Gai Jatra – Nepal’s cow festival to celebrate the dead

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ August 30th, 2015. Filed under: Nepal.
Cow and owner at Gai Jatra in Kathmandu

Gai Jatra in Kathmandu – Festival of the Cow and remembering the Dead


Given the year, the 2015 Gai Jatra (Gaijatra / Sa Paru) festival in Nepal is perhaps one of the most meaningful events of the year for many families who lost loved ones.

The festival has a long history dating back further than its 17th century modern day interpretation.

The mean of Gai Jatra is literally – Gai – “Cow” and Jatra – “Festival”.

A young girl dressed as a cow during Gai Jatra

A young girl dressed as a cow during Gai Jatra (the cow face is printed on the colorful headdress)

So what do cows and the celebration of death have to do with each other. And why is it a festival?! Read on to discover more about this amazing festival in Nepal.

History of Gai Jatra

Firstly, the cow is revered deeply in Hinduism. The cow is a symbol of the Earth. It gives and feeds which represents life and the support of life. Hence a festival dedicated to cows.

King Pratap Malla's column in Durbar Square before the Earthquake

King Pratap Malla facing his family home

Lost in the annals of history it is said the people of the Kathmandu Valley worshiped Yamaraj (Yama), the Hindu “lord of death” on this day.

During King Pratap Malla’s reign 1641 – 1664 his family were stuck by a tragedy when his son died. The king’s wife was grief stricken and inconsolable.  Distressed by his wife’s grief the king tried to cheer her up but failed at every attempt to make her smile.

At his wits end the king finally offer a reward to anyone who could make his wife smile again.

During Gai Jatra festival when the cow procession was passing my the window of 33 virtues in Kathmandu Durbar square a group of boisterous performers shocked everyone.

Window of virtues during Gai Jatra

Past meets present: The window of 33 virtues today in Kathmandu Durbar Square where king Malla and his wife watched the precession in the 17th century

The group began ridiculing and mocking the rich, members of high society. While at the same time they highlighted the plight of the poor. They then showed the injustices within society with no mercy spared.

The queen erupted into laughter!

King Pratap Malla then ordered that laughter, jokes, satire and mockery should be included in the Gai Jatra festival from then on.

Tradition then took foot and people who lost a family during the year would take part in the festival by leading a cow along the precession. If no cow is available then a young boy is used as a substitute.

Gai Jatra today in the Kathmandu Valley

Two people dressed up during Gai Jatra in Nepal

Though Gai Jatra celebrates the dead it’s done so with laughter and happiness to send the souls in a happy after life – sometimes it takes a while …

Gai Jatra is still celebrated every year in several cities within the Kathmandu Valley. It’s usually celebrated on the first day of Bhadra month of the Lunar calendar. In other words at the end / start of August / September.

In 2015 Gai Jatra was celebrated on August 30th.The primary location for the festival is Kathmandu city. As this is where much of it originated from. A procession is lead through Durbar Square and several other localised areas within the city.

Girl is given milk during Gai Jatra in Nepal

Many participants in the festival are given milk from a cow as the cow represents symbol of wealth, strength, abundance, selfless giving and a full Earthly life

In Bhaktapur the procession includes decorated chariots which display photographs of those that passed away during the year. Men also dress as women and dance with others along the streets.
Men with shaved heads at Gai Jatra

People shave their head after the recent loss of a family member

In Patan Gai Jatra is celebrated similarly to Kathmandu but with less fanfare. If you don’t like crowds this is a better option. Gai Jatra in Kirtipur is celebrated a little differently due to a merging of several beliefs.

In Kirtipur it is said that the gates of heaven open up on this day. People dress as Hindu gods rather than cows and dance along the streets. People are encourage to knock on neighbors doors and invite them to come out and dance with them.

Young girl takes part in Gai Jatra

People, young and old,  who lost loved ones dress up during Gai Jatra

The Kathmandu Gai Jatra Festival

Gai Jatra this year in Kathmandu started at 8am in Basantapur (Kathmandu Durbar Square).

It follows a short parade style route going from

Basantapur (Hanumandhoka)-Maru-Jaisidewal-Lagan-Gokhal-Brhmatole-Onde-Hyumat-Jaisidewal-Kohiti-Bhimsensthan-Maru


Remembering the dead at Gai Jatra

In Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan people often join Gai Jatra with photographs of loved ones who died during the year

Up at 5am I was at Basantapur (Kathmandu Durbar Square) by 6am. Rather shockingly the ticket counters were open early to charge tourists  750 rupees on a national holiday – bit cheeky that. More in the coming weeks.

Nevertheless Kathmandu Durbar square was still relatively quiet, but busier than usual as tents were set up to provide water for the mornings activites.

I do advise anyone who does not like crowds to come early. Find a quiet spot on the northern section of Durbar Square and stay put. The southern section was very crowded as was the area around the window of virtues.

Two children participating in Gai Jatra

Dressing up is an important part of Gai Jatra as it adds to the comical element that King Malla declared should be part of the festival in the 17th century

What’s the Gai Jatra Festival like in Bhaktapur?

Bhaktapur takes on a much more colorful approach to Gai Jatra. It’s also a lot more crowded.

Dancing and colorful characters perform around the three main squares. Durbar Square, Taumadhi Square and Dattatreya Square.

Laugher is an important part of Gai Jatra

Each of the festivals in Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur have slightly separate meanings but are celebrated similarly on the same day

The festival kicks off at 1pm and continues on for the afternoon. During the night dancing and music continues on in the squares.

Though accommodation doesn’t book out completely it does rise dramatically in price. Booking accommodating like this ahead of time is advisable.

What’s the Gai Jatra Festival like in Patan?

Dancing and colorful figures surround Patan Durbar Square. While more colorful than Kathmandu’s Gai Jatra it’s harder to get a vantage point.

Do be prepared to join the jostling crowd here.


Colorful  dancer in Patan

The festival takes place over two days. There’s no need to stay in Patan as it’s close to Kathmandu city.

What time does Gai Jatra start?

  • Kathmandu Gai Jatra: 8am – 11am
  • Bhaktapur Gai Jatra: 1pm – 8pm
  • Patan Gai Jatra: 8am – 5pm
Scouts of Nepal at Gai Jatra

The Scouts of Nepal were volunteering to help keep the area clean – well done to them as they did a great job

Tips and help to enjoy Gai Jatra in Nepal

  • In Kathmandu Sadhus were already gathering between 7-8am. A colorful bunch but very money oriented. Even looking at one with a camera will have them coming up asking for money.
  • Likewise street children are often found to be asking for money throughout the day. Do be careful giving money to either group as you could quickly be surrounded by many all looking for the same.
  • By 8 am people started arriving dressed in colorful attire.
  • Processions start at a trickle which is very nice for those that don’t like crowds. Families walk through Durbar Squares in small groups.
  • People stand beside the procession and hand family members dressed up food (fruit, biscuits, sweets) and small denominations of money as they walk by.
  • It’s perfectly fine to photograph people dressed up. Just don’t block the middle of the walkway.
  • Don’t expect any “offical” help from event organisers – local people will be your best source of information
  • It is very possible to make the festival in Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur on the same day. But, you’ll need to use a taxi if you wish to visit all three and spend time there.
  • Alternatively you could leave the Kathmandu Gai Jatra at between 10am-11am take a taxi to the bus park and then a bus to Bhaktapur to be there by 1pm.
Two youngsters taking a quiet break from the festivities of Gai Jatra

Two colorful  youngsters taking a quiet break from the festivities of Gai Jatra

Gai Jatra the nearly offical start to tourist season in Nepal

Gai Jatra’s date changes by a few weeks every year. To me it’s nearly always near the start of tourist season in Nepal (15th September). Do check out my list of festivals in Nepal for more.

Gai Jatra is a festival steeped in history, color, remembrance, celebration and pride.

If you are planning an early visit to Nepal it’s a unique festival that’s worth witnessing!

Gai Jatra dates:

Gari Jatra in 2015 was on August 30th 2015

Gari Jatra in 2016 was on August 19th 2016

Gari Jatra in 2017 is on August 8th 2017

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24 Great responses to Gai Jatra – Nepal’s cow festival to celebrate the dead

  1. Mike R says:

    Fantastic photos and live posting on the day. Throughly enjoyed this!

  2. Helen says:

    Beautiful photographs. I never such a festival existed. It’s so hard to get information. Thanks for telling us about it.

  3. Irene says:

    Loved learning so much about Gai Jatra. Such a fascinating part of history in Nepal

  4. Dale says:

    Stunning photos. Really enjoyed this. We arrive a month later. I hope there’s still a lot to see and do!

  5. Nice to learn something different about the cultures. The pics are nice.

  6. Nikki says:

    Thanks for showing us something we may not have ever seen elsewhere.

  7. Stephen says:

    Interesting how all the festivals and traditions combined into one with Gai Jatra.

  8. Tony says:

    Very interesting. I also just found out why the cow is so important. Thanks

  9. Carmen says:

    Looks like an amazing event. Do they charge an entrance fee?

  10. Anna Ho says:

    Beautiful photos and interesting write up David. Great to see things like this culture still happening in Nepal!

  11. Anna's World says:

    Great! Looks like a popular festival for what I think is still Nepal’s “off season”

  12. Brock says:

    Seems like a strange festival from my perspective. But to them, the lifestyle I live would be strange to them lol.

    I love how, though we are all human, we all have significantly different lifestyles.


    I have to experience them all!

  13. Hello Dave,
    I was randomly scouring through the net and came across blog and I got lured by the title. Your blog is so different and to read about the immigrants from a third person’s perspective was really interesting and the title was really different and catchy too. Good work!