Celebrating Life and Death at Gai Jatra
The traffic moves at festival speed, like honey through an hourglass. The taxi rattles and hums with the smell of exhaust fumes. But the time passes easily with my companion for the day, Junu Shrestha, a tour guide from the medieval city of Bhaktapur.
“In this celebration people are more happy than sad,” says Junu. “It’s a festival for dead people, but it’s also for all of society. Because it’s not only your family members who died: everybody dies and we have to accept those deaths, so we celebrate it in a nice way.”
The story of Nepal’s death festival starts, of course, with a man being trampled to death by an elephant. King Pratap Malla ruled Nepal from 1641-74, and had a unique system of rule: he wanted his sons to each take a turn running the kingdom while he was alive. His second son, Chakrabartendra Malla, was killed in the unfortunate elephant incident the day after he took over as king. His mother, the Queen, was inconsolable. She wouldn’t eat or sleep, and wouldn’t stop crying. No matter what Pratap did to cheer her up, nothing worked. In desperation, he turned to his kingdom and announced that anyone who could make her smile would be richly rewarded.
Gai Jatra was already an annual festival, literally translating as “cow festival”–a procession of people led by a cow. The procession was brought before the queen, and people performed comedy skits for her, or, by the sound of it, at her. Anyone who’s ever been inconsolably sad and had well-meaning idiots dance around vomiting joy might be skeptical about this approach, but eventually, she cracked a smile. The successful skit was one that mocked the obscene wealth of the country’s high society, and some sources even claim she burst out laughing. Pratap jumped on it, and decreed that henceforth, Gai Jatra would feature jokes, mockery and satire, and that it would also become a festival for the dead; every family who had lost someone that year would take part in the procession.
Every bit of the Cow Festival decree has held, aside from the “cow” part. As agriculture became mechanized, the availability of cows to lead the procession diminished. Now, “a boy dressed as a cow will do”. Even during the oppressive Shah regime, it remained the only day people were allowed to criticise the government.
We arrive, finally, in Bhaktapur, jump out of the car and make our way to the centre, an as-yet sparsely-populated square with the sounds of drums wafting through the air like bonfire smoke. A line of people file into the square holding an enormous bamboo structure hoisted on their shoulders. It towers at about 10 or 12 feet; at the very top sits an umbrella over a thick wig of hair. The rest is dressed in white and orange silk sheets, and draped in a pashmina. There’s a handbag hanging off the side of it.
“Is that supposed to be…a person?” I ask Junu.
“Yes,” she says, “we call this a taha-macha. They believe this is a dead person, a representation of them. We can see this was a woman because she is wearing a sari. You see there is an umbrella on top to protect them, and also hair and clothes.”
“Where are they off to?” I ask, watching people follow it round the corner.
“They will walk all around the city, and come back to the same place they started,” she laughs. “It’s a strange festival!”
We walk around the back streets and come across a static taha-macha, waiting for the festivities to start. The “skirt” is black with red and gold pendants, and it’s topped with a bright pink and yellow umbrella. Instead of a wig for hair, there are bunches of flowers. A long black and white “scarf” frames a picture of the woman the taha-macha represents; a 76-year-old old Newari woman.
We come across what feels like a makeshift backstage area, with about 20 young children dressed as little Vishnus. The boys have thick moustaches painted on their chubby faces, and some are clutching deep-pink incense sticks as thick as cigars.
“Vishnu is one of the incarnations of god, and this represents for the family that a grandparent has died,” says Junu. Behind us a group of little girls start a chant.
“Do the children understand that somebody has died?”
“No, they just love being dressed up. In later years they’ll understand what it meant.”
Somewhere behind us, some drums whip up a catchy beat. The air thrums with sound. Thick wisps of incense rise from the clutched fists of the little gods.
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The day is here, the incredible #GaiJatra festival in #Bhaktapur #Kathmandu This is the day King Pratap Malla decreed would be a day that everyone who has lost someone this year will have a procession for their deceased loved ones, so they know they’re not alone in their grief. It’s a day of music and dancing and happiness, but I couldn’t have imagined how utterly joyful it would be. #death #deathfest #deathfestival #deathpositive #nepal
I follow Junu up a set of stairs and we emerge in a cafe. We take a seat by the balcony overlooking the square, order coffee and wait for the procession to start.
“Are you afraid of death?” she asks.
“God, yes,” I say. “There’s this perception that we’re ‘more afraid’ of death in the west. But I don’t think it’s true. I think we all have the exact same fear instilled in us just by being human, but some people are dealing with it well and others are dealing with it badly. And I think where I’m from, we deal with it badly. Instead of accepting that it’s normal and part of life, when someone dies, there is a sense that something has gone shockingly wrong.”
“Was it a shock for you?” She’s referring to my father-in-law, Chris, who sparked this journey to the world’s death festivals when we found him dead after eight days.
“Yes, completely. But Chris wasn’t sick, so we weren’t expecting to lose him so soon, or so suddenly. Or, I suppose, at all.”
As if on cue, music pours into the square. Loud drums, tinging cymbals, maracas and trumpets form a beat so solid you could climb onto it like a table. We lean over the balcony and see the procession creeping into the square. It’s thin at first, a taha-macha followed by a few people, then another, then another, and soon the procession thickens with decorated wheeled chariots and teenagers sporting face paint. The ting-ting-ting of cymbals gets louder. Two impossibly long lines of children jump and chant and hit sticks with one rhythmic “HEY!” after another.
The beat eases off and is replaced with a tinkling, and lines of teenage girls in matching black, white and red saris and golden hair pieces, necklaces and anklets sidle along, doing a gentle dance by hitting their sticks against each other’s, and are then obscured by some younger boys doing the same dance but with a head-banging energy usually found in a moshpit. One boy waves his denim jacket in the air, jumping up and down and scream-chanting. It’s a chant we’ll hear throughout the day. I can’t make out the words, of course, but the rhythm is burned into my brain:
In the moments the beat slows down, people walk a little slower, savouring the atmosphere, hitting their sticks languidly like a friendly high five, grinning at the face paints and taha-machas wavering in the sunshine. Then the beat speeds up, and the line starts bobbing up and down and the cries of “HEY!” get louder, the thwacks of the sticks get harder, and the entire city crackles with electric energy.
I cannot look at enough at once. Part of me wishes I could jump over the balcony, grab a stick and thwack and jump and dance and sing along. My face hurts from smiling. I quickly brush away the damn single tear that always embarrasses me by showing up whenever I’m faced with something nourishing those in the thick of grief, the drowning loneliness that smothers the bereaved.
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Junu and I pay for our coffee and dive into the crowd, let ourselves be carried along through the beat of the drums and cymbals. We follow a red umbrella sheltering a taha-macha. Plumes of incense whirl above us and the sun beats down.
We emerge into Taumadhi Square, and take in Kathmandu’s tallest temple, Nyatapola (which means ‘five storeys’). It looms over us as we approach. The stairs leading to the bottom storey are steep, and blanketed with Gai Jatra spectators.
“Let’s go up,” says Junu.
From across the square, you might not think Nyatapola as something to be avoided if you’re afraid of heights. But at the foot of the stairs, I gulp. The temple is 30 metres tall, and sits on steep a five-tiered staircase. There are people crammed on every step. The colours of their outfits and parasols look beautiful against the darkness of the looming wood, the flash of green grass growing out over the edges, the shock of blue sky behind.
But to get into the colourful crowd, we must climb the stairs – in an uncomfortably literal sense. I feel like an upright baby goat. The temple itself is solid enough; it was built in 1702 and survived both the 1934 and 2015 earthquakes. When we find a space, I wobble, struggling to hold myself so as not to tip backwards (annoying) or forwards (domino effect down five flights of stairs, leading to many more taha-machas at next year’s festival). Junu reaches over a short woman standing between us and takes my backpack, to minimise my chances of a tragic topple. With proper footing, the view is sensational. Bhairabnath Temple stands proud to our left, a three-storey pagoda, against a backdrop of lush green mountains, fluffy clouds and blue skies.
We rejoin the ground, bones intact, and squeeze ourselves onto a shopfront step and let the procession file past us. Teenage boys do the stick dance with empty water bottles, grinning as they sweat in their sunglasses and wet shirts. A cross-dresser in a black skirt, neon green shirt and a straw hat hams up a jig for my camera, behind a fat man in a t-shirt with the belly and nipples cut out. What a strange and joyful way to face mortality.
And it’s working. Just like it worked for the Queen all those centuries ago, when Pratap summoned everyone who’d lost someone that year to the palace, and she watched as it became crammed with people. No one ever said losing a loved one isn’t devastating. But suddenly I’m seeing, as if for the first time, that it isn’t unusual. It’s all I can think about as the joyous crowd passes, bouncing and singing and dancing and chanting. This obvious thing I feel I’m learning for the first time.
Death is normal.
It’s normal, it’s normal, it’s normal.
Later, back in my room, the air still thick with the beat of the drums, I look up the stick song, Ghintang Kishee Twaak, and email Junu and my Patan-based friend Sandip for their best translations. They come back with completely different versions, probably owing to their different backgrounds and hometowns. Junu says “ghintang kishee” is the stick dance, and “twaak” is the sound of sticks hitting each other.
Sandip’s translation hits closer to home:
“People die, but this is not the same as mourning. / We will leave that in the past. / We need to move on, / And not feel sorry anymore. / This is nature. / Let’s celebrate while we’re alive.”
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