perform it, so Gai Jatra was celebrated as an alternate option.

    Since then, people have believed that celebrating Gai Jatra would help deceased souls cross their paths to heaven by grabbing a cow’s tail over the Vaitarani River. The Vaitarani River is said to be a symbolic river of suffering and torment.

    How Is Gai Jatra Celebrated?

    Even as a tribute celebration to the deceased members, Gai Jatra has a unique and enchanting ritual.

    In the morning, the deceased’s family decorates and cleans their houses. Primarily, they use cow dung and red mud. However, most houses are made of cement; they do not have purity places. That is why most people make cow-like bamboo structures either on the evening of the festival or the same morning.

    Sometimes, some people bring real cows for rituals and celebrations. In Hindu culture, a cow holds a deep meaning and is given the respect of a mother.

    Returning to the ritual procession, they invite priests for the morning ritual known as Shraddha Karma after decorating their houses. After that, they offer food to the cow, generally known as godaan, to remember the deceased member.

    Often, the parade starts with people dressed up as cows and wearing heavy makeup.

    The parade performance starts as the families make food offerings and chant the prayers. Moving on, the streets are then filled with tunes and melodies of traditional musical instruments. The streets are bustling with crowds flaunting their costumes and jingling ornaments.

    As a fun fact, the profession also heavily affects the celebration culture. Usually, the farmers made cows using bamboo, while affluent families disguised their children as cows during the parade.

    In addition to that, people used signs to identify the deceased members during the parade. For instance, if the family had lost a child, the family would create a makeshift cow out of a bamboo basket (doko).

    Likewise, if the deceased member were a lady, they would wear red and blue clothes during the parade. Similarly, if the lady were pregnant, they would bring a calf. People get a picture of the deceased member and place it on a symbolic cow.

    Food Offerings During Gai Jatra Celebration

    Alongside the heartfelt connection that the ritual provides, Gai Jatra is also packed with culinary delight. Like the rituals during the auspicious occasion, the celebration is complete with authentic Newari cuisine.

    Samay Bhaji

    One of the major dishes in the spotlight is Samay Bhaji. It is the Newari food platter that consists of several food items such as Chatamari, beaten rice, wa: (pancake made out of black gram paste or mung beans paste), barbecued and marinated buffalo meat (Chhwela), fried boiled egg, black soybeans (Bhatamaas), spicy potato salad (Aalu-Wala), finely cut ginger (known as “Palu”), cooked beans mixed with spices (Bodi ko Achar), green leaves (Saag), and Ayla.

    Furthermore, this platter also includes a tangy, spicy achaar (pickle) mix of potatoes, carrots, cucumbers, onion, peas, and radishes.

    Choila / Chhwela

    While this dish is included in the Samay Bhaji platter, Choila is also relished as a separate dish. Choila is a grilled buffalo meat that is filled with spices.

    While buffalo meat is the primary focus of the dish, you can also get options such as chicken, duck, mushroom, and mutton.

    Juju Dhau

    Widely popular as the “King of the curds,” Juju Dhau is known for its rich taste and thick consistency. It is Bhaktapur’s special dish, and you will find it in clay pots.

    During special occasions, Juju Dhau is a staple dessert and denotes purity. This dish comprises buffalo milk and is an integral part of every ceremony.

    Gai Jatra In Different Cities Of Nepal

    If you ever visit Nepal during Gai Jatra, you will witness it in different cities such as Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, Kritipur, Patan, and Khokana. Other than this, Gai Jatra has also spread out in several other regions, but the celebrations are not as grand.

    Celebration In Kathmandu

    The capital city of Nepal, Kathmandu, is the central attraction for the Gai Jatra celebration, which stems from this city. After the performance consoled the depressed Queen, it became an annual ritual, and the maris date was marked on the calendar.

    Even after the reign, the Gai Jatra celebration was passed down from generation to generation. During this single day, people of the Newar community come together to celebrate and share their fondest memories of the deceased members, leaving the sorrow behind.

    This celebration parade goes around the city and even the inner urban areas. The parade performers each get small packets of sweets, oats, fruits, and other food from the different families around the city to help them tour the city. In the meantime, the bystanders stay inside and observe the festival through television or outside with their satirical performances.

    Celebration In Patan

    Unlike the festival celebration in Kathmandu, the performance in Patan involves much fewer people. Generally, this celebration is called Matayaa.

    It is similar to Gai Jatra, where people dress up colorfully and participate in different satirical functions and events. Usually, the people involved in this performance are the families who have lost their loved ones recently within a year.


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      Celebration In Bhaktapur

      Bhaktapur has one of the most enjoyable ways of celebrating this festival. Compared to the Kathmandu and Patan celebrations, they go over the top with a unique twist, using a chariot.

      This particular chariot is called Taha-Macha, made out of bamboo and covered with a clot. Later, people also hang the pictures of their deceased members in the center of the chariot and tour around the city with it.

      Like this, multiple chariots are seen along the way that day and pushed by the youths dressed in Hakku Patasi (a traditional black sari-type cloth). Each chariot symbolizes their deceased members as they are adorned with their possessions and photographs.

      Altogether, these Taaha-Machas are guided by a single, more enormous chariot called Bhailya Dya (Bhairab), made of bamboo and covered with straws. Alongside the parade, numerous local musicians follow the chariot.

      Likewise, a cultural dance called Ghintang Ghisi is also performed, and people of all age groups are dressed in different characters and as cows. Not to mention, some of them also paint their faces.

      As a fun fact, this exciting dance lasts for almost a week as people perform it from Gai Jatra to Krishna Janmashtami. Well, the Ghintang Ghisi takes place in a long queue with two people in a row dancing by hitting each other’s sticks.

      Celebration In Kritipur

      The Gai Jatra celebration in Kritipur is enriched with authentic culture and tradition. This celebration is performed in total bliss in the towns of Kritipur, such as Kipu, Naga, and Panga.

      With this celebration, the people of Kritipur believe that the gate to heaven is open that day. Hence, by marching in a parade around the city, the people of Kritipur believe that their deceased members will reach heaven.

      Here, the Gai Jatra celebration is a bit different than in other cities, as people do not dress up as cows but as gods and goddesses. Apart from the celebration for the deceased members, farmers and people also take it as an opportunity to take a break from their tedious work.

      Similarly, Gai Jatra is also an occasion for people to reconnect and build relationships with their neighbors. During the parade, the townspeople knock on each door, asking their neighbors to join them.

      Kritipur has many more stories and beliefs intertwined with the Gai Jatra celebration. Hence, its diverse nature always leaves people in awe.

      Celebration In Khokana

      Khokana was a small village-like area predominantly inhabited by the Newar community. Today, this Village Development Committee (VDC) is merged with other VDCs, such as Bungamati, Chhampi, Dukuchhap, Sainbu, and many more.

      Like the celebration in Bhaktapur, the celebration in Khokana is also unique in its method of celebration. During the occasion, Khokana uses their ancient attires and masks. Also, as this area is rich in agricultural products and their harvest, they offer them to the deities.

      As the procession starts, the boys dress up as females and join the parades, making satirical jokes. However, the ladies are involved in the feast preparations and look after other rituals of Gai Jatra.

      Types Of Dances Performed During Gai Jatra

      While the Gai Jatra celebration lasts only a day in some areas, the Bhaktapur festival lasts almost a week. In fact, after Biska Jatra, Gai Jatra is one of their major celebrations.

      As the celebration starts with Gai Jatra, the second day is Taha-macha, which lasts till Krishna Janmashtami. On the first day of Gai Jatra, you will witness Ghitang Ghisi and Makha Pyakhan, as well as traditional music.

      Apart from this, there are also several other late-night performances, which are mentioned below.

      Kawana Pyakhan

      This is also known as the skeleton dance, as the name suggests. Here, Kawana refers to a skeleton with a fearsome character.

      Well, this dance starts With two kids dressing up as skeletons for the performance. The kids in costumes stand facing each other from the opposite corner. Usually, they perform this dance mainly in Bhaktapur Durbar Square.

      Bhalu Naach / Pyakhan

      Like the name, this traditional dance is delivered by dressing up as Bhalu (aka bear). It holds a special place as bears are used for attraction and is a storytelling act. Thai dance is usually performed in Nasamana Tole of Bhaktapur.

      Khichha Pyakhan

      Like every other dance form, Khichha Pyakhan is correlated with a dog as the performers dance dressed up as the dogs. Here, both participants dress up as dogs, symbolically representing their loyalty to people.

      Bhairava Dance

      This dance is mainly seen in Madhyapur Thimi Bhaktapur. There are many other dance forms where the character Bhairava is included, such as Nil barahi Pyakhan, Nava Durga Dance, and Mahalaxmi Dance.

      Not to mention, this dance holds a spiritual and cultural meaning to the celebration. According to the legends, the character Bhairava in this dance performance is said to eliminate the bad luck of ghosts and spiritual demons.

      Lakhey Dance

      It is one of the most popular dances in the Newar community and is often performed during the Gai Jatra celebration. Well, Lakhey is usually known as the dance of the devil in the carnival of God.

      As per the legend, Lakhey is the demon living in the forest and protecting the townspeople. They often dance carelessly and relentlessly in front of the deities. The Lakhey has a ferocious face, prominent fangs, and a red or black-haired mane.

      Often, this performance is done by people wearing Lakhey masks and costumes that dance around the Valley. Generally, this dance is represented with wild movements and thumping music beats.

      Not to mention, this dance is also an entertaining performance. One of the characters in the dance is a small boy called Jhyalincha, who taunts the Lakhey. Seeing that, the Lakhey chases him down the road in anger.


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        Nil Barahi Dance

        It is one of the oldest dances in Bhaktapur, originating in Bode. According to the ancient manuscripts, Nil Barahi appeared among the locals and taught the dance form. It is believed that this dance symbolizes peace after a tiring war with the demons.

        Additionally, Nil Barahi set her own rules during the dance as well. It is said that you are not allowed to eat or drink during the dance. Not to mention, the performers also do not talk with one another.

        Well, a fun fact is that this dance continues for three days, and one person contributes 12 to 15 hours daily to this performance. Furthermore, the performers committed to this dance should fulfill it no matter the circumstances.

        Altogether, 19 performers for the dance belong to the Shrestha family of Bode. Apart from this, the dance is also tied to tantric rituals and stories. As it is the dance of the Gods, some of the characters involved in this dance are Barahi, Bhairava, Ganeshas (Surya Binayak, Jal Binayak, Ashok Binayak, and Kal Binayak), Kumari, Simha, Gatekeepers, and Jokhale.

        As you might have learned by now, this dance is expensive. Hence, only some professional performers are still up to take this performance.

        Mahakali Dance

        This particular dance also started during the period of the Malla Dynasty when King Pratap Malla stood as the ruler. Back in the day, King Pratap witnessed the battle between the goddesses Mahakali, Mahalaxmi, and Kumari with the demons.

        Hence, he expressed his wish to record the event through a dance. Today, this dance is performed by people wearing masks to enact the fight. Although it is mainly performed during the Indra Jatra festival, it is also sometimes acted in the Gai Jatra celebration.

        Mahalaxmi Dance

        The Mahalaxmi dance is performed in Bhaktapur Nagar and Nagadesh, Madhyapur Thimi municipality. This dance is performed by dressing up as Goddess Mahalaxmi.

        Here, Mahalaxmi dances in the center of the stage with a weapon in her hand. Later, she strikes her pose to the beat of the Madal and purifies the site to grow jamara (sacred barley leaves).

        The Song Of The Gai Jatra

        Lyrics:

        ताहामचा गन त्ये

        ग्वाखंप्वाले त्ये,

        ग्वाखंप्वाले मन्ह्यो सा

        खुसि चूइका छ्वोये ……

        Pronunciation:

        “Tahamacha Gana tye,

        Gwakhanpwale tye,

        Gwakhanpwale Manhyonsaa

        Khusi Chuka Chhwe”

        English Translation:

        “Where should we put Tahamacha (the artificial cow)?

        On the hole made on the wall (There is a mere possibility that one could still find such a hole in older houses).

        What if it does not fit in that hole,

        Submerged it in the river.”

        In A Nutshell

        Gai Jatra in Nepal has been more than just a mere celebratory occasion as it helps people accept the loss of their loved members into reality. Moreover, it also gives them the consolation of having a happy afterlife.

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