For the living and the dead

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“A young prince, the beloved of a reigning king and queen dies. The death of the lad is so patheticthat it wasno less than a thunder for the queen. Hit hard by the tragedy, the queen refrains from taking food and drinks. The grief was so much that she even forgot smiling. No remedy works or any one could console her. The king falls in an embarrassing situation. He tries all possible means to solace his wife – but nothing works.”

This is the beginning of Gaijatra festival in Kathmandu-valley. The king decided to go for another try: he commanded all those families in his principality, who have lost a family member in the past one year, to come out to the street and go around the city. He wanted to show his queen that she was not alone with her grief, that she was not the sole bereft one, nor her sun was the sole man to leave the world. Frolicking clowns accompanied the bereaved families and the queen found back her smile.

This was in the 17th century and since then the procession became a yearly event. The families used to go around the city with a cow, or a child dressed like the sacred animal. The cow is believed to help the departed souls wade in the cosmic sea on their way to heaven. And it is also said that it is only on this day when the gates of the after-world are thrown open for the dead. If a departes soul missed getting in, it would have to wait for one more year.

In Bhaktapur, together with Kathmandu and Lalitpur one of the three big cities and former kingdoms of Kathmandu-valley, the yearly procession is one of the biggest. The ancient city hosts the yearly event, the powerful dances and songs of the families who lost a member – and the whole town which joins them to remember and cherish the dead in a cheerful and frisky manner. They put up big poles, decorate them with a picture of the dead and a painting of the sacred animal in front, a cow, sometimes there was still a young child. The atmosphere is overwhelming, the tension between tradition and modernity though gets resolved withing the blink of an eye. Dressed-up teens and youngsters in Bob Marley t-Shirts dance together and side by side their traditionally dressed family and friends.

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