Understanding Gaijatra

By Mannu Shahi


Gaijatra is a festival celebrated by the local Newar community inhabiting the inner Kathmandu, Patan, Kritipur, Bhaktapur and the peripheral regions. The locals believe this festival helps appreciate the affirmative within the cynical.
Humour, sarcasm and mockery serve as the highlights of this event, which are assumed to help the living celebrate the afterlife of their departed beloved. Immense make-up, joyous and loud music, mask dances, weird costumes, alcohol, crowded streets and many more notions signify the hype of Gaijatra.
In Bhaktapur, the festival lasts a week and the first day features the entertaining and furious stick dance, known as ‘ghintangghisi’, derived from the rhythmic structure of the drums. The dancers and musicians of the group who participate in the jatra move according to this pattern of ghintangghisi, thus, the routine itself is named after this musical arrangement. gai jatra
While learning any drum tradition, the disciple comprehends the complex musical patterns by initially imitating the beat by voice. This emulation of rhythm is called bol in the eastern musical practices of the world. And this stick dance perfectly detains the idea of bol to an alien person to folk music.
The actual festival is believed to have its roots in the ancient ages when people feared and worshipped the God of death, Yamaraj. However, in the Medieval period, during the regime of the Malla dynasty in Nepal, the core reason behind the celebration of this festival altered.
The event occurred when King Pratap Malla of Kathmandu lost his child, and his wife entered a tragic depression. Thus, in this great despair, he promoted this tradition of remembering the lost souls, in order to show his queen that it was not only a calamity faced by their child but an inevitable truth for all.
During the festival, the cow procession was brought before the devastated queen, and the participants, in an attempt to make the queen smile, began making a mockery of the important people in society. Through continuous humorous efforts of emphasising and mercilessly attacking social injustice and important/corrupt social roles, the queen could not resist further and smiled. Thus, the king instituted a tradition of including jokes, satire and mockery into the Gaijatra celebration.
In Bhaktapur, a triangular-like shape, labeled as ‘gai’, is raised in representation of the dead, from each family losing a member within a year. The picture of the dead person is hung in front of the ‘gai’ and a colourful cloth is used to cover the wooden triangle for the male, and for the female, the hakupathasi, the traditional Newari fabric, is used. Music plays an important role as the ‘gai’ is taken through the city’s ritual route, visiting shrines and temples on the way, stick dancers full of weird make-up and a bundle of musicians back-up the entire procession.
The house raising the ‘gai’ assembles the dancers and musicians and feeds them throughout the day. Different types of musical ensembles can be seen during Gaijatra - flute and drums ensemble, ensembles of just drums, i.e. lalakhi, chisya, bhusiya, dha, brass band ensembles, groups of tabla, harmonium and singers, and many more.

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