Drums boom and symbols clang in a steady rhythm delivered by a seemingly endless processional of festival revelers. The infectious beat quickly invades the senses, creeping into every body part and manifesting immediate symptoms. Shoulders and hips pulsate, heads and bodies bob up and down, some jump to the groove while others break out in spontaneous dance. Joyous laughter and screams of delight are heard in random intervals over the loud repetitive melodic thump of countless instruments. What could spur on such a cheerful environment? Why, the festival of cows of course. Welcome to Gia Jatra!
Like a strong oceanic riptide I am all at once swept into the crowd, pushed and pulled as the surge of people ebb and flow through the old streets of Bhaktapur. Just like in a riptide it’s easier not to fight the flow, take a deep breath, relax and conserve energy as you wait for the opportune moment to exit. I however quickly realize that this mob is headed directly to my chosen destination so, for now I am content to ride this wonderful wave of enthusiasm and watch the madness unfold.
Family and friends march two by two around the city in a steady stream. Children and adults alike hold wooden sticks approximately two feet long. As the music plays they whack there “instruments” against one another in practiced choreography. Each processional is lead with a giant shrine to their lost loved ones of the year past. Long ago cows were lead through the streets and still are earlier in the day, but these lavishly decorated chariots now serve as surrogates. Assembled with bamboo and hay they can be fifteen to twenty feet high and are adorned with all sorts of things including umbrellas, ribbon and mirrors but always include a picture of the family member being honored. Maneuvering between narrow alleys, down side streets and through crowds of jubilant onlookers they circumnavigate the city culminating in Bhaktapur Durbar square. It is a magnificent demonstration of peaceful chaos.
As we spill out into the square I spot my destination ahead. A café built into an ancient pagoda with plenty of balcony space. It is the perfect location to take in all the festivities of the day. I am on the way to meet up with Simona my PULSE “Buddy”. Simona and her friends have come to Kathmandu volunteering their own time for a great organization called Jay-Nepal. She participated in the PULSE program last year and was actually supposed to be stationed with CARE Nepal but due to massive earthquakes was reassigned to CARE Cambodia. While preparing for my assignment Simona was a valuable source of knowledge and experience. I bother her often with questions and when I discovered she would be in country I couldn’t miss the opportunity to thank her in person. Upon arrival I am immediately welcomed into the group. Like an informal meeting of the United Nations there are delegates from the United Kingdom, Italy, Bangladesh, USA, and of course NEPAL.
Conversation flows easily while we all tell stories of our fleeting moments in this beautiful country. Hours later, as the festival ends and the crowds disperse, we do the same. It was the end of their journey and the end of the beginning of mine. Today marked the start of my third month in Nepal. I can’t help but lament about how swiftly two months have vanished and how quickly my remaining time will pass. While today’s festivities were about honoring lost loved ones it also lends perspective about the brevity of life. It reminded me of a quote from a 19th century philosopher Henri Frederic Amie:
“Oh, do not let us wait to be just or pitiful or demonstrative toward those we love until they or we are struck down by illness or threatened with death! Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. Oh, be swift to love, make haste to be kind!