ALL PICS: BIKRAM RAI
Pratap Malla’s prosperous reign as the king of Kathmandu in the mid-17th century was when most of the monuments of the Hanuman Dhoka Palace were built. One day Pratap Malla’s young son died, and the grief-stricken queen was inconsolable.
To show her that she wasn’t the only person to have lost a loved one, the king ordered everyone in the kingdom who had lost a relative that year to bring out a huge procession.
The king also asked them to try to make the queen laugh through skits that poked fun at Kathmandu's rulers. Tears gave way to laughter, and thus began Saparu, the unique Newari festival of satire, death and rebirth.
The festival is also known as Gai Jatra in Nepali because the procession includes young boys dressed as cows. This year, the festival falls on Sunday, 30 August and will be accompanied by feasts, music, dancing and merriment. Saparu carries special significance this year because the earthquake caused almost 2,000 fatalities in Kathmandu Valley. Of the 8,844 people killed, 20 per cent were Newars.
“Death is a reality of life and we have to accept it,” says Bhuyu Maharjan, 88 who survived the 1934 earthquake, “and Saparu gives us the strength to deal with death in the family and move on.” Maharjan still remembers the Saparu festival after the 1934 earthquake as a chance for his community to come to terms with their collective grief.
For a festival that commemorates death, Saparu is mostly filled with laughter, music and feasting and is a part of Kathmandu Valley’s exclusive cultural heritage. The focus this year will be on rebuilding lives and reconstruction of fallen shrines and monuments.
“The number of people taking part in procession will be higher but the route will be shorter because of the supporting beams blocking some streets,” says Maharjan.
There are variations in the way Saparu is celebrated in Kathmandu, Patan or Bhaktapur. In Patan, there is an additional procession in memory of those who died during the previous year and the worship of the god of death, Yama, also known as Matya.
“It is a festival that helps families cope with death, and this year it will help the healing process and show the world that we are getting back on our feet again,” says Sudhan Subedi of the Nepal Tourism Board which is promoting Nepal’s festivals.
From early morning people dressed in traditional clothes carrying pictures of the deceased, masked dancers and musicians visit various religious shrines offering fruits, incense, or coins. It is believed that if a family member of the deceased takes part in the procession, the dead will be cleansed of their sins and make it safely to the gates of heaven.
Historically, Saparu was also a unique way to do a rough death census of the town’s population after natural disasters or epidemics. Saparu is significant at many levels this year, not just with personal sorrow but the togetherness spirit that allows people to deal with bereavement as community.
However, as neighbourhoods become less cohesive in Kathmandu there is worry that Gai Jatra is losing its true meaning, becoming simply a vulgar excuse for people to ridicule others.
“It used to be a day when people used to lampoon autocratic rulers with creative satire,” says heritage expert Anil Chitrakar, “we have to revive the original spirit of Gai Jatra that allows us to deal with calamities.”
The procession and people’s participation this year will of course reflect the death and destruction caused by the earthquake of 25 April 2015 but it will also be proof of the tenacity and strength of the Nepalis.
Says Chitrakar: “It is the tangible things we lost, and we can rebuild those. But we still have the intangible part, our beliefs, our values and festivals. Gai Jatra is a way to show that Nepal is getting back to normal.”
Watch video of last year’s Saparu
The pain inside
The events of that Saturday morning four months ago is seared in Nirmala Maharjan’s memory. Her four-storey building in Patan collapsed crushing her husband, brother-in-law and his family.
“I may look all right, and I smile at people but only I know the pain inside,” she tells us, eyes glistening. Nirmala (pic, right) will be joining the Matya procession this year with her two young sons, visiting the shrines in a route through Patan’s narrow lanes in memory of the rest of her family that perished in the earthquake.
Says Nirmala: “I must go so that my family will rest in peace, it is also a way for me to start anew and take care of my surviving sons.”
Watch video: Saparu 2015
Festival of death and satire