Getting the Most Out of Your Nepal Festival Experience
Traveling the world is an awesome experience. Traveling without a lot of planning is often the best way because there are so many amazing things going on in random places along the way. You can’t possibly know in advance all of these secret, fun things that will be happening. There will be weddings, group excursions and random festivals. No, you can never prepare for all the amazing experiences you will encounter. When you find something going on somewhere that you haven’t thought of before you can join in and create a lasting memory of your trip. Otherwise, you are just a tourist.
The Gai Jatra Festival in Bhaktapur, Nepal is a prime example. Each year the Newar communities all over the country celebrate death. ‘Death,’ you say??? Yes, death. As the story goes, centuries ago the Malla king, Pratap Malla, and his queen lost their only son to death. The queen would not be consoled. Finally, the king had had enough. He decreed that everyone who lost a loved one during the past year to come out and show the queen that they had survived such a loss. This was the first Gai Jatra Festival and it’s celebrated each year, around August.
A few years ago my mother died. I didn’t have money to go back to the US so I waited a few months for when Gai Jatra was celebrated. Although I didn’t make an alter for her, I felt such connection to the people here. I had my own closure during the celebration and each year I feel the sacredness of the festival even while the upbeat music and energy goes on around me.
Why ‘Gai?’ Gai means ‘cow’ in Hindi and Nepali and it’s been a part of the ‘death’ story for as long as anyone knows. Just as Christians hope to see St. Peter, Jesus or their deceased grandmother, Hindus hope to see a cow at their death. If you find yourself in that tunnel of light and notice a cow floating by remember to grab onto her tail and let her take you directly to Nirvana.
The upbeat ambiance lights up the entire, ancient city. Although words can never substitute for the experience, I hope this post will spark a desire to share in this festival in the coming years. One year, I wandered into this festival without knowing the what, why or hows of the celebration and wrote a blog post calling it the ‘Stick Festival.’ I heard drums, symbols and sticks clicking as the young people danced in the street in long processions of dancers. Many of the young people were dressed in masks or with face painting. Young men were dressed as women, anatomically correct with breasts and even make-up and wigs. Others were dressed as Death, Santa or had face paint. Anything goes on Gai Jatra.
For the grieving families, the celebration actually lasts 7 days and involves much more than dressing like a girl or dancing in the streets. The families need to make the ‘cow,’ which is like an alter. The deceased person’s picture will be displayed, along with decorations, some quite elaborate. During this 7 day celebration you’ll hear random, little bands of musicians walking throughout the city, but the main celebration is on the fifth day. But stick around for another few days and you can enjoy Lord Krishna’s birthday, which is also interesting.
Nepal is an unbelievably safe country. Tourists are almost never harmed. I’ve known tourists who have done horrible things and seen the Nepali respond with so much kindness and patience it puts westerners to shame. As always, no matter where you find yourself, crowds breed pick-pockets, street fights and drunkenness.
Here’s a Few Tips to Keep You Safe
- Leave your passport in your guesthouse. Even on normal days, you really do not need to carry your passport in Nepal. A copy is fine.
- You can find padlocks in the market for under $3, so buy one and lock your suitcase and keep it in your guesthouse.
- Only carry enough money for the day, $20 (in Nepali currency) if you like to drink. Otherwise $10 should be fine just for lunch.
- Bring an additional $15 (in Nepali currency) if you plan to see the festival within the Bhaktapur old city. Otherwise, you can enjoy it on the outskirts. If you are near Bhaktapur you won’t miss it, but if you can afford the admission fee it’s well worth it.
- If possible, move out of your guesthouse and get a room in Bhaktapur for the night along the route of the processions. Ask when you book the room, but the processions go all over.
- If you see crowds forming toward the night like there is going to be a fight be sure to keep some distance. Fortunately, people in Nepal do not have guns, but there can be some rock throwing and other kinds of antics as the night comes and people get drunk.
- Be patient. Keep in mind that the restaurants may be short-staffed. Sometimes they have a special menu for the festival, and yes, the food will be just a bit more expensive than ordinarily.
- Do not expect the ATM machines to work during the festivals. Be sure to go a couple days in advance of any major festival, including Gai Jatra.
- You are most welcome to join in. Don’t worry about anything. One year I saw some tourists who didn’t have sticks using radishes they bought from the market. These radishes look like giant carrots and the tourists had the greatest time dancing in the street clicking their radishes together.
- Check the Nepali calendar before you leave home to see if there are any festivals going on and schedule your trekking around these activities. Because they are ‘caste’ exclusive your trekking company people may not be able to tell you much about them.
- If something does happen to you do not hesitate to call the Tourist Police. Although all the police officers I’ve met have been fine, the department of Tourist Police have officers who speak English and specialize in tourist matters. They do not ask for a bribe or beat tourists. On the contrary, you might even get invited to dinner and make a friend.
Nepal is said to have more festivals than there are days of the year, but many are celebrated privately or in remote areas. There is a festival for babies when they begin to eat solid food, when they get their first haircut and a hundred other things. If you get to know some local Nepali families you’ll discover many local traditions. The major festivals, at least the most tourist-friendly, are during the new or full moon beginning in around March and ending in September. At the end of monsoon Indra Jatra is celebrated, which is another highly energetic festival that is also an amazing experience. Yes, the festivals are the best kept secret in Nepal.