Nepali Times
Festival of death and satire


The monsoon is all but spent. The clouds no longer squat dark and unmoving on the Kathmandu valley, raining with a determined intensity. Now they hang softly about, are often swept from a dazzling sky, or sometimes gather suddenly to pour at random. Thousands of gossamer dragonflies sail on golden wings in the sunlight. The bamboo orchids bloom mauve and purple. There is a feel of autumn-the Nepalese will say winter-in the early morning air. And autumn means festivals. They line up out there in the near future like eagerly expected visitors, so near one can almost hear their chatter and see the gleam of their fine clothes.

One has just arrived, and gone, though its celebration has been prolonged in places where it seems the people are reluctant to let it go. These symptoms of reluctance are hardly peculiar to Nepal: I remember how every year in Calcutta an excuse was found to delay the departure of the goddess Durga so that one came upon pandals still occupied like late lamps attracting ever-eager moths, or saw small, enthusiastic immersions long after the splendidly riotous night of Bijaya Dashami. Here it is the festival of Gai Jatra, the procession of sacred cows, that honours the recently dead which may appear a strange reason for celebration, but then again, what a charming way to be remembered. There is lamentation and consoling prayer, mostly among the elderly and old, and the seriousness of ritual, but the mood of Gai Jatra is predominantly festive, as if in frolic the finality of death itself is being mocked, while living is celebrated. For who doesn\'t know that Yama Raj, the God of Death, sits in judgement on all souls, deciding which are to be admitted to the gates of patal, the underworld, and which are to find rebirth? The gates of patal are open only once a year and it often requires the assistance of a holy cow to push them open with its horns, just as departed souls require the guidance of a cow to show them the way. For, the journey through :he underworld is fraught with the most terrifying of obstacles; rivers of fire, great valleys of ice, endless seas, deserts, enchanted forests infested with demons and spirits, blinding lights and temptations that can turn souls from salvation. The holy cow, by allowing souls to clasp its tail, guides them unerringly to the palace of Yama Raj.

So families bereaved during the past year send their children fancifully dressed as cows and sadhus, together with the family priest, musicians and often a real cow, in procession through the streets of Kathmandu. Depending on wealth and status, some of these family processions are large and splendidly attired. Others are as small as a couple of small, bemused children can be. All must follow a route dictated by tradition and all must pass below the windows of audience in the old royal palace; windows at which the Malla kings and their queens sat to watch the revelry. It is believed that the processions provided palace observers with a convenient census of deaths, but I know of no similar festival the indicates the number of births in the city.

Though even city and village in the Kathmandu valley has its Gai Jatra festival, they vary greatly in their expression. Kathmandu has gaily attired young \'cows\' brilliantly robed and crowned with printed cow masks, flowers, tinsel and horns decorated with brightly coloured rosettes and flags. Their eyes are enlarged with kajal, their rouged cheeks daubed with yellow and most of them effect a painted moustache. They are garlanded with flowers and trail white cloth tails behind them which, after the ceremony, are cut into strips and worn by members of the family as amulets. X omen, from almost every house they pass, make offerings to the \'cows\': fruit, sweets, flowers, parched rice or simply a mouthful of water from a brass pot. In Bhaktapur, the \'cows\' are towering constructions of bamboo wound about with cloth, usually sarees, topped with printed cow masks, horns of straws, and modern touch, brightly coloured parasols. According to their size, these impressive contraptions are either worn by a single person or carried on a litter by four or more men. Portraits of the dead are displayed, and the processions after winding through the streets of the city, gather in a square towered over by the great temple of five stages, to await the coming of Bhairab. The fierce god is represented by a tall decorated pyramid of straw, and about him wheel the \'cows\', their attendant baids and groups of dancers: amazing finale to the morning\'s devotions.

Patan, the dry of artists, has processions featuring boys gorgeously dressed as Krishna, Rukmani, Radha and Prahlad, and dozens of girls as Krishna\'s devotees. What exactly they have to do with the hereafter.

I\'m not sure. Whereas in Kathmandu and Bhaktapur the family processions move separately, in Patan they gather together and move as one, stopping every now and again to receive the prayers and offerings of the devout along the way. There are bands, a few brightly attired human \'cows\'\', real cows, at least one masked dancer, and great copper and brass drums filled with stones chat are pulled at the head of the procession. The idea seems to be to make as much of a din as possible to drive both evil and reluctant spirits away. For, many are the souls of the dead that hang about their old homes in the hope of returning to life. All they do is haunt the living. The noise of Gai Jatra exorcises them.

A splendid old man who claimed to be over ninety years old, introduced himself and sat by me as the procession went by, saying a little ruefully that the celebrations now are a shadow of what they used to be. In his time, great pageants of dance, music and drama were staged by the rich and the processions were as elaborate and glittering as offerings to the gods should be. Did I know the secret of his age and strength? He had married several times. \'Never sleep alone,\' he said to the delight of the people crowding about us. But now, he -remarked matter-of-factly, he had only a couple of years left. Then it would be his turn. He waved his walking stick at the passing \'deities\' under their silk and brocaded umbrellas, the bands, the wildly leaping dancer, and the great barrels of sound. \'Next year, perhaps.\'

I wondered aloud to some Nepali friends how long the tradition of Gai Jatra would last. Would it not fall prey to modern advancement? In answer, one pointed to a rich procession of \'cows\' under gold umbrellas, accompanied by two uniformed bands approaching us. They represented the royal family, he said, paving tribute to the memory of the late junior royal grand queen mother. And almost simultaneously, the widely travelled proprietor of one of Kathmandu\'s leading hotels came to ask if his son had passed by in procession. The boy had recently lost his grandfather.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)