Early morning on Wednesday, as the veil of mist lifts from this ancient hill, South west of Kathmandu Valley, the thirsty earth overcrowded with brick houses, soaks in the supple morning sun with relish. Little boys walk out of their houses in their special golden attire, walking sticks and made up faces. They rush towards the police station by the old pond, because that is where Gai Jatra begins this year in Kirtipur.
Just a few steps away from the pond is a room embracing the morning sun through its metal railings, where old men drum an ancient rhythm and chant from the battered and browned holy books. Just outside, kids richly dressed, holding their mothers' hands, walk towards the temple to be blessed on this special day.
The day is full of stark contrasts of figures, tones and moods. As we move from Kirtipur to Patan, a horde is already gathered at the square in Mangalbazar.
Suddenly, frenzy! A group of kids start rushing towards a man with a basket of goodies. "What does he give?" I ask a little girl. She stares, awed. She thinks for a while. "Food stuff," she says and smirks a smile. In Patan, Gaijatra is a casual affair. As the sun climbs up the morning sky, kids come in their yellow jogi bhesh, gather their prasad, sip their juices, then get on a safa tempo and head back home. The ritual fulfilled, the day is done.
Another group gets into a taxi and zooms off. On the back of a taxi is a fading red "thumbs up" sign. We get the clue and move to our next destination: Basantapur. In Basantapur, his sister dresses up as a punk while he is all gai jatra, head to toe. The sun is scorching and the red, yellow and green of the confetti sets the mood for the parade. The band plays a frenzied tune while an innocent little calf gets dragged by the neck to keep up with the flood of people. Little girls hold a bunch of burning incense high up in the air and toil along. The sweet smoke of the incense wafts up to the skies, as if in a hurry to leave the crowd and disappears into the blue vastness up above.
A man in an orange striped shirt pours milk from an aluminum kettle directly to the mouth of the thirsty kids. The kids open their mouths, receive the milky offering, and walk away gulping it down their parched throats. The few drops of milk that drip on their t-shirts, go unnoticed.
Everyone is so eager for a pose. When a photographer happens to pick his subject, as if in a secret conspiracy, the subject sticks out of the flow of the bodies, pauses for a few seconds, gets a photo taken and moves on, all the while expressionless.
This endless river of bobbing heads flows incessantly as startled pigeons fly from one pagoda top to another, unable to contain all that crazy energy flowing below. Exhausted women sit cross-legged on the shady side of the Basantapur Durbar; expressionless as they stare at the overwhelming parade.
Sweat drips from swollen foreheads, pipes blow in unison and the show goes on. If Gaijatra is innocent in Kirtipur, casual in Patan and ritualized in Kathmandu, in Bhaktapur it is a wild carnival.
The grand explosion of spirit that takes place during Gaijatra in Bhaktapur is proof enough that the folks in Bhaktapur know the meaning of a jatra-- in their mind, in their heart and in their soul. And even if the jatra might have lost its spirit in the other cities of the valley, in Bhaktapur it is still happening and by the looks of things, the spirit will remain here for centuries, because they know how to adapt to the change that takes place, without letting go of the essence of their culture.
Here, everyone is involved in the jatra. Forming two rows, they bang sticks, dance in precise steps and chant, "Ghintang ghishi twak." This chanting resonates throughout the city as the carnival gathers energy. Kids dressed in pink traditional garb go twak; teenagers with their gelled hair, piercing and baggy pants go twak; cross dressed men with exaggerated makeup go twak; young girls in their haku patasi go twak; all in unison, create a river of spirit flowing through the cobbled streets of Bhaktapur, once more charging it with their youthful vigor. The spirits of the dead probably also rejoice as the whole city remembers them, prays for them and most importantly parties for them.
The musicians leading each group function as magnetic engines that lead the whole procession ahead. Their steady beats dull the mind, vibrate the soul and proclaim a certain order in the chaos that is Gaijatra. As the kids chant, the energy picks up, the river increases its pace and not many in this crazy junction of life, thinks about what is really going on.
Bottles of raksi are arrive from the households where the ghintang ghishi troop passes through. The raksi is gulped down by the participants of the parade who by now are wobbly. The narrow alleyways reverberate with the vibrations of the banging sticks and crashing symbols. In the dancers' entranced dance steps, one feels the spirits dance as well. The procession is as chaotic as it is organized; A perfect combination to celebrate the intense duality of life and death.
In essence, Gaijatra is a lengthy mock up of life itself, so that from childhood it gets ingrained in the mind that life is not something to be taken seriously; for one day, the hands of death will pluck you out of the mundane reality of everyday existence and throw you into the unknown mysteries of the beyond.
A friend was visiting Kathmandu after many, many years, and we decided to take a tour of Bhaktapur. I myself...