On March 27, 2017 (Friday), the army grounds aligning Tundikhel in central Kathmandu will reverberate under the thundering hooves of many magnificent horses. Seated on the pavilion will be the President and Prime Minister of Nepal along with cabinet ministers, foreign envoys, and other dignitaries. Around the fence will be ringed hundreds of eager spectators. The highlight of the day will be army paratroopers sailing down through the clouds on parachutes to land at a designated spot on the ground. Their imminent arrival will be signaled by the loud noise of the whirling propellers of green coloured helicopters hovering above in the sky.
In between this and the sight and sound of galloping horses will be resounding music played by army and police bands, skillful demonstrations of gymnastics, judo, karate and tae kwon do, a rescue scenario wherein an injured man is rescued from a burning building by army men with the aid of a helicopter, and so on and so forth. The dignitaries as well as the more common spectators will be treated to a full day’s worth of valiant deeds and courageous acts of our men and women in uniform. The best among them will be rewarded by the President himself. Oh yes, it will be a proud day for our army and police personnel. And, why shouldn’t it be? After all, they have practiced day and night for months altogether to put up an impressive show on this day known as Ghode Jatra— meaning literally, “The Festival of Horses”.
It’s an annual event in which a special cavalry unit— known as the Risalla since its inception in 1849, and then, after 1952, as the King’s Household Cavalry—holds centre stage. This cavalry unit has a proud history, having earned accolades for commendable bravery during the 1911-1912 Nepal-Tibet War. It also has a special role to play during state ceremonies. During Ghode Jatra, many of the unit’s finest horses are put on show, some jumping over a number of high hurdles, and some racing around the ground at breakneck speed. No wonder the festival is so popular with both the masses and the classes, for who can remain un-awed at the sight and sound of so much genuine bravado?
And, it is but apt that such an enthralling day should be preceded by an equally wonderful one. On the day before Ghode Jatra, the Newars of different localities of Kathmandu city first clean their surroundings (specially the sewages) and then they carry idols of their gods on raths (chariots) in colourful processions around their localities as part of a three day festival known as Pahachare. Meanwhile, the idols of the gods Lumadi, Bhadrakali, Kankeshwari and Bhairav are brought to Ason Chowk during the day (this is the only time they will be meeting in the year) ―this is when the main celebrations take place. The palanquins carrying the gods are dashed against each other near the Annapurna Temple to signify their meeting. Different communities organize communal feasts in their localities. In the evening, celebration of the meeting of the four above-mentioned gods is continued in Tundikhel whereby a demon called ‘Gurumumpa’ is propitiated.
The second day of Pahachare is Ghode Jatra, a festival to celebrate the defeat of Tundi, the demon who once resided in the meadow now known as Tundikhel. After his death, he was trampled upon under horses’ hooves. The Ghode Jatra is said to have been initiated to make sure that his spirit remained trampled due to the clamor of the galloping horses.
Funnily, a rival festival is organized at the same time in Patan. Ghode Jatra was originally meant only for the citizens of Kathmandu, and so, some king or the other of Patan decided to have one of their own, and not only that, but one that was much more exciting. So, on this day, in a place called Balkumari, a horse is made to drink copious amounts of liquor and an equally drunk local is made to ride the now drunk horse while spectators try their best to frighten the animal into running wildly around the locality. One must say, well done Patan, just be a bit careful, hear?
Below is a video of the festival.