Gai jatra: the festival of death, dance and satiric street performances

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Have you ever happened to have attended “Bhalu Pyakhan” in Bhaktapur during the Gai jatra festive season?

Yes, the Gai jatra festive season. It might sound a little unfamiliar but Gai Jatra is indeed the second largest festival of Bhaktapur, after the Biska jatra.  It is continuously celebrated for seven nights and eight days. Annually, the Gai jatra begins with a mash of people and noticeable Tahamacha, the day after Janai Purnima (Gunhi Punhi) and is celebrated until a day before Krishna Janmashtami.

The festival is celebrated in Patan, Bhaktapur, Kathmandu, and Kritipur. But, Bhaktapur somehow manages to grab the attention of visitors. No, not because Bhaktapur city is quite far from the hustle and bustle of the capital. But yes, it might happen because of its unique style and the town’s impactful involvement. Well, locals call this jatra Sa: paru too.

Tall bamboo poles wrapped with clothes and horns made of straws are the basic feature of a Tahamacha. Here, Tahamacha refers to an artificial cow since Gai jatra means the jatra (parade) of cows, there must be cows, right? However, people prepare Tahamacha (an artificial cow) and march it instead of the real cows. After all, Gai jatra is all about imitating things more dramatically.

There, at the top of Tahamacha, people put an umbrella to finalize it. Later on, four-person following the parade carries it. Wait, do you know that they follow a particular route to whirl the Bhaktapur Nagar during Gai jatra? Just like in Biska Jatra?

Well, that particular route is called Pradakshina Patha.

pradakshina patha

Pradakshina Patha

In the parade, people play ghintang ghisi and makha pyakhan along with traditional music. This is what you observe on the very first day of the Gai Jatra. But this does not end the festival here. During the entire festive season, locals get busy observing the late-night acts in different places of Bhaktapur. Some of them include dances like:

Kawana Pyakhan

Kawana is a Newari word that means skeleton. Two of the kids dressed up as skeletons in this dance form and performed the dance performance, facing each other from the opposite corner. The Kawana, as per the personality is a fearsome character.

kawan pyakhan

kawan pyakhan

Yet, it is kinda able to entertain its appreciator. This dance is shown in different parts of Bhaktapur, most likely in Bhaktapur durbar square during the festive season of Gaijatra.

Bhalu Naach/ Pyakhan

Bhalu Naach is also a traditional dance, delivered during Gaijatra where the characterized bear showed up as the main attraction since the dance is all associated with bear. It is more like a storytelling act. That’s why it is called Bhalu Naach (dance), more commonly Bhalu Pyakhan. This dance is generally performed in Nasamana Tole of Bhaktapur.

Khichha Pyakhan

Khicha Pyakhan is another traditional dance form of Bhaktapur which is performed during the Gai Jatra.  This dance is done by two of the participants who wear a costume representing dogs. Through this dance, they show us the loyalty of dogs towards human beings. (The khichha and pyakhan are newari words that mean dog and dance respectively.)

khicha pyakhan

khicha pyakhan
PC: Praz Santt

Bhairava Dance

Although Bhairava as a character dances in different other dances like in Nil barahi Pyakhan, Nava Durga Dance and Mahalaxmi Dance, however, in Madhyapur Thimi, Bhairav Dance particularly have an added significance. The dance is so much related to cultural and spiritual aspects that it is believed the performance of Bhairava gets rid of the bad luck of ghosts and spiritual demons. 

bhairava dance

bhairava dance

This dance is said to be started by King Suvarna Malla in 633NS. The men from the Shrestha community practice this dance form with tantric rituals. The dance is mainly showcased on the day after Gai Jatra for four days.

Lakhey dance

Lakhey refers to a demon who used to live in the forest, later it became the protector of the town. This is also a kind of mask and street dance, where a person wears the mask of lakhey and dances with the rhythm of traditional music.

This dance form is more popular in Kathmandu rather than in Bhaktapur. Somehow, this dance is also performed at the Gai Jatra festival.

lakhey dance

lakhey dance

Nil Barahi dance

This dance is done in bode to celebrate peace after the victory over the evil demons. There are three dances performed in Bode. Among them, this dance is done for peace and prosperity. A day after the day of Gai Jatra, it starts and continues for the next three days.

nil barahi dance

nil barahi dance

Mahalaxmi dance

Mahakali dance is done in both Bhaktapur Nagar and Nagadesh, Madhyapur thimi municipality. Besides that, it is performed at Bode too. The famous Mahakali dance is of Nagadesh.

In Bhaktapur Nagar, it is performed within the Navadurga dance but in nagadesh, it is performed as daitya Sangram. This dance is so unique and full of fun. You can see other different characters playing with Mahakali in this dance.

Except for these dance forms, there are other dances too that are performed in this festive season, you could simply check out the Traditional dances of Bhaktapur for more information about them. However, there is one more thing that certainly cannot be just ignored when we talk about Gai Jatra. The song of Gai jatra.

It’s more like a chant that each of the participants does sing while playing Ghintang Gisi. The lyrics of gai jatra goes like this:

ताहामचा गन त्ये
ग्वाखंप्वाले त्ये,
ग्वाखंप्वाले मन्ह्यो सा
खुसि चूइका छ्वोये ……

“Tahamacha Gana tye,
Gwakhanpwale tye,
Gwakhanpwale Manhyonsaa
Khusi Chuka Chhwe”

The phrase is actually a set of questions and answers, where the very first line asks a question stating, “Where should we put Tahamacha (the artificial cow)? Consequently, the following line answers it by saying, “On the hole made on the wall (There is a mere possibility yet one could still find such hole in older houses). Likewise, the third and fourth line says, “What if it does not fit on that hole, Simply submerged it in the river.”

The start-up of the festival

As per history, the name of King Pratap Malla arises in front of us, whenever we talk about the commencement of the jatra. He was the then ruler of Kantipur, now Kathmandu. However, his contributions are alike to the contributions of King Bhupatindra Malla of Bhaktapur.

During his reign, he initiated the construction of Rani Pokhari, the Statue of Hanuman in Basantapur Durbar Square. Likewise, the statue of Kaal Bhairava and the Krishna Temple (Chyasin Dega) of the same squares was added by him.

Furthermore, it is said that he was the one who first introduced this Gai jatra to the valley. The reason behind proposing this event was to reduce the grievance of the queen, for instance. It is said that she went into depression due to losing her most adored and second eldest son, Chakrabartendra.

To make her realize that she is not the only one who lost her son or any family member. The king ordered everyone to come up with crazy and funny ideas. Especially, from the family suffering from the same grievance.

There, the queen burst out when a group of people satire to the rich and well-positioned people. Of course, most irrationally. And, this is how the trend of Gai jatra commenced.

A new point of view toward Gai jatra

But, according to other historians, the jatra was already in existence for more than 300 years before the reign of King Pratap Malla.

As per their words, the jatra was probably first introduced by King Jayasthiti Malla, the then-ruler of Bhaktapur during the 14th century. There is a shred of evidence that says, during the reign of King Jayaysthiti Malla, pandemics lead to human wreckage.

Also, Gopalrajbamsawali mentioned the event of Sa: paru at that time. That directs the story far from King Pratap Malla and the Kantipur. Perhaps, King Pratap Malla could have continued to celebrate the festival in Kantipur at that time or may have added some more events and activities.

Nonetheless, Gai jatra is truly a satiric street festival. A festival where anyone can make jokes about any social issue.

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Gai jatra: the festival of death, dance and satiric street performances
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