Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Gai Jatra festival

I was passing through Kathmandu in August at the time of the Newari festival of Gai Jatra. The Newars, a large ethnic group in Nepal, believe that after death, a cow will guide you to Yama, the God of the underworld.  The festival of Gai Jatra "Festival of the Cow" is partly in remembrance of those who have died during the previous year. In the three Durbar Squares of the Kathmandu Valley this festival is celebrated with colourful parades. In some places cows are led through the streets and some young boys dress up as cows.

I went to Kathmandu Durbar Square to experience the celebrations.  The Square was crowded, with hundreds of people sitting on the tiered steps of the temples, higher up to get a better view of the procession. The cacophony of noise was all around; bands, drums, vehicles and people all mingled in the close confines of the square. 

Being the centre of Kathmandu, cows were not much in evidence.  However I did see one calf being led through the square in the parade, its forehead covered in tikka and a marigold garland around its neck.  Several family groups carried photos of cows too.

It was moving to see the family groups in the procession, honouring their loved ones who had died during the past year.  In many groups a photo of the deceased, often surrounded with a flower garland, was held aloft beneath a very large colourful umbrella.  I imagine this was to shade everyone from the hot sun, but there may be another significance I don’t know of.  Beneath this, the young people from the family were dressed up in brightly coloured clothes and had headdresses and masks. 

Many had their faces made up with moustaches drawn with eye pencil.  The family group was, in most cases, led by a small band, with drums, cymbals, bells and wooden Nepali flutes.

Saddus, holy men of the Hindu faith, were out in force, carefully dressed and with faces painted for this special festival. I loved the flamboyant headdresses of the two featured in this photo.

This culture with the celebration and parade creating a public display of commemoration and mourning is so different from that of our western cultures that I found it hard to watch without feeling voyeuristic. However the square was filled with spectators both Nepali and Western, photographers and even television crews, obviously a very public occasion for Nepalis.

Refreshments in a rooftop café gave a different perspective. The view of the Taleju Temple opposite is very interesting and one not generally seen. It was built in 1564, stands on a twelve-stage plinth and reaches to a height of 35 metres. Roof supports on each stage are beautifully carved with gods and figures. On the eighth stage a wall and 16 miniature temples surround it. This splendid temple is generally closed to the public, only open to a few Hindus during the festival of Dashain.

It was interesting to look down on the procession with the colourful costumes and large multi-coloured umbrellas.  It made me appreciate the large number of people in the square, both taking part and spectating. This was obviously an important event in the Nepali calendar.
Pheri bheTaulaa

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